It was an all-new way to teach and learn — and both school administrators and teachers scrambled to figure out how to do it.
The coronavirus pandemic created a sudden need for remote learning, and despite its rocky start, became an accepted norm for more than a year. Now that Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered campuses to reopen in the fall, these same school administrators and teachers are trying to figure out what the coming academic year will look like.
Yet, while the adjustment to online and hybrid learning brought on many challenges, with those challenges came opportunities for creative solutions.
“Attendance was really low,” said Jake Jacobs, an art teacher at Bronx Park Middle School in Allerton. “I think the real challenge for kids was that some kids were supervised at home, and some kids had no supervision at home. Or some kids were taking care of their younger siblings. And so, it was very low.”
Christian Aviles, a Spanish teacher at DeWitt Clinton High School, found there were deeper issues at play.
“The hardest part was not necessarily technology,” he said. “It was figuring out how to establish rapport with the students — how to connect, as a human, to students.”
Clearly, this lack of connection was caused by technology. But in some cases, Aviles said, technology was also what allowed teachers to reconnect with students.
“Remote learning really gave us a window into students’ home lives,” said Alexandra Haridopolos, a social studies and English as a second language teacher at the Grace H. Dodge Career and Technical High School in Belmont. “Their living conditions are largely out of their control. If they have to babysit, if there’s food in the fridge, if there’s a quiet environment, if it’s a loud environment. So all of that has really gotten us much closer to our students in a weird way, even though everybody felt isolated.”
Because online learning brought new insights on what the lives of students are really like, some teachers used this newfound connection to accommodate issues they just couldn’t prior to the pandemic.
Tiffany Riley, a high school Spanish teacher at the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics in Morrisania, was just in her first year of teaching when the pandemic hit. She found it wasn’t difficult to adjust to new teaching methods because the in-person teaching before the coronavirus was new to her, too.
“Over time, I’ve created materials using (online platforms) like Edpuzzle — where they can do listening and reading comprehension — and I use tools like Flipgrid, where they can do their speaking practice,” Riley said. “It did not have to be synchronous, so that they could do it on their own time, because I had some students … that started taking on jobs and started having responsibilities that overlapped with their class time.”
Riley also found that online learning methods worked well for language learning because she could incorporate anonymous elements into her lesson plans allowing her students to share their work without fearing judgment from their peers. Riley even found she could incorporate more rigor into her class through non-traditional testing methods.
“When it comes to socio-emotional learning, I wanted them to feel as though they had agency over what they were learning and how they felt,” Riley said. “So I gave them freedom of choice in terms of both assessment and learning styles.”
Moving away from traditional textbook-based methods of learning and embracing technology allowed Riley to give her students a feeling of control in the classroom they did not have before. The fact her students could easily look up answers to memorization-based assessments prompted Riley to find news ways to test their knowledge.
As an art teacher, Jacobs used to develop art presentations he showed to his students in lieu of the tactile learning that usually takes place in his classes.
“You know, I’ve never been given time to sit down and develop these kinds of lessons before, where I was getting all these examples of art and putting them all in this sequence,” Jacobs said. “I made movies, I made slideshows, and so I have lots of materials that I can use for the rest of my career now that were developed this year because I had to teach online.”
Yet, Jacobs still isn’t sure which of these methods he’ll be bring to in-person classes next fall. He wants his students to use their hands to make art, but he might use the presentation he developed as a way to diversify his curriculum.
The question of whether these new technologies and learning methods are transferable to in-person learning is an important one. Platforms that allow students to anonymously share work with their peers — like the one that Riley uses — might not be easy to incorporate into a classroom where kids can clearly see each other, the educators say. However, the flexibility with — and accommodations for — students these platforms allowed points to their longevity.
“Students are not always ready to showcase what they’ve learned, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not learning,” Aviles said. “I think that remote learning has taught me that, and I think that’s a really valuable lesson for people to understand. How can I be more patient about what students are able to give me in order to assess them?”
Haridopolos also found the pandemic cast light on inequalities amongst her students when it comes to access to technology.
“Digital literacy was a hurdle,” she said. The education department “needs to be providing all students with Wi-Fi in their homes — every New York City public school family should have guaranteed Wi-Fi. I can’t believe we didn’t (think about this) before.”
The closeness online learning created between students and teachers made those at-home differences blatantly clear.
This newfound clarity made it possible for teachers to not only accommodate their own students, but to advocate for better access to technology on a larger scale, as well.
“Remote learning has made me realize that students have a voice that needs to be respected more, and also understood,” Aviles said. “And I think that, regardless of the format that we teach, the most important part is that we’re dealing with humans really. If that means that a student needs remote learning, then I somehow find a way to facilitate that.”