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Flagstaff Unified School District teachers navigating the virtual classroom
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Flagstaff Unified School District teachers navigating the virtual classroom

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A classroom that was once filled with 30 students and a teacher writing on a whiteboard now stands still. The usual chorus of whispering, giggling, note-passing and pencil to paper no longer fill the room with sound. A teacher sits at their desk in their home office, children of all ages are maneuvering video chat and school is being taught remotely.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Flagstaff Unified School District (FUSD) started its school year remotely on Aug. 17. While many parents have chosen to have their children take classes remotely, FUSD has been offering free on-site safe learning centers and support services in which children are supervised and given access to their virtual classrooms during the school day. Even while in person, students log into each class virtually, switching from one class to another, even participating in electives such as dance and performance arts from their computer.

While class is being taught through a screen, the community between the students and teachers is not lost. Shayne Smith, Flagstaff High School director of bands and theater, stressed the importance of ensuring the students are still engaging with one another while teaching online.

“Students like to learn, but they love to learn together,” Smith said. “We as teachers have a new sense of empathy for those two students giggling in the back or those percussionists who pick on the teacher’s 5-foot-6 stature. This circumstance helps us humanize our students and is a huge reminder that they need interaction and belonging to feel safe in our classrooms.”

Coconino High School history teacher Chelsea Drey said the community is one of the most important aspects of a classroom and that she has continued doing team-building exercises, just like she would do in person.

“Just give them time to just be them,” Drey said. “This is probably the most challenging thing to remember when as a teacher there is so much content to work through, but it is essential to their well-being to give students an opportunity to just have fun. One thing my students want to try next week is a Zoom lunch -- lunch is such a social period, and I want them to have an opportunity to be social.”

Kelly Zimmer, Sinagua Middle School eighth-grade English and yearbook teacher, said it is important to her to make her class interactive and fun for her students.

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Zoom, along with other video classroom settings, has many interactive options. This includes breakout rooms in which the host can separate students into smaller, more intimate learning groups, polls that can be voted on to gauge student opinions, interactive whiteboards and more.

“We did one activity where students made their own Spotify playlists and explained why each song represents themselves and their personalities,” Zimmer said. “After all the students did this, we made a Spotify playlist that represents our class. We now can play the playlist when kids are working or kids can access it to listen to it on their own time. It created an amazing online classroom environment because the kids got to know each other, and we are celebrating them for who they are and what they love.”

Just like Zimmer has used technology to bring her class together, Smith said he believes the way teachers were forced to learn technological skills will have a positive turnout.

“Coming out of this, the future of teaching will be more tech-friendly,” Smith said. “Not only did we have to adapt as teachers, but the platforms we use were forced to better accommodate their consumers. It was a sink-or-swim situation for the entire planet and we're still kicking.”

Gregory Contreras, Flagstaff High School business teacher and yearbook adviser, explained that while technology is great, it is important to be patient due to technical issues that are bound to happen.

Many teachers put in time over the summer to prepare for teaching online, Contreras said, and although an online format isn’t what they wanted to do, they are improving.

“Being able to see kids every day and continue building the connection is huge for us,” Contreras said. “These kids need that interaction. It may not be in person, but they are able to see friends, talk to them and just interact. This has opened my eyes to endless possibilities as I learn to shift things from an in-person approach to a now virtual approach.”

When teachers can take their place at the front of the room and schools can reopen, Smith said, they will have a completely new outlook on community and using technology in teaching.

“When it is safe to be in a classroom with students again, we will have a whole new definition of student engagement and interaction,” he said. “For that, I simply cannot wait.”

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