Talk of the Town: OUSD Teachers in a Distance Learning World

A collage of five different teacher's selfies and photos of them at work.

Debora Gordon, a recently retired OUSD teacher, after 28 years, now teaching adult ESL via Zoom, interviews OUSD teachers and one librarian about distance learning. This is part one of the series.

Short commutes from the bedroom to the kitchen table, babies crying and other background noise, students who don’t or won’t turn their cameras on so it is not possible to be certain if they are “there” and what they are doing, technology failures, and new approaches that may carry on to the eventual return to in-person learning—those are just a few of the things teachers across the grades and the curriculum are experiencing as they continue the endless transition and re-invention of teaching in an instructional world currently defined by COVID-19.  

Teaching from a distance is more than being displaced from the physical space, although the lack of access to familiar teaching resources, from books and handouts and paintbrushes and basketballs, imposes significant obstacles for going beyond mere lecture, which has not been considered an effective teaching strategy for years. It is also about not being able to check for understanding in the moment through facial expression and body language. Teachers are finding that it’s more difficult to offer encouragement or support for individual students in the moment. In addition, while teachers, students, and parents are learning new technologies and apps, there is still the problem of technology itself, from lack of student devices and home wifi, to the constant crashing of audio. The simple sense of connection cannot be fully realized on a screen.  

Teachers, students and their families are experiencing Zoom fatigue, social isolation, and concern about when and how to finally return to the classroom. In addition, what will the ultimate impact of this extended period of offsite/online learning be? But with distance learning being the order of the moment, these teachers and one school librarian share their hopes, challenges, and thoughts on their experiences moving their entire instructional practice to their kitchen tables or desks and making it work.

Pamela Long, 3rd grade dual immersion teacher at International Community School, 27 years teaching

A woman wearing a poncho stands outside a building and smiles
Pamela Long

One of the challenges started with not all kids having wifi and/or reliable computers. Some did not know how to log in. I have had to provide one-on-one tech support, which I myself was learning. My school jumped on the challenges right away, ramping up tech distribution, used all Chromebooks in the school, and hooked up kids with hotspots. I have helped parents with the OUSD Family Central tech survey and now every student now has a laptop.

I do a lot of texting to the parents. We had a movie to celebrate students having their cameras on. There are many kids who are doing their best each week, kids who do their asynchronous work. I make sure every kid gets a check-in everyday.

One thing teachers are hearing is that families are saying that this is not manageable, they can’t get their kids to do the work. Some kids had a hard time finding the links, some kids are not logging on.

Pamela Long, 3rd grade Dual immersion teacher at International Community SchooL

One thing teachers are hearing is that families are saying that this is not manageable, they can’t get their kids to do the work. Some kids had a hard time finding the links, some kids are not logging on. Sometimes, it might not be lack of technology but the fact that some kids are also responsible for other kids in the home. And some kids are not turning on their cameras on.  There are ongoing tech issues; audio is often a problem. We have instituted regular parent meetings every single Monday so parents can work with us.

When we first started, there were meetings on how to set up Google Classroom, so many tech training webinars, putting together materials for first weeks, helping create scope and sequence. 

In terms of returning to the classroom, I don’t know yet and I am not sure if the steps necessary to make sure it’s safe will be taken. I would have a lack of faith in a vaccine developed too quickly.

If the administration thinks that it’s safe, they should be in the school with us. Make sure that they follow through with what they promised with ventilation, temperature checks, cleaning, and make sure it’s safe. 

Maggie Lanzillo Rogers, Library Technician at Montera Middle School, 5 years teaching

An image of a woman wearing glasses and holding two books.
Maggie Rogers

Distance learning is a mixed bag, but I think students are trying their best to get through this time. I don’t get to see a lot of students, but the ones I do see are getting bored of being on screen so much. They definitely prefer in-person school to online school and do want to get back on campus. The few parents I have had discussions with seem to be concerned about the social-emotional issues their students are dealing with. 

Before the pandemic, the Montera Library was busiest at lunchtime. We had two lunch periods and students would visit the library to read, relax, socialize, and play games. It was always a busy and vibrant place at lunchtime. 

After the pandemic, the library’s main functions aren’t available. No socializing and we aren’t circulating library books. I have been working instead on our virtual presence. In the Spring, I created the Montera Library Website. This Fall, the Bitmoji world has taken over and I’ve made several Bitmoji reading rooms. I’m struggling to find ways to reach more students, though. 

The greatest challenge is not being able to easily circulate books. At least for middle school, this has been my primary function: getting books into hands of readers! The library staff across the district is developing a protocol to guide the safe distribution of books like the way that OPL is with Sidewalk Service. 

It is absolutely exhausting to sit in front of a computer all day long. A different type of exhaustion than being on your feet in a library all day long. I much prefer being on my feet! By the end of the day in my home office, I feel lethargic and my brain is fuzzy. I can only imagine that our students and parents are suffering from the same feelings. 

Maggie Lanzillo Rogers, Library Technician at Montera Middle School

The biggest benefit has been having the opportunity to create a website and virtual presence. I had wanted to do that for some time, but never had the uninterrupted time and concentration that it took to piece it all together. 

I have also been able to host an online book club. At Montera, clubs take place during lunchtime, so I’ve never been able to have one because the library is so busy at lunchtime. I’m really excited to get this opportunity and have 12 members participating.

I have also been able to host an online book club. At Montera, clubs take place during lunchtime, so I’ve never been able to have one because the library is so busy at lunchtime. I’m really excited to get this opportunity and have 12 members participating. .

MAGGIE LANZILLO ROGERS, LIBRARY TECHNICIAN AT MONTERA MIDDLE SCHOOL

I may not be ready to return to the library, which is a very public space at Montera. It is used for meetings and has a copier and printer in it that all staff can use. Without proper safety protocols, it could end up being a problematic space. I would return if I feel confident in our COVID safety practices. Social distancing in a middle school will be quite a challenge. And the library as a social space will be changed dramatically. My concerns will be about safety and the management of a public space

It is absolutely exhausting to sit in front of a computer all day long. A different type of exhaustion than being on your feet in a library all day long. I much prefer being on my feet! By the end of the day in my home office, I feel lethargic and my brain is fuzzy. I can only imagine that our students and parents are suffering from the same feelings. 

Toussaint Haki Stewart, P.E. Teacher at Dewey Academy Alternative High School, 18 years teaching

An image of an African American man pouring water and working with plants.
Toussaint Stewart

Our population is unique in that we teach students in a continuation high school, so many of our students are sent to us from all over OUSD. The response to my class has been positive, powerful, and mixed.  

Many of them come with a lot of baggage to my class based on their prior experiences with P.E. and working out. Like not wanting to participate, having body image issues, and just not really connecting with athletics, as well as many of the guys thinking they know everything about working out and that they don’t need anyone to teach them.  

However, when they find out that I teach from the perspective of my profession as a personal trainer and how to use exercise as preventative medicine and a self-care practice, they realize that this will be an experience like no other. Many of them feel very challenged, yet many of them dive in and completely embrace the curriculum, especially the plant-based nutrition food as a medicine unit.  

It’s a challenge because an infant needs so much but we manage to incorporate our daughter Nia and all the students just adore her. I have held her and also allowed her to play with her toys while I’m teaching sometimes. 

Toussaint Haki Stewart, PE Teacher with a Plant Based Focus, at Dewey Academy Alternative High SchooL

My wife and I currently have a 9-month old daughter we take care of during the day. She is still nursing and eating solid foods as well. We both care for her during Zooms; however my wife does most of the heavy lifting due to her still nursing. It’s a challenge because an infant needs so much but we manage to incorporate our daughter Nia and all the students just adore her. I have held her and also allowed her to play with her toys while I’m teaching sometimes. It’ a balancing act that we struggle with but its sooo worth it.  

Since COVID-19, I have decided to go the route of using smart phone apps and web-based apps to engage my students in P.E. and plant-based nutrition along with Google classroom, Zoom, and Google Meet. Using smart phone apps are a great way to hack into their best friend, the smart phone.

I use the 7M App (which is a 7 minute workout) and Zoom for group exercise. My students download 7M on their smartphones at the beginning of the semester and we use it as a foundation to stay active. They turn in Google Doc self-assessment reflections of their workouts, recording their resting and active heart rate and assessing their form, technique, improvements, and progress. 

We practice meditation in my class. This has been a game changer. I had my students download iBreathe, a smartphone meditation app,  and I have them lead meditation on Zoom as a Do Now activity or a closing activity. This mental health aspect of our P.E. class has really supported them in this time of COVID to practice managing their anxiety and fears of what’s going on in society.  

The greatest challenge of distance learning of course is Zoom attendance and motivation. Our student population truly thrives off in-person classroom instruction because it takes them out of their immediate unstable environments. Nothing really replaces the energy and spark students get from a teacher who pours into them emotionally, mentally, and intellectually in-person.  

The greatest challenge of distance learning of course is Zoom attendance and motivation. Our student population truly thrives off in-person classroom instruction because it takes them out of their immediate unstable environments. Nothing really replaces the energy and spark students get from a teacher who pours into them emotionally, mentally, and intellectually in-person.  

TOUSSAINT HAKI STEWART, PE TEACHER WITH A PLANT BASED FOCUS, AT DEWEY ACADEMY ALTERNATIVE HIGH SCHOOL

We have also had some student homicides and tragic accidents this semester which really sent shock waves through our school community.

Many of the tools I am using like the smartphone Apps and Flipgrid can and will be used to engage students when we come back to class as well to create an even more 21st century student-centered approach to teaching. 

I feel like I am more than prepared to go back into the classroom. I have learned so much about how to use technology to make my PE experience like no other. I really have no concerns right now. Masks and using social distancing guidelines in the gym and or outdoors is already a habit in my own group exercise business.  

