School is back in session, but the pandemic continues. As a result, teachers across the country are conducting their classrooms online in what is likely the most challenging fall of their careers.
How do you keep elementary-aged children engaged through a screen? How can you teach the performing arts or a foreign language without being face-to-face?
Here’s how some of our alumni are adapting their instruction:
Brian McMath ’96, ’10 MM, Director of Bands, Northwest Guilford High School
It was the evening before McMath and 65 high school musicians were to travel to Washington, D.C., to perform at the Kennedy Center – a once in a lifetime experience – when Guilford County Schools canceled all travel and announced that instruction was to move online. After months of hard work and preparation for the trip, he and the Northwest Guilford Wind Symphony were devastated. But McMath had another challenge to face: How could he teach four ensembles virtually?
As he has done for the last 24 years as an educator, McMath has the musicians warm up by going through their scales. Over Microsoft Teams, one student will unmute themselves, start a metronome at a certain tempo, and begin the scale. The others will play along on mute.
Then, the students practice the pieces they are preparing for their virtual holiday concert. To do so, McMath plays a recording of the piece and conducts along with it while the ensemble members watch and play along on mute.
Students also record themselves performing sections of the piece and send them to McMath for feedback on articulation, dynamics, and musicality.
Once the students feel confident, they will each record themselves playing through the entire piece, and McMath will put the recordings together and present it as a virtual concert recording.
Although McMath prefers to be in his classroom, behind his conductor’s stand, looking out into a sea of young musicians, there is a silver lining.
“I tell my students that this is the time they can become the best musicians they’ve ever been because they are learning to be soloists. And when we all come back together, the ensemble will sound that much better for it. We are going to get better, we are going to get through this, and we are going to be OK.”
Sandra Morgan ’10 B.S. Ed., First Grade Teacher, Lindley Elementary School
To help her students through this challenging time, Morgan is making positive self-talk a priority this year.
Every morning, students write, draw, and brainstorm in their positive self-talk journals about the characteristics they like about themselves, such as the virtues of teamwork, care, kindness, and courage.
“I tell them to go back and look at their journals if they’re feeling down, so they can remember a time when they showed courage, when they problem-solved, and so on. They seem to really like it.”
By building upon the students’ socio-emotional learning, Morgan is bringing the classroom into the homes of her students.
“It’s easy to feel distant being online, and I think this helps us build a virtual classroom community and befriend one another.”
One unexpected advantage for Morgan has been rotating students between each lesson with three of her colleagues. This allows her to get to know the entire first-grade class and focus on one subject, rather than teaching all subjects to a smaller group like she does in typical years.
And the students have adapted well, too. Morgan admires them for keeping a positive attitude and becoming tech savvy. They’ve learned how to raise a digital hand, mute themselves, and stay engaged during the live lessons.
Although this has been the most challenging year of Morgan’s 10 years as an educator, she feels supported.
“There is a real sense of community here at Lindley. Our PTA is incredible, and everyone helps each other – the parents, faculty, and administrators. We all really want to help the community, and the community wants to help us. It has been so encouraging.”
Josue Farnes ’18, ’20 MAT, Spanish I and II Teacher, Grimsley High School
Farnes was working as a teaching assistant at the Middle College at UNCG and preparing to graduate with his Masters of Arts in Teaching when COVID-19 hit the states.
After graduating in May, he landed a job at Grimsley High, but knew his first year teaching would be nothing like he expected.
“As a first-year teacher, you enter this new world of education expecting to be in a classroom face-to-face with students, but it’s just not like that this year. They always say that your first year and last year as an educator are always the hardest years, and that definitely is true.”
Hard is an understatement, but Farnes has learned to adapt along with educators all over the globe.
As a foreign language teacher, it has been a challenge for Farnes to know whether students who have their cameras turned off during live lessons are grasping the concepts he is teaching since he can’t see their facial expressions. To solve this and to create a classroom community, he uses breakout rooms to give students the chance to meet in a smaller virtual space and complete activities, practice concepts, and get to know one another.
Beyond teaching the fundamentals of Spanish, it’s important to Farnes that he checks in with his students and make sure they are doing OK during this challenging time.
“I want my students to know that I am here for them, and they can talk to me. I am a big advocate for communication. If something is wrong with a student, I want them to tell me and trust me, so I can find the best way to help them. That’s one of the ways we will get through this – communicating with each other.”
Ebonie Jones ’18 M. Ed., Fourth Grade Teacher, Oak Hill Elementary
Jones was named Guilford County Schools’ Teacher of the Year last month – an incredible accomplishment, especially since the academic year was turned upside down by the pandemic.
She was recognized for her resourcefulness, innovativeness, and devotion to her students. And this year is no different.
Jones began the school year like she has for her last nine years of teaching face-to face-classes – by establishing rules and expectations. But these rules were now translated to an online learning format. The first couple weeks of instruction were used to teach her new fourth grade class how to raise their virtual hand, mute themselves upon entering a meeting, and add to class discussions by using the chat feature.
One of her biggest accomplishments? Using Microsoft Teams to meet with students one-on-one and successfully complete reading assessments.
“Technology is not always our friend, but I think myself, the students, and the parents are getting the hang of it now.”
It was very important to Jones to form relationships with her students, as hard as that is to do through a screen. She wants them to trust her and get to know each other as they would in a typical year. She accomplishes this by having an open discussion each morning where students can share their thoughts and feelings. By doing that, she has found that students have become more comfortable turning their cameras on and using the chat feature to connect with one another.
Her words of advice to students, parents, and teachers alike?
“Everybody needs a little grace right now. If we all remember that we are navigating this challenge together and we hold onto that grace, we will get through it.”
Story by Alexandra McQueen, University Communications