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Community Feature

Local Teachers Adapt to Change After Schools Close

June 2, 2020

Skt News Article May 2020 Featured Image Belle Plaine Teachers

Belle Plaine Teachers

Teachers are very special people. When the pandemic turned our world upside down, educators continued to do what they are so good at – adapting, overcoming, teaching, and loving children – using technology for face-to-face interaction.

We checked in with three teachers  — Cassy Dalbom, Jessica Ferguson, and Sarah Harlan — from the Belle Plaine school district to find out more about how they pivoted to finish out the school year teaching remotely.

Cassy and Jessica’s households both subscribe to SKT Internet and we are glad to be part of the team in their remote-teaching efforts – not to mention providing the connection for many of their students!  Sarah is a former SKT Internet customer who moved out of our service area, and she says, “I sure miss my solid SKT Internet – it was marvelous!” She’s hoping to be an SKT customer again, as there are six families in her area now.

From elementary to high school, these teachers continued to educate their students from afar.

Cassy Dalbom

Belle Plaine USD #357 staff and students were enjoying an early spring break the week of March 9-13, 2020. Cassy Dalbom, Belle Plaine High School teacher, remembers hearing the shocking news that the NCAA Basketball Tournament was being cancelled, and thinking, “Oh wow! This [COVID-19 Pandemic] is kind of blowing up – this is becoming a big deal!” It was.

They never came back from spring break. Staff and students were given the next week off, and Cassy, who has a master’s degree and has been teaching at Belle Plaine High School for eight years, remembers hearing these jolting words from administration, “There’s a good chance we’re going to be teaching online. Things are changing. We don’t really know what it looks like but take some time to try to get yourself prepared.” And she admits to feeling a bit panicked …

Once they could go into the school to retrieve their books, laptops, curriculum, etc., teachers also met in small groups for a couple of hours with their principals to receive instructions and expectations for teaching online. Belle Plaine USD #357 is a “Google School,” in that they were already utilizing Google’s free G Suite for Education tools, including Google Classroom (allowing management of curriculum, assignments, and grading all in one place) – and students had Google email addresses. Since the high school students were already using school-issued laptops, grades 4-8 utilizing Chromebooks, and K-3 iPads, those devices were transitioned into the students’ homes. The next hurdle was ensuring that every student had an internet connection. SKT was able to help here. For those who didn’t have Wi-Fi at home, SKT provided three free, drive-up Wi-Fi hotspot locations in Belle Plaine – at the pool, community center, and library.

School resumed virtually. The high school met daily on a strict schedule, beginning at 8:00 a.m. and ending at 11:27 a.m. Each class was 27 minutes long with 3-minute breaks in between; essentially a normal day within a half-day schedule. Expectations remained high – with attendance taken, and students still graded on their work and productivity. This was of utmost importance to meet credit requirements.

Cassy Dalbom teaches Family and Consumer Sciences to grades 9-12, and also serves as the district’s Career & Technical Education Coordinator. She had five different classes to prepare for every day – including lesson plans and online activities for each. Meeting with her students face-to-face, she used the video platform, Google Meet, communicating further and posting assignments via Google Classroom. She explains, “That was definitely the challenge … so one of my classes is Culinary Essentials. We cook. We do labs. We buy the groceries and make the food … and so I was, like, ‘I can’t make them all do the same recipe – what if they don’t have the means to go out and buy all those ingredients?’” For that class, she focused on different topics such as pasta or dairy products each week, allowing students to choose their own recipes to prepare. Although she preferred they didn’t make a box mix of macaroni and cheese, if that’s all they could do, then she accepted it. The students submitted a cooking photo and their recipe into a Dropbox in Google Classroom. For her Child Development class, since the students weren’t able to work with children as before in an elementary classroom, instead Cassy directed the students to create activities on Google Slides that children could do at home during quarantine. And, they were encouraged to share them as a resource for parents with small children at home.

Even though she didn’t actually have to move – she just had to switch things up on her computer between classes, Cassy shares, “The first couple of days, it was like, ‘Whoa! This is crazy!’ And I was actually exhausted and asking myself ‘Why is it that I am so drained – I usually teach from 8 to 3:30 every single day at school on my feet.’ But I think it just was a total change of environment and mentality and everything was just so different.”

In addition to the Google tools, Cassy utilized Kahoot, a game-based learning platform – her favorite because it required all students to be engaged and it was fun – and Flipgrid, a website that allows teachers to create “grids” to facilitate video discussions. This tool helped Cassy evaluate how the students were doing.

A footnote:  As with many teachers, Cassy is also a coach and an organization sponsor. She exclaims, “We even did cheerleading tryouts virtually! How crazy is that?” She sums it up well, “One thing I have learned through all of this is to be flexible – and I’ve really just tried to not stress about things – to just ‘do the best we can and we’re gonna get through this.’”

