Can a teacher who is a technophobe learn to enjoy teaching with technology and even embrace distance learning? The answer is yes — and no one is more surprised than me.
I have been a teacher for 33 years. I have had a phobia about using technology in the classroom for most of my career. Even today, I track students’ grades using pencil and paper.
What this year has taught me is that I can actually “do” technology. Since our schools closed in March due to the COVID-19 emergency, I have an even greater appreciation for just how useful technology can be.
School At Home
On March 30th, our district launched a distance learning program called School At Home. Equity of access is our driving principle, so we offer both online learning opportunities and paper-based activities for students.
In our rural district, not all families have technology or reliable internet access at home. I live several miles outside of town, and my internet connection is sketchy. So, most schools offer free internet access in the campus parking lot. A list of other wi-fi locations is also posted on the district website.
As part of School At Home, every grade level posts a new Choice Board on the school website each week. Parents also have the Choice Board mailed to them. Each Choice Board, which is created by the teachers at that grade level, includes activities in math, reading/writing, science, and social studies.
In fourth grade math, which is what I teach, students must complete four activities per week, and they are expected to turn in one of these activities to be graded. Since we had already covered all of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills (TEKS) for fourth grade math before our school closed for spring break, we are now focusing on review.
For the “no tech option” on the Choice Board, I offer paper-and-pencil activities. For example, to review a lesson on area and perimeter, I will ask students to: “Find the area and perimeter of your living room, bedroom, and bathroom. Draw it out on a piece of paper and label it.” Students cover the same math topics whether they are doing activities on paper or online.
For the technology option, I use STEMscopes Math, which our school started using this school year. Initially, I wasn’t excited about having an online math curriculum but my colleague, a third grade teacher, asked me to take a look at it and I was surprised by how easy it was to use. I also like that I can pick and choose the parts of math lessons I want, and that they are aligned to our state standards. Students now log into the program from home and I can immediately see who has done the work and how they did, which is very helpful.
Here are a few other things I have learned since we moved to distance learning:
- It’s never too late to learn to love technology.
Before this school year, I had never used an online math program. Before the COVID-19 emergency, I had never used or even heard of Zoom. Now, I am thankful the district has provided us with these resources to help students continue their learning. They have been lifesavers.
- Be flexible
The first day of School At Home was a doozy. I got my first call from a student at 7:30 a.m. and my last call from a parent at 10:30 p.m. The second day was better, and I made it through the week. We have daily office hours, but I prefer to respond right away. If students need help, they can email, text, or call me anytime. If they don’t turn in an assignment, I’ll reach out to see if they need help. If they want to talk about things that aren’t school-related, that’s fine, too.
- Don’t stress about the small stuff.
Before, I would stress about students not turning in an assignment. Since we moved to distance learning, I have to remind myself that some children do not have the same level of direction or support at home that they do in the classroom. This experience has helped me become more understanding.
- Check in.
The other fourth grade teachers and I use Zoom once a week to meet with students. It’s not mandatory, so about half of our students usually attend. They are so excited to talk with us and their friends! This gives us another opportunity to check in and ask if they need help with anything.
- Don’t give up
So far, my biggest obstacle has been coming up with ways to get through to students who aren’t doing the work. In our district, paraprofessionals help call students every week to encourage them to turn in their assignments. I reach out as well, but it doesn’t always work. If students don’t have someone at home to motivate them, it takes a toll on their learning. Even so, we’re continually trying to find new ways to get students engaged.
This whole experience has made me appreciate technology so much more, and I’m grateful that our school and district have been so supportive. If they weren’t, this would be much harder to do.
Our students face many variables that are out of their control and that can limit what is required for learning. Even with the challenges, it is rewarding to see how excited students are to learn. That shows us that we’re doing good things for them because they love school that much.
Tana Schilling is a fourth grade teacher at Llano Elementary School, a Title I school that enrolls approximately 450 students in grades preK-5. It is part of Llano Independent School District, a rural district in Texas that encompasses two elementary schools, a junior high, and a high school.