I record my Zoom meetings and send them out to students who don’t attend with a Google doc questionnaire on what we covered. I also set up one on one Google Meet session with students who need extra support to get caught up. I call and text to reach out to those who really need that push.

Some students don’t have as much tech savvy during online learning as they do on social media. Many of them are very shy about being on video during Zoom and some seem very detached from online learning.

Advice to the district is to make sure all students have PPE and have an option to return to in person classes or continue learning online.  

Donna Salonga, 9th-12th grade Ceramics Teacher at Skyline High School,4 years teaching

An Asian American woman sits at a desk teaching from a computer.
Donna Salonga.

The attendance in my classes has been good; as many as 32 students per class. I can count 95% attendance, based on the way we take attendance, which includes any form of contact, mainly Zoom meetings or an asynchronous check-in, via a survey, and sometimes by email. 

I feel that students understand what I’m demonstrating. I’ve busted my ass covering every single possible way I could support a student. I’m definitely exhausted. I’ve recorded multiple videos. I knew that I was going to do demos but wasn’t prepared to do them in my own home.

The toughest part is that there’s no feedback loop on how students are progressing; a photo is not a sufficient feedback loop. I show them how to make coil pots on time lapse. Sometimes they don’t understand it. I can’t catch these errors in real time.

Donna Salonga, 9th-12th grade Ceramics teacher at Skyline High

I have definitely had parents contact me and have thanked me for the projects and willingness for provide materials. I have been teaching them how to make their own clay as backup. The toughest part is that there’s no feedback loop on how students are progressing; a photo is not a sufficient feedback loop. I show them how to make coil pots on time lapse. Sometimes they don’t understand it. I can’t catch these errors in real time. The lack of being able to see and help them is a challenge. I keep my expectations realistic, and I get pretty surprised. They are engaged, they do send photos.  I try to be understanding if kids live with different parents on different days; sometimes I hear parents interacting with kids.

There is the benefit of not being exposed. I am trying to think of positives: attendance is not bad. I miss teaching but it’s not the same; the main benefit is not getting COVID.

It’s been really rough hearing what people have said about teachers. Our lives have revolved around our careers. It’s emotionally and mentally demanding; we are often drained. Teachers can be hard on themselves, asking how can I make this better? Administration sometimes makes new demands, and we’re all learning a new system, so please be nice to teachers.

Steven Reaves, Drama/Dance Teacher at Castlemont High School, 20 years teaching

An African American man with a grey beard takes a selfie.
Steven Reaves.

Students have been responding pretty well. There have been some challenges with the technical stuff and internet connections. Usually, there are about to six to eight students per class, roughly 50% to 60% of the enrolled students attend class. I find that calling home gets some kids to show up, maybe in part because they don’t want a phone call from you.  Parents follow through and get students to show up. 

In Drama, the big idea is getting the students ready for the auditions; they have to dance or act. I’m still figuring out how to transition to Zoom; it’s like being in a dark room and feeling the walls as you go along. For example, for dance, they would have to be able to dance together on Zoom, how to sing on Zoom.

How I teach has changed based on a survey that I created for students with feedback, and it has changed how I organize the class. My kids said they didn’t have enough time to prep for auditions. I now give all resources for the term at the beginning, instead of handing out resources week by week.

I have found that I need to be clearer, more explicit about the skills that I will be teaching this week. And when we return, I will retain this, and have the same expectations. I definitely would continue to use Google Classroom, where they can find the tasks and activities that are required.

I’m ambivalent about returning to the classroom unless everything’s in place, but having the opportunity to put on a show is something I would want to do. 

-Steven Reaves, Drama teacher at Castlemont High

The main benefit of teaching online, aside from being able to roll out of bed right before the class, is the asynchronous learning part. Students have to learn to do things on their own. There is a lot more independent work which is beneficial. And I get a chance to check in with them individually, since they don’t all come on time and at the same time. 

Another benefit is that it improves rigor, when I ‘m on Zoom, I really can craft layers of lessons. I think I didn’t have that when I was in the classroom. They have to read the script, get ready for the auditions, learn the dance choreography.

I’m ambivalent about returning to the classroom unless everything’s in place, but having the opportunity to put on a show is something I would want to do. I think there needs to be contact tracing, they would have to make sure the classes are arranged so the classes are small so there can be six feet of space between kids, sanitizers everywhere, mask supply (the vaccine is beyond district hands), daily temperature checks, 

To the district, I would suggest that they work with public health organizations; collaborate and include more stakeholders. I think having clear expectations of what is required of students, such mask-wearing, is critical. 

About Debora Gordon

Debora Gordon is a writer, artist, educator and non-violence activist. She has been living in Oakland since 1991, moving here to become a teacher in the Oakland Unified School District. In all of these roles, Debora is interested in developing a life of the mind. “As a mere human living in these simultaneously thrilling and troubled times,” Debora says, “I try to tread lightly, live thoughtfully, teach peace, and not take myself too seriously.” View all posts by Debora Gordon →

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