The middle school, along with the rest of Country Day, suspended in-person classes on March 13 and will continue to be vacant for the remainder of the school year, according to head of school Lee Thomsen. (Photo by Elise Sommerhaug)
Middle and Lower school teachers try new methods with switch to online instruction
The middle school began online teaching on March 18.
“Before spring break, (teachers) were conducting asynchronous classes — assigning homework for students to work on by themselves,” head of middle school Rommel Loria said. “But as time progressed, more and more Zoom classes were conducted to check in and see how students were doing. After spring break, there was a more structured schedule similar to how it was at school.”
The new schedule takes place between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., though only three 50-minute classes are held each day. Other activities include office hours and advisory meetings, depending on the day.
Alan Hirahara, the father of sixth grader Kai and eighth grader Chloe, said he is impressed by the school’s online classes.
“The online programs that have been set up for the kids at Country Day are so much better than the programs at other schools,” said Hirahara. “For example, my niece who doesn’t attend Country Day just hasn’t had school in almost a month.”
Seventh and eighth grade English teacher Kathryn LaComb said the online learning program is improving over time.
“(We are) evolving to fit the needs of the students,” LaComb said.
However, she added that in-person teaching is still more effective because she can better gauge students’ levels of understanding.
Loria, LaComb and Kristoffer Hall, the father of seventh grader Wyatt Hall, agree that there is one benefit to online learning.
“It’s nice to not have to commute to work every day, letting us pollute a lot less than usual,” Loria said.
However, Hall added that his son prefers to be at school.
“I can tell he misses his classes and all of the parts of his day-to-day life at school,” Hall said.
Another problem for students is motivation, according to LaComb.
“It can be hard for some students to stay focused and know how to manage their time,” she said. “This can cause anxiety and frustration that translates into a lack of motivation, and it can be hard to help and encourage them from a distance or through a screen.”
Lower school teachers are taking different approaches to online instruction, depending on the subject and grade they teach, following a transition to online schooling due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Fifth grade math and science teacher John Yu said his approach differs because fifth graders have access to their school email accounts, allowing more ways to deliver content, such as video lessons for math and science and Google Classroom for all assignments.
“Videos either focus on a set of skills or introduce an assignment,” Yu said. “I often upload these videos to YouTube because it allows me to send a link quickly.”
According to Yu, this system allows him to keep track of all of his students. He also has held a few Zoom sessions to strengthen skills or introduce a lesson.
Similarly, fourth grade teacher Pam Livesey said she uses YouTube and Zoom to keep up with lessons.
“When we aren’t teaching lessons, we are preparing for the next set of classes and instructions.”
— Pam Livesey
“We are making YouTube lessons so the students and parents can watch at their preferred times, as well as pause and/or replay as needed,” Livesey said. “In fourth grade, the parents text or email us with any questions they or their kids may have. When we aren’t teaching lessons, we are preparing for the next set of classes and instructions.”
Teachers don’t have much time before lessons, so any extra time is spent preparing for future activities or sessions, according to Livesey.
Elizabeth Monasa, the mother of fourth grader Brandon Monasa, said her son’s daily schedule is divided into math, language and science.
“Even the music, language and art teachers have come up with assignments,” Monasa said. “It worked as a self-paced way of learning, but I think we need more structure in terms of more Zoom class time.”
The process was different for kindergartners and third graders, according to parent Jasmine Karalakulasingam. Her younger son, Kellen Raheja, is in kindergarten and her older son, Kian Raheja, is in third grade.
“For the kindergartner, we had a rough schedule with lesson plans for each day,” Karalakulasingam said. “The teachers added on to it as we went on. The first Monday after school closed, we picked up a packet of work for our third grader. There was also a schedule with assignments.”
Both Karalakulasingam and her husband are physicians, so their jobs have continued through the pandemic.
“We now have to be their parents as well as their teachers, which is another full-time job for us,” Karalakulasingam said. “Our teachers are really supportive, but there isn’t always time to get that support when we’re trying to figure out all of the schedules for the next day. It’s much less effective for my kindergartner because so much of what they do with the kids is interactive.”
Livesey agreed, saying there is no substitute for being in the classroom with a teacher.
“Teachers can see when a student is struggling just by looking at them and their body language,” Livesey said. “We got to know these students, their struggles, their personalities, and we can’t be there for them like we usually are.”
Online instruction comes with a learning curve for both teachers and students, according to Yu.
“The most significant learning curve for teachers is learning to use various digital tools to deliver content,” Yu said. “I, fortunately, had a lot of experience with online learning, so I overcame these challenges reasonably well.”
Nevertheless, Yu said he still struggles with video editing.
“If I mess up in a video, which I do a lot, I end up having to re-record it,” Yu said.
Lower school head Christy Vail added that online instruction is a huge amount of extra work for the teachers.
“Teaching remotely is like teaching in a foreign language,” Vail said. “They have to think through everything in a new way and constantly adjust.
“The teachers, however, are doing an amazing job. They are creative, committed and conscientious. They want more than anything for their students to succeed and to feel supported.”
Despite these efforts, some students still face challenges with the new format.
According to Karalakulasingam, motivation is a problem for both her kids, especially because they’re young.
“Teachers can motivate students in (ways that) parents can’t, and they have a special set of skills (that) we don’t have.”
— Jasmine Karalakulasingam
“Teachers can motivate students in (ways that) parents can’t, and they have a special set of skills (that) we don’t have,” Karalakulasingam said.
Yu and Livesey, however, said motivation isn’t a big problem for the fourth and fifth graders.
Instead, Yu said organizational skills are a prominent issue.
“It takes a tremendous amount of organizational skills to meet deadlines,” Yu said. “One has to plan out their schedule to make sure they have enough time to complete assignments. For fifth grade students, I can imagine this to be challenging because I’ve never had to teach these skills thoroughly during the school year.”
Still, Yu said his students mostly overcame that challenge.
Vail added that online learning can be challenging for students.
“They are used to being able to ask their teachers for help or another example to get them through a place where they feel stuck,” Vail said. “They may have to wait a bit longer to get their questions answered.”
Moreover, students may miss the social aspect and structure of going to school, Vail said.
“They miss their friends and likely find themselves with more time to fill on their own than in a typical school day,” Vail said. “I hope students are finding time to pursue their own interests and try some new activities. But I can imagine that after a few weeks of social isolation, some kids might be feeling some cabin fever!”
— Stories by Dylan Margolis and Arikta Trivedi
Originally published in the April 28 edition of the Octagon.