Photo: Grace Martinez/YouTube
Grace Martinez, a ninth-grade English language arts teacher at Alliance Public Schools in Los Angeles, teaches through a YouTube video.

At our charter high school in northeast Los Angeles, we thought we were tech-savvy and prepared for nearly anything. Yet we weren’t really ready for a pandemic.

Our school culture, always strong, sustained us and kept the teachers innovating and engaged. Yet even that high level of enthusiasm wasn’t enough to compensate for what was missing — physical presence in the classroom, an essential element for keeping our students motivated and learning.

California school leaders now have proposed a hybrid program for the fall — part distance learning and part in-class instruction. Based on what teachers have learned these past 11 weeks about keeping students tuned in, distance learning has a better chance of succeeding if school leaders commit to bringing students into the classroom at least two days a week.

Because of coronavirus contagion concerns, the state has concluded neither a five-day nor even a three-day in-class program is feasible, and yet our students need to get back to school.

Physically connecting with their friends and teachers in a school environment is crucial to student learning. Telling your teacher “I don’t understand,” and having her or him explain it in a way that you do, makes a huge difference. During those two days, students would have check-off lists so assignments are turned in on time, paper copies are provided for those who need them, and teachers are coordinating with other teachers, so they’re not all assigning 300-word essays due on Friday at 5 p.m., not to mention lunches chilling with their besties.

School spirit activities, online clubs (cooking anyone?), and motivational talks with teachers and counselors would incentivize our students to aim high.

During their three days off-site, students could work together virtually on group projects, making them more accountable for their participation.

Students’ grades were frozen when schools shut down in March, and between the pandemic and the protests over the killing of George Floyd, their distraction was understandable. Beginning in the fall, however, students will have to step up, take more responsibility for their learning and know that, this time, grades matter.

We knew from the start that suddenly pivoting to online learning would be a challenge. Many of our students had compromised living situations and limited access to the internet. I didn’t push them; I was more concerned about their mental state. Were their families safe? Were they eating? Were they washing their hands? Were they taking social-distancing measures?

One student seemed simply missing in action, failing to respond to email and voicemail for both him and his parent, as well as Google voice, chat and message.  

Another student tediously worked on his school work on his smart phone until he finally told me his iPad was broken. I quickly arranged to get him a Chromebook — luckily, our school had extras.

Then there was the student who told me that 6 a.m. was the only time he could count on peace and quiet. Forget about him being able to absorb the text on altruism he had been assigned to read, solving quadratics, or understanding President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points during World War I. Finding a place to work and stay focused was his biggest challenge.

To mentally prepare them for each day’s lesson when school resumes, we need to integrate social-emotional learning strategies, address possible depression and trauma, and have students meditate or incorporate deep breathing at the beginning of each classroom or video-conferencing session.

Teachers need to incorporate more culturally relevant texts into the lessons to give students context about the ongoing civil unrest. That will help incentivize them to learn about the movement, knowledge they will one day share with their grandchildren.

And, with the later start (at 8:30 a.m., instead of 7:45 a.m.) required by a new state law that recognizes young people need their sleep, students will come to school more refreshed, and ready to learn.

This spring, our staff gave it their all. After two weeks of strategizing, we hit the ground running. Teachers looked to the video messaging program Loom, the interactive video program Edpuzzle, and Screencastify (which allows teachers to record themselves teaching) to personalize their twice-a-week, 20-minute launch lessons.

Some teachers donned costumes and silly masks, provided daily workouts or danced to the “Friends” theme song (“I’ll be there for you”)  to motivate students into completing assignments. To make the curriculum more manageable, teachers used Google Forms to embed instructional videos, forgoing attachments, so students could access everything they needed with one click, not five.

It wasn’t enough.

Whatever form distance learning may take next year, we will be ready. But we fervently hope that it be paired with two days spent in the physical classroom.

•••

Marion Siwek is a special education teacher for the Alliance Public Schools in Los Angeles.

The opinions in this commentary are those of the author. Commentaries published on EdSource represent viewpoints from EdSource’s broad audience. As an independent, non-partisan organization, EdSource does not take a position on legislation or policy. We welcome guest commentaries from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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