Making the best of a virtual classroom
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Making the best of a virtual classroom

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Over time, while straining to educate his students remotely, Michael Levin developed a daily ritual before logging on to face his Advanced Acting class at the Flagstaff Arts and Leadership Academy — his students, of course, now scattered all over Flagstaff and beyond, connected only tenuously via wi-fi.

He would take a contemplative stroll in the woods near his home, commune with nature for an hour and breathe in enough inspiration to tackle a seemingly impossible task — producing the spring play, Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” entirely online now that school is closed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. And, on this particular late April day, walking in the woods, Levin was frustrated because ... Nothing. Was. Working.

All those grand plans they had to film scenes at students’ homes, to tweak the script to incorporate echoes of the current pandemic into the allegorical drama about the Salem Witch Trials, to edit everything seamlessly and bring cohesion where there was understandable disarray — well, as Levin feared, “the whole project was about to collapse.”

Or so it seemed.

“I brought my phone on my walk and just started to film some footage about me, the director, and the project falling apart, and the anxiety that was causing me in wanting to honor our seniors,” Levin recalled. “I took out my script and filmed myself doing some lines from the play. Then I showed them that footage that same day, and I could feel the neurons firing in my students.”

Several days later, his cast had taken the lead of their teacher and taped themselves — separately, of course — in the forest around Flagstaff, combining riffs about how they were dealing with the pandemic with snippets from their characters’ scenes in “The Crucible.” This new project took off, and now there are plans to combine those videos with a single scene from the play, the slave Tituba and the girls dancing and conjuring the devil in the forest.

“They’ll be wearing masks, standing 10 feet apart, and we’ll have only four actors at a time in the woods,” Levin said. “That’s what is so exciting. You can feel the energy among the students in the room — but we’re all at home.”

Such are the challenges, gratifications and frustrations seemingly in equal measure, that teachers throughout Flagstaff, and the country, face in trying to maintain a semblance of normalcy and order in an unusual and often chaotic pedagogical time.

With the school year winding down, district teachers say they have learned much since physical classes were canceled in March: how to be flexible, alter lesson plans on the fly, engage students and their parents through distractions, embrace technology out of necessity. They say they’ve gained a greater appreciation for the simple act of standing at the front of a classroom, as opposed to staring into a camera on a laptop.

And, to a person, teachers contacted expressed fervent hope that, come fall, their days as online educators will be over.

“It’s a changed dynamic,” said Luke Calhoun, who teaches at Basis. “A good teacher is not just about the curriculum. They don’t teach the subject as much as they teach the student. That involves knowing the whole student, checking in and seeing what’s happening in their families. Just looking at their face, even if they don’t reach out to you. Like, 'Wow, that student looks a little reserved. I should check in.'”

Indeed, something is lost without face-to-face contact, says Lily Stevens, an English teacher at Coconino High School. Just 33, Stevens said she embraces technology and was a big proponent of the district’s initiative to get every student an iPad. But now …

“I always thought, ‘Oh, I can teach online and it would be fine,’” she said. “But this experience has taught me otherwise. I like being there. It’s hard to keep up the same challenges of rigor as if we were in person. What’s challenging is some of my students need to work to help pay the bills and they don’t have enough time to dedicate to my class. Some don’t have internet access all the time. Some are taking care of family members who are sick.”

Stevens makes it a point, then, to go beyond the regularly scheduled virtual classroom meetings and calling up students — and their parents — in her dual-enrollment (which students take for college credit and a high-school grade) 11th grade English class. Her students are working on a major essay synthesizing information on a controversial topic of their choice, and Stevens says she wants to make sure they stay motivated.

“Most teachers don’t like calling home,” she said, laughing. “Usually, when we call home, it’s because a kid’s in trouble and it’s a little confrontational. And I’m also a millennial, so I still tend to text more than talk on the phone. If someone’s being assertive with me, having email or text gives me time to react as professionally as I can. But calling my dual-enrollment parents just to check in, that’s gone really well. It’s given me more insight into their lives.”

As for her 10th grade class, which is supposed to be finishing up reading “Lord of the Flies,” motivating the kids has been harder. “As the weeks went on, fewer and fewer were entering Google Classroom, even though I posted pictures of my daughter, made corny jokes daily, to get them to interact,” she said.

For Heather Overton, a second grade teacher at Marshall Elementary School, keeping her 24 students engaged has not been a problem. She said every student has online access in her class, and Overton meets individually online with students weekly.

She credits the school district for implementing uniform assignments, with explicit grading protocols, but adds that teachers can tweak the units to fit students’ needs.

“At this age, it’s important to continue their connection with their teacher,” Overton said. “They’d still like some end-of-year closure, if possible. I’m hoping to share the slide show online that I typically do in class at the end. They can watch that at their own house.”

Still, meeting remotely is not even remotely the same as in-person teaching. Particularly challenged is Eric Walden, who teaches choral music and musical theater at FALA. Choral ensembles are all about singing together, in harmony, disparate voices blending to one sound.

You can’t do that via Zoom. For one thing, Walden said, there’s a “latency issue” — meaning a delay between speakers. So it’s technologically impossible for a group singalong.

“I’ve argued with my students about this,” Walden said. “They say, ‘Oh, yes, you can do it simultaneously. I saw on YouTube the cast of Hamilton singing together.’ No, they didn’t. Each singer records their part and sends it in and someone edits it together. That’s how you get that Brady Bunch feeling on a tiled screen. It’s edited on the back end.”

So, that’s what Walden is having his advanced singers do for a final project. They have chosen the African composition "Sisi Sote” and are recording their parts and sending the snippets to Walden to edit. Walden said he’s learned a lot about audio engineering in the past few months, but that he is getting professional help with the project.

“It’s forcing us to explore something new,” Walden said. "We’ll see how it turns out. To me, it’s all about the experience of doing it. We’re making music together — but in a different way. There is education value in that.”

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