“This new format requires students to be super independent and very much self advocates. If you’re having trouble, teachers don’t always see it. In class, there are so many struggles that we can read, but here we don’t see those things,” said Oyster River Middle School eighth grade English teacher, Chris Hall, about the current transition to remote learning.
Per order of New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, all schools in the state have been closed for the rest of the 2019-2020 academic year, resulting in students in the Oyster River School District using remote learning until June 5th. This is in the interest of practicing social distancing and preventing the further spread of COVID-19.
With students in grades five to eight at ORMS, there is a vast difference in needs and skill levels between grades. Remote learning at the middle school has proven that every student is different, with successes and struggles varied at the individual level. Teachers have had to reinvent their curriculum to accommodate this change in the hopes of connecting every student with the content. Now in the sixth full week, remote learning at the middle school has been mostly successful, however, many students and staff are finding themselves still in the transition phase.
The Technology that ORMS is Using
As you may have read about in “ORHS Transitions to Remote Learning,” like ORHS, the middle school is utilizing Schoology and Microsoft Teams for remote learning.
However, Schoology and other similar technology were not in use by everyone at ORMS prior to remote learning. “At the middle school, we had some people who were using Schoology, and some weren’t, so there was a whole spectrum of abilities. We have had to meet all those abilities, to people who were very, very novice, to people who wanted to do some more advanced things,” said Janet Martel, digital learning specialist at ORMS.
She went on to say that she has seen this same spectrum in abilities in students as well. “We have fifth through eighth graders, so we have the same range with kids. Sometimes I have to meet with kids who don’t know how to video conference or don’t know how to upload a document.”
One to One Computers
For two years now, the middle school has been one to one, meaning each student at ORMS has their own personal laptop, which has created equality in technological access during these times. “It’s been good,” said Hazel Stasko, an eighth grader at ORMS. “At the middle school, we do have our own computers and a lot of teachers are using Schoology already, so I think it’s been good,” she said of her transition to remote learning.
ORMS principal, Jay Richard, spoke of the benefits of being one to one, but explained the larger struggle with remote learning. “Being in a one to one school the past two years, most of them have all their stuff online anyways, but a big piece was that we expected all teachers to transition to Schoology immediately, so that all the middle school teachers would be using the same platform. That was a challenge for some of the teachers,” he said.
Every middle schooler had their own computer and were provided with internet if needed, with Wifi hotspots purchased for those students without internet. Fortunately, access to technology was not a challenge for teachers, but more so how to get all of their content online to one place. “The deal was that all teachers would have to transition to Schoology for next year, so some of the teachers were using Google and stuff like that. I think it was a big transition for some teachers who continued to use Google Classroom and Google products instead of Schoology,” said Richard.
While teachers having to transition over to one platform is a challenge, it was even more of a challenge in this situation, as teachers initially only had three days to change and reinvent their entire curriculum. “Usually when you do a major change like this in education, you plan for months or years to find that sweet spot, and we had what, 72 hours to find that,” said Martel.
With such a short amount of time to learn this new technology, one struggle that students have been running into is getting used to using this new technology that some of them have never used before.
One struggle that seventh grade science teacher Jason Demers has found is what to do when those technological issues do arise. “The hardest part is that it’s not as simple as just saying, ‘okay guys, forget it, it’s not going to work let’s just move on to something else,’ because I still have to deliver that message in some way,” he said.
Despite the school district being in its sixth full week of remote learning, fifth grade teacher Kyra Dulmage said that some of her students are still in the transition phase. “We are trying to streamline and make sure that everybody knows how to access and are completing assignments consistently,” said Dulmage.
What A Typical Day May Look Like
In an effort to reduce stress with students and staff still just getting used to the technology piece of remote learning, like ORHS, the middle school has a weekly schedule with no classes on Fridays. In addition to that schedule, grades will not be reported for quarter three. “All the teachers are not going to give progress reports for quarter three in the core content areas. They are just giving comments about how kids are currently doing in remote learning,” said Richard.
Unlike the high school, the middle school does not have a set bell schedule during the day. Instead, teachers are typically available 9-3 during the day Monday through Thursday, and 9-11 on Fridays for students needing assistance with relearning and reassessment.
This has given teachers the ability to use the time during the day for Microsoft Teams meetings or for their students to watch prerecorded lessons and complete assignments on their own time.
Many ORMS teachers, like Dulmage, have been assigning a variety of tasks at the beginning of the week, and expecting students to complete them by Friday. “For some kids, they like that flexibility and other kids ask for a daily checklist, so we do that too,” explained Dulmage.
For some students, a typical day would consist of having a list of assignments posted for each class on Schoology, with students able to complete them on their own time. “We usually get an email from one of the teachers at the beginning of the day and it says what we are supposed to do for that day. Then we just go on to Schoology and lessons are usually there,” said Grey Bowden, sixth grader at ORMS.
Other teams are scheduling Microsoft Teams meetings with their students on a daily or weekly basis, and other teams have a set schedule with certain times in the day to work on certain subjects.