Jessica Ferguson

Jessica Ferguson, whose lifelong dream is to work with children, just completed her very first year of teaching at Belle Plaine Elementary. What an experience! When she first learned that they wouldn’t be returning to the classroom, she had 21 students in her fourth-grade class. Amidst the pandemic, she gained a brand-new student, so her class roster was up to 22 when the school year ended.

Beginning in the fourth grade, Belle Plaine students are provided 1:1 Chromebook technology. Since they had been using Chromebooks in the classroom from the beginning of the year (navigating with them daily; they were up-to-date), it was quickly determined it would be best for the students to come pick them up for use in their homes – for the smoothest transition possible.

Jessica shares that her preferred platform for continuous learning was Google Classroom and Google Meet. She says, “My students were already familiar with Google Classroom from the integrated technology while we were in the building but using it in new and creative ways to keep students engaged and on track proved to be a new challenge.” Expanding on that she says, “One of my favorite lessons was utilizing a Google Meet to do a grammar-lesson scavenger hunt. The students would be given an object to find (adjective/noun: old toothbrush) and then have 30 seconds to find the item in their home. They would run off-screen and then come back with their item, out of breath, giggling, and smiling ear-to-ear. In no way can technology replace the high-fives, fist-bumps, and hugs, but being able to see their faces and hear their voices brought resilience that we all needed.” And finally, “Another way I utilized technology was to give students voice and choice throughout their continuous learning. I created Choice Boards in Google Slides that allowed students to click on links in the slide that took them directly to another website to practice reading or math skills.”

Jessica remains positive, “Technology and internet usage also allowed me to provide one-on-one learning experiences to my students that I may not have had in the classroom.”

And although the situation wasn’t ideal, Jessica knows that teachers have a huge support system that stretches across the country. She recommends that teachers who are struggling with how to adapt to online learning reach out to other educators.

“NETWORK. Although we are not within our buildings currently, because of the internet and digital age we live in, we have access to the finest educators across the world. Use it. At any given time, I could tweet, post, email or text millions of educators across the globe and have an answer to a problem, or a friend to collaborate with. Although we may be physically isolated, connecting digitally is the next best thing,” Jessica said.

It’s important to cut yourself and each other some slack during these stressful times, she says.

“Also, and this is the biggest, allow grace, and then allow some more. This is absolute craziness. There is no one turn-key fix, no one-size-fits-all, no magic platform that will enable teachers to do what we do in the classroom every day. But with support and a willingness to continue our own learning, educators will continue to do what we are so good at, adapt, overcome, and teach and love children.”

Skt News Article May 2020 Video Image Jessica Ferguson

Jessica Ferguson, Morning Greeting

Sarah Harlan

Sarah Harlan is a third-generation graduate of the Belle Plaine school district. She’s been at Belle Plaine Elementary for 10 years – teaching at the fourth, third, and currently the Kindergarten levels. Her remote-teaching platform and schedule were completely different. With the approval of their principal and superintendent, the three Kindergarten teachers quickly decided to use a closed Facebook platform to reach their young students – who would require parental assistance. They knew that most adults have a Facebook account; and indeed, the parents of Sarah’s 14 students did. It was all set up within a week, getting classes started back up quickly via Facebook – with rules at the top of the page including not sharing any pictures or personal information outside of the group. So, three times per week, utilizing her laptop, iPad, cell phone, and a tripod, Sarah prepared and recorded Facebook Live segments which were about 15 minutes long. Because three parents were first responders and two nurses, meeting at a specific time would have been very difficult for them; therefore, Sarah made sure to post by 7:30 a.m. so that parents would have the option to view and participate with their child at their own discretion. On the other two days, the specials teachers – music, library, physical education, computers, and reading – were on. Because she typically read a book twice each day in her school classroom, once a week Sarah also recorded herself reading a book after a teaching session.

Sarah shares that although Facebook Live was very beneficial and helpful, if remote teaching is necessary next year, the Kindergarten teachers will move to a more in-depth platform such as Seesaw. It’s more interactive, can support grading, comments, send videos back and forth, etc. The plan is to have everything set up and ready to go before this next school year starts, with parents signed up for the app. They may even begin using Seesaw to communicate. If necessary, it will be an easy transition into the home.

Sarah shares that a couple of other things that worked well were that grade school teachers coordinated by grade level and tried to keep their remote teaching as simple as possible – considering that many of their students had siblings in the upper grades. In addition, most grade levels sent home paper pack kits for the students to do. Parents were asked to submit a photo of completed packs by a certain date, which allowed flexibility. While the lower grades utilized either Facebook or Seesaw for remote teaching, at the fourth-grade level, Belle Plaine teachers implemented Google Classroom to begin transitioning students in that direction. And finally, Sarah shares that her students seemed to enjoy learning more about her personal life, her home, her yard, her dog, and her family throughout this changeup. She enjoyed the fact that the parents were with the students for their lessons – which allowed a peek into what it is like to teach Kindergarten students! She adds, “I hope to do my very best for each of my students, whether in the classroom or at home. They are the reason I go to work! I love them tremendously.”