With classes set to resume next week, Newburg Middle School in Louisville, Ky. has a lot to be thankful for. The 1,300-student school in the Jefferson County district has a strong principal, a racially diverse student body, and lots of community support. Perhaps most significantly, given that it will reopen with entirely remote instruction for at least six weeks due to the coronavirus pandemic, Newburg is one of 263 Verizon Innovative Learning Schools nationwide. Through a partnership with the telecom and the nonprofit group Digital Promise, every student at the school gets a free device and data plan, and the school itself gets a dedicated technology coach to support staff on how to teach with technology.
Even with all those assets in place, however, the start of the new school year is poised to be challenging. After a spring spent struggling to keep students engaged with “asynchronous” lessons and activities they could access at times of their own choosing, Newburg, like many schools across the country, is committed this fall to as much live virtual instruction as possible. A week out from the start of classes, though, the school is still focused mostly on logistics, rather than the nuts and bolts of what instruction and pedagogy will look like in this dramatically new format.
“We’re all anxious,” said Chelsea Haynes, Newburg’s technology learning coach, who cited the need to get dozens of teachers comfortable with “synchronous” teaching on new technology platforms and the challenge of building relationships with students remotely.
The following Q&A with Haynes, a former science and math teacher who is now in her 11th year in Jefferson County Public Schools, has been edited for length and clarity.
What did being a middle school technology coach entail pre-COVID?
My job was to go in and out of classrooms and support teachers. That could mean co-teaching, or modeling and supporting how to teach digitally and use devices for instruction. I’m not really in an administrator role, and I’m not in a teacher role. I’m kind of like a liaison.
What were some of the big tech issues you and your colleagues at Newburg took on before the pandemic?
We decided we’re not going to hand out paper agendas any more at meetings. Our district is a G-Suite district, so we decided to create a Google Classroom class for the entire staff at our school. Myself and the administrators were the teachers, and our teachers were the students. It not only provided a one-stop shop for communication, but it also helped the teachers to get a student’s view of what Google Classroom is like.
We also wanted to leverage our teachers to provide an Ed Camp-style of professional learning that was more teacher-to-teacher, rather than having other people come in and everyone would have to attend their training. It’s more personalized. Teachers are going to be upset if they have to sit through an hour-long training on Google Classroom when they’ve already been using it for three years. Now, they can choose something they don’t already know about.
What’s the distribution among teachers when it comes to comfort with technology?
Our staff is pretty comfortable using the technology. There’s only a few I like to call “techno-panic teachers” who weren’t really using the technology on a daily basis. But going virtual in the spring forced everyone to use the technology.
How did your teachers adjust to the sudden shift to remote learning last school year?
Every day, our teachers posted a welcome video to get the kids engaged in the classroom, because a lot of kids were kind of dropping off and not showing up to virtual classrooms. And then they had a choice board for assignments posted for the week, and every single day they had an hour of virtual office hours where kids could pop in and ask questions. We really pushed for purposeful feedback to our students, so instead of automatically giving them a grade, let’s also give them a way they can improve their practice and push kids to resubmit assignments and do even better.
How did that change your job?
I could no longer just whip in and out of classrooms to check on teachers and assess how they were using technology. I had to do that virtually. I asked all the teachers to add me to their Google Classrooms so I could see what they were doing, and I could go into their Google Meets and listen and then coach them afterward.
I also created open office hours to be able to have teachers come in as well.
And I used Screencastify to make tutorial videos and to help people solve problems because it was so hard to type it out, or even talk them through it over the phone.
The district did have a Non-Traditional Instruction plan, but it wasn’t detailed. So we came up with a plan—myself, our academic instructional coach, our assistant principals and principal, and a state person working with us.
What were the common challenges last spring, and what did you try to address with the plan?
We wanted to present a cohesive front as a school to our parents and families and students. We wanted everything to be consistent. The district decided that every teacher would use Google Classroom. And then because we’re organized into teams at our school, in order to streamline it even more, we created our own Google class for each team, so parents and students only have to log into one place instead of a different class for each of seven different periods.
Has the plan for the fall changed again?
Based on a district survey of families, we saw we needed more accountability for our students and more synchronous live learning. On top of that, we’ve also decided that for those families that can’t make the live lessons, we’re recording the meat of the lesson and posting that so they can go back and watch later.
How big a switch is that for you and Newburg’s staff?
A lot of our teachers are anxious about what it’s going to look like. We are only allowed to use Google Meet in our district. We cannot use Zoom, even though a lot of the features it offers are better, like breakout rooms and raising your hand and muting all participants. Those are all features our teachers need right now to provide quality instruction.
Teachers are also really anxious about recording lessons. Some have decided they’re going to Screencastify themselves while they’re teaching, then edit and repost that video. Some of our teachers have decided to record like a five to 10 minute lesson in advance, then play that during their live session so they can take that recording and post it later. The logistics of figuring all that out have been a challenge. A lot of teachers are very detail-oriented. They want to know what they’re expected to do and how they can succeed.
Are teachers coming to you now mostly with logistical questions, or more instructional and pedagogical questions?
We are a week away from having our kids start school, and our district and school are really ironing out those details. So right now, there’s a lot of questions about which platforms to use and how to use them and what we can and cannot do. But I think starting next week, we’ll get more into the nitty-gritty details of instructional practice.
How ready do you and your colleagues feel?
We’re all anxious. Anxious to start, try things out, and fail forward. We’re really anxious about what it’s going to look like, what it will be like to build relationships with kids, especially our 6th graders, who we have never seen before. It’s going to be a really difficult challenge. We’ve been thrown in a million different training and meetings, and now we’re ready to dive in.
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A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.