Parent Involvement at ORMS
One unique element of remote learning at the middle school level is the need for parent support for some students. “Unlike [high schoolers], fifth graders need an adult there, and parents at the beginning were stressed like, ‘how do I handle this?’ I think everybody has been thrown into a new role,” said Martel.
As a fifth grade teacher, Dulmage feels that in her classroom, she has trouble with assigning what the role of parents should and could be. “It’s hard for me to say that it’s needed, because I don’t want to put that on parents and make them feel guilty, like they have to, because they have so much going on themselves,” she said. “I can’t even imagine if I had to have my job and a bunch of kids in my house that I was trying to make sure were doing things and staying on task.”
Martel posed another issue. “It’s hard because some parents are still working, some parents are essential workers, so they can’t give their kids the same help as someone who’s at home,” said Martel.
Richard has also heard this from ORMS parents. “I imagine that that’s an extremely stressful situation to be working in this current climate with COVID. It’s definitely a struggle for some families, particularly families who are still working. There are also families with several siblings in the house, so just finding a quiet space to work can be a challenge.”
As for what the parents’ role should be, Dulmage would hope for parents to be “checking in with their kid at the beginning or the end of the day just being like, ‘show me what you accomplished,’ or ‘show me where your assignments are,’ just so that they know that they can lean on them.”
Despite the possible assistance from parents, Hall said that, “there are kids that I don’t hear from at all. There are dozens of reasons why that would be. They don’t have reliable internet or technology at home. There are kids who just struggle with organization. Some kids have struggled to make meetings,” said Hall.
Distractions When Working From Home
Working from home can be a challenge for many middle school students, many easily distracted at home. “From what I have heard, some of the motivation is tough. It’s hard when you’re at home. There’s a lot of other things that you could be doing and would rather be doing than talking about rocks,” said Demers.
Martel added to that by saying, “that’s one of the problems with remote learning. In the classroom, we can control a lot of the variables and there are variables here that we can’t control.”
Students are also finding this to be the biggest challenge. “Getting myself to actually do the work has been the most difficult,” said Stasko.
Bowden agreed by saying, “getting used to doing everything by yourself and getting stuff done without having a teacher there to help you.”
While many kids are struggling getting their work done, many are excelling in this new climate. “You have a lot of distractions at home. For some kids it works better. I’ve seen some kids who just shine in this environment and for other kids it can get very distracting,” said Martel.
Despite these struggles, teachers like Dulmage are working to be very understanding during these times. Dulmage said, “we’re trying to be really respectful to the fact that this is really hard and really stressful and really emotional because who knows what’s going on in people’s households? We are interested in supporting them, we’re here for them, and we care about them, then the academic piece comes second.”
Teachers Are Working to Keep Traditional Aspects of the Classroom
Hall has found that his biggest struggle during remote learning, as an English teacher, has been keeping a traditional writing process: one with multiple drafts, conferences, and revisions.
“The way we teach now, it’s a lot more coaching. In [the classroom] I do a lot more of the writing process, where I’m conferencing with kids all the time and I can’t do that really. It’s really hard to do that with this model,” said Hall. “One of the biggest goals I have had since I had the chance to really think about this, is just to keep kids connected with each other and with me, rather than try to get to all the curriculum, I realized that that is just impossible.”
Demers added to that point saying a large part of the traditional classroom is the interactions with students. “A lot of the challenge is basically to adjust how I teach. In the classroom I can have those conversations with kids, give them face to face instructions,” said Demers.
Many ORMS students are finding this to be another big challenge: communicating issues with teachers without being able to see them face to face.
Even though some of these struggles can be addressed via email, Bowden said, “it’s easier to talk to them in person than it is going back and forth on an email.”
Teachers are also finding that they cannot gauge where students’ stress levels are at, as opposed to in a traditional classroom. “One of the biggest challenges is that in class, I’m able to look out and see faces and know if kids are overwhelmed,” Hall said.
Demers went on to say how beneficial those small interactions are, and how much you can take them for granted until placed in a situation like remote learning. “You don’t realize how much you depend on those subtle interactions with the kids. The whole lesson overview is easy. You can video record yourself or have a document and talk about it, but those little side conversations for clarification questions. Those little subtleties are tough that allow the kids to understand better to be more successful, and I could see them being more frustrated too,” said Demers. Although teachers can schedule Microsoft Teams meetings with students, they are often still finding it difficult to see where kids are at, especially with the application only allowing a teacher to see four students on the screen at one time.
With the loss of these social interactions, along with lasting tech issues, many teachers at ORMS are realizing that, as much as they would like to, they will not be able to get all the content out to students as they normally would be able to.
“For middle school, teachers are realizing that you can’t take the brick and mortar classroom and reproduce it online. You have to change how you teach, what you teach. You have to realize that you may not teach the exact content and that instead you try to get big pictures,” said Martel.
While he knows that he will not be able to get to everything with his students, Demers still wants for his students to have a meaningful experience in his science classroom this year. “I want them to get something out of it, so I’m really trying to pick key aspects. Like, what are the real focal points that I want, and realize that I’m not going to be able to teach as much depth as I have in the past because of the remote learning,” said Demers.
Dulmage is struggling with this too and finding that the assignments she is assigning are taking students a long time, as her fifth grade students are still trying to get used to the technology piece of remote learning. “We are going way slower because it takes kids a long time to figure out how to access the assignment and then do it and then turn it in. Some of the assignments I’m giving could take them hours, but in class it would take like ten minutes,” said Dulmage.
Despite the challenges, with this shift to remote learning, Dulmage has seen some positives come from it. “We have seen a shift in kids’ ability to have better executive functioning skills, like kids who would be kind of scattered or lost at school sometimes, have shown now that they are like, ‘oh, I don’t actually understand this piece of this assignment, can you help me?’ so they are starting to develop skills of helping themselves through things, which is really cool to see.”
Students and Staff Are Missing the Non-Academic Interactions the Most
Along with troubles regarding speaking to teachers about assignments, everyone at ORMS is missing just seeing people and the non-academic social aspect of school.
“I think the teachers really miss seeing the kids. As a principal, this sucks. I miss doing eighth grade lunch duty. I miss seeing the kids walk through the doors every single day,” said Richard.
As the weeks with remote learning go on, many are finding the technology piece becoming easier, but the disconnect among teachers and students becoming more and more difficult. “The technology piece isn’t a problem, I’m pretty good with the technology piece, but I do miss the interaction with the kids,” said Demers. “I miss seeing the kids, I miss interacting with them. That’s why I teach, that’s why I do that stuff.”
Bowden agreed, saying, “we can’t see anybody, and that’s the best part of school.”
Dulmage explained that for her team, they had a very strong, social atmosphere while in the middle school building. “For fifth graders, it’s really hard to go from being with your friends all day and seeing each other and being a part of an energetic community, and then not having that. The social aspect of that is really hard and sad,” said Dulmage.
How Much Work is Appropriate?
One big challenge faced at the middle school is knowing how much work is appropriate, with teachers wanting to avoid giving too much or too little work. “The biggest thing is to try to keep it more simple,” said Hall. “The first week, I’ll speak for myself, but I think that a lot of us jumped in pretty heavy, just trying to do all of the right things and trying to be really good to our students. But, it was a lot and I’m really trying to simplify, like something every day, with a couple big tasks a week.”
Stasko has seen this balance beginning to form, as students and teachers are getting more used to remote learning. “I honestly think that there could be more work, but I’ve noticed that as the weeks progress, some classes are adding on to their workload and some classes have been subtracting from it, so I definitely think there is a balance that has been formed with the amount of work we have been getting,” said Stasko.
Moving forward, Hall is hoping to find that perfect balance for his students. “Keep that balance, really try to get a better finger on the pulse of how kids are doing. I think the first couple weeks I overloaded kids with work, but I don’t want to give them too little, so finding that balance is my hope,” said Hall.
ORMS Teachers are Flexible with Content During Remote Learning
Starting this year, many ORMS teachers were placed teaching different grades than they ever had before. Hall sees the benefit of this with the new remote learning model. “This is my first year teaching eighth grade in a long time. I had been teaching fifth grade for over a dozen years, so everything was new this year, and I had plans, but in a way my plans were already fluid, but now they’re very fluid,” said Hall.
He added on to that by saying, “the good thing is that I’m not entrenched because I haven’t been teaching eighth grade for years and years, so in some ways I’m really flexible.”
Among other creative changes teachers have had to implement, teachers like Hall have come up with unique projects for his students during these times. “My main mission right now is having them write a quarantine journal because this is a moment in history that they will talk about with their kids and grandkids someday,” he said. Other teams, like in social studies, have had students compare their current situation to other crisis periods in history. Students have been comparing the economic crash of the Great Depression to today’s economy, as well as comparing the amount of change and awareness that came out of the 1960s to how they think the world is going to change once quarantine is lifted.
The Next Steps for ORMS
Aside from academics, Richard also reflected on the many opportunities the school gives, ones that cannot be experienced through remote learning. “I feel really sad for the eighth graders, like the eighth grade celebration, the Washington DC trip, a jazz band trip to Vermont, all these wonderful activities that are lifelong memories have all been canceled,” said Richard.
Richard said that with all New Hampshire schools now closed until the end of the year, this provides an end point for himself, as he knows that students and staff definitely won’t return to the school building this year. From here, Richard said he is working on smaller things, like how to have kids able to get their things out of their lockers and to find a way to celebrate ORMS eighth graders.
Richard concluded by speaking of the support he and the rest of the ORMS faculty are working to provide to students. Richard said, “I think it’s really important that if kids are struggling or need support that they reach out to their teachers or to their principal because that’s what we are here to do. We are here to help kids. That’s why we do these jobs.”
Artwork by Riley Brown