Wisconsin students listen to a NASA read-aloud.

June 1, 2020

Doing school online: Plenty of tech tools and a learning curve

It’s early morning as the alarm clock goes off, much later than it usually would on a school day. Patrice Jenkins, Hinsdale Adventist Academy 3rd and 4th grade teacher, gets up and goes through her new morning routine of reviewing her lesson plans and preparing for her Zoom class at 10 a.m. with her students. This is the new normal for the Chicago-area teacher, as well as other educators across the Lake Union, after the abrupt closure of schools as the nation confronts the Covid-19 pandemic.

Across the Lake Union footprint, there are 70 schools with an enrollment of 2,851 students who are taught by 275 teachers. Under normal circumstances, schools would need several weeks to provide training, preparation and structure to make distance-learning a smooth transition. But amidst the logistical, pedagogical and emotional layers of shifting to distance learning, teachers, students and administrators are learning lessons in resiliency and creativity.

Adjustment period

Lake Union Conference Associate Education Director, Ruth Horton, says that teachers have quickly adjusted to various e-leaning platforms, including Google classroom, Google Meet, Zoom and Office 365 Teams software. They have also adapted to teaching/learning plans, content coverage and learning experiences for students, says. “While not necessarily an easy fluid journey,” Horton says, “teachers are committed to providing students a rich and meaningful learning opportunity.”

Patrice Jenkins, Hinsdale Adventist Academy 3rd and 4th grade teacher, had never used Google Classroom before. In the process of transitioning, she taught herself how to use the program while additionally using Google Slides and Zoom. “I do a lot of hands-on project learning, so I knew it’d be a challenge for both my students and I to go digital,” says Jenkins. “But I knew it could be done after making sure each of my students had access to online learning.”

To prepare her students’ parents for the transition, she invited her classroom parents in for a meeting prior to the quarantine orders to learn how to manage Google Classroom along with her so that they would know how to help their children with distance learning.

Imagine having to roll out an online plan, the first day of starting a new job. That was the case for Lake Region’s principal and science teacher, Fabiola Andre, of Chicago Seventh-day Adventist Christian School.  Andre’s first day as the new principal and science teacher was planned for March 23, but quarantine orders closed schools across the state and Andre wasn’t able to meet with faculty, parents, or students in person. Despite the setback, she wrote letters to parents and called each of them to introduce herself and share her ideas, goals, and vision while seeking parental input on what they wanted to see happen during distance learning. She even offered a special program for science and math, and each student who participated received a personalized spring break certificate. “She’s been doing a phenomenal job during this transition even though she hasn’t even been at the school,” says Helen Bryant, Lake Region Education Superintendent of Education.

Early adopters

While many schools have been thrust into a sharp learning curve, Indiana Conference teachers have long had to adapt to e-learning, in the event of unforeseen school closures.

Indiana is a voucher state, which means public funds are available for students to use toward private school education, and one of the mandates is that schools prepare for five e-learning days every year. Tom Coffee, Indiana Conference Superintendent of Education, said, “While not fully prepared for this situation, our teachers in Indiana have been somewhat prepared for online learning.”

Michigan Conference had also begun preparing their schools by making sure they had contingency plans. “We are blessed in the Michigan Conference to have a tremendously dedicated educational team,” says Jeremy Hall, Michigan Conference school superintendent, in a release. “Prior to the gathering restrictions that were put in place, the Education Department asked our schools to have a contingency plan in place should the need arise for us to no longer deliver face-to-face instruction. So, when the mandate came down that schools were closing, we were able to activate this plan with a little more preparation time.”

Interactive lessons

Even though distance keeps faculty, teachers, and students apart, teachers are finding inventive and fun ways to stay connected with their students and send their community some love at the same time.

Earlier in the year, Ivelisse Lozano, Milwaukee Seventh-day Adventist School North Campus 1st and 2nd grade teacher in Wisconsin, and her students had previously visited an assisted living facility. After the social distance orders, the students have been creating encouraging messages for those at the living facility and taping their notes and pictures to the outside of the facility’s windows so the residents can see and enjoy them.

Meanwhile in Michigan, Kalicia Clements, Charlotte Adventist Christian School principal and teacher, found a fun way to get some fresh air and exercise while making special appearances at her students’ homes. While hosting her Zoom class, she and her husband rode their bikes down the road. While passing one of her student’s homes, her student was excitedly waving from their porch. After hearing about the ride-by, her other students began to plead with her to ride by their house as well.

Missing the personal connection to her students, Hinsdale teacher, Mrs. Jenkins came up with a fun way to stay connected with her students by sending them an “I Miss You” letter in the mail. “I really enjoy the Zoom calls, but I wanted to send my students a personal postcard,” says Jenkins.  She created a postcard, wrote a letter to each of her students, and dropped them in the mail.

Fourth-grader, Max Murrill says he was elated to receive one of those letters. “I’ve never gotten a letter before,” he says, and so promptly wrote a letter back.

Another fun classroom experience for Max was a scavenger hunt. His mother, Melissa laughingly recalled watching her son run around looking for items, such as a fork, during his virtual class scavenger hunt.

Carmen Magray, K-2 teacher at Green Bay Junior Adventist Academy in Wisconsin, sent her students on a bear hunt. After listening to the book “We’re Going on a Bear Hunt,” during their Zoom class, they talked about where they would like to look for bears if they could go on their own bear hunt. So, they wrote stories and shared them together during their virtual class. The K-2 students also had a fun time decorating a window of their house with a bear display showing where they found their bear on their bear hunt.

“Although our students and teachers find themselves at greater physical distance, teachers are taking advantage of this opportunity to continue connecting and ministering to student needs,” writes Laurie Snyman in an update from Michigan Conference. “This national crisis has positioned the Adventist teacher to be the face of consistency to our students, sharing God’s love each and every day.”


Security concerns

While Zoom has been in the news for security risks in their online platform, the North American Division preemptively sent out a guide on how to take extra precautions to make their experiences with the platform more secure.

“I know there are things I’m going to look into, but there’s nothing out there that I’ve been overly concerned with yet,” says Sue Nelson, Wisconsin Conference Superintendent of Education. “I keep an eye on what other conference are using and take my lead from the NAD to keