While schools are out, Harrisonburg teachers find ways to reach their students

HHS art teacher Sarah Waldrop (center) discusses the coming weeks’ homework with a high school student at the materials and food pickup at the high school on Mar. 17.

By Randi B. Hagi, assistant editor

Classrooms across Harrisonburg are eerily empty at a time that they normally would be electric with the excitement of spring and the beginning of the home stretch of another year of learning. And COVID-19’s disruption to student-and-teacher connections is only starting to become clear. 

“I think the shock is setting in – I’m not going to see my students,” said Sarah Gorman, a literacy and humanities teacher at the Great Oaks Academy, which is housed at Thomas Harrison Middle School. 

Gov. Ralph Northam announced Monday that public and private schools in Virginia will close for the remainder of the academic year. Now, Harrisonburg teachers and administrators are transitioning from managing a two-week closure to reimagining education for more than 6,000 students enrolled in city schools.

Many elements are now up in the air: how seniors will meet graduation requirements, if teachers will be able to disseminate new material to all their students, and how those students will prepare to move up a grade level this fall.

But Harrisonburg teachers are trying their best to make sure learning can still occur — whether that’s online or hand-delivering lessons.  

A backbone of personal care

In addition to handing out instructional packets and food to families who drove to pick up materials at the schools, some teachers have personally reached out to their students. 

High school art teacher Sarah Waldrop has 44 students in course Art 1. After handing out materials during pick-up times last week, she still had 12 sketchbooks left behind – so she drove to the students’ houses, and left each one with a letter stuffed inside.

“I care enough about you making art to personally drive your sketchbook to you! Please take advantage of all this free time to keep working on your drawing and creative thinking skills,” it read. 

One of Waldrop’s examples for her students included a drawing of her husband, Kyle.

For the first two weeks of the school closure, when it was still possible that they might reopen, Waldrop uploaded content twice a week to a Google platform. Because not all students have internet access, she hasn’t been able to move her curriculum forward. So the assignments have been optional — just meant to keep the students practicing and engaged. That included a prompt to draw something living in their house, with attached examples of Waldrop’s husband, Kyle, and their cat, Alice.

As of Tuesday, Waldrop said 14 out of 44 students had sent in drawings.

“The kids who like to do the art will do the art,” she said. Jennifer Whetzel, a 3rd grade teacher and team leader at Spotswood Elementary, also sent out personalized letters to each student.

“I let them know that they are loved and cared for, what I plan to do in my time away, and suggested a few activities for each of them,” Whetzel wrote in an email to The Citizen.

Equity in access to education

Gorman, at Great Oaks Academy, said it’s hard to tell which students don’t have internet access and which ones are just choosing to not log on. That makes it all the more important that they’re invested in the schoolwork. She’s also been using Google Classroom to communicate with them.

“Kids need to have purpose in their learning, they need to feel passionate about something, and they need to know the ‘why,’” Gorman said. “That’s going to be my number one question. I don’t want to just be tossing worksheets to the wind.”

The learning packets she passed out for the initial two-week closure included math problems, a science magazine and a “gratitude journal with ideas for random acts of kindness.”

Some of her students, Gorman knows, don’t have internet access at home. And others receive special education services in the schools, which creates an added challenge in trying to teach them remotely. 

As Gorman put it, “how am I delivering content virtually, but also in an equitable way?”

They’re getting close, she thinks. All of her 7th and 8th graders now have Chromebooks. The district already planned to distribute that technology this spring, so it became particularly timely when schools closed. 

And Gorman said many online educational tools and databases are opening their libraries for free during this time. In fact, so many are now available, it can be overwhelming to sort through all of the options and decide what to send the students, she said.

“What I’m telling myself is I need to keep it simple, not only for me but for my students. Because I’m not going to be there physically to answer questions,” Gorman said.

Added challenges for younger students

Teachers at Spotswood Elementary School have been using a variety of online platforms and services to reach kids, including Google Classroom and Hangouts, Seesaw, Class Dojo, and Clever. But elementary students may have a harder time using these resources than their older counterparts.

“This can be challenging for elementary students who perhaps haven’t had a lot of practice using online platforms,” said Rachel Henschel, a 5th-grade teacher at Spotswood, in an email to The Citizen. “Additionally, unlike the middle and high school, elementary students are not guaranteed to have a device with them, thus they do not have access to online learning.”

Fourth grade teacher Sammantha Hall, also at Spotswood, has sent math talks, suggested readings, and an online student newspaper to her kids.

“Of course I would much rather be teaching my students, but I hope that the resources that students have access to at home will give them exposure to some of the material that they will be missing, as well as review previously taught material,” Hall wrote.

Missed opportunities

Many aspects of the school experience just don’t quite translate to an online format. 

Whetzel was supposed to take her 3rd graders to the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton this week.

Waldrop was gearing up for a ceramics lesson in which the students “make ugly mugs with ugly faces on them” (an approach that takes the pressure off students to make pretty faces). But that kind of experiential learning, of course, can’t translate into an online format. 

Hall was getting ready to teach about the Civil War. 

So was Gorman. She and a fellow teacher had planned to have their students make documentaries by interviewing community members, integrating lessons from the Civil War and the Civil Rights movement. They were also going to visit the Blackfriars Playhouse in Staunton to see A Midsummer Night’s Dream during their unit on Shakespeare.

Whetzel said despite the disappointments and constantly changing plans, a commitment to students continues to drive her and her colleagues.

“In all of the uncertainty, what remains certain, is the care we have for our students,” Whetzel said. “We are a family at Spotswood, and I imagine a lot of schools feel that way right now. We have pulled together in a short amount of time to do what we can in this unprecedented situation. The love for our students and families is as strong as ever, and we are taking this day by day.”

Editor’s note, March 27, 2020: the article was updated to include the title of the “Art 1” course.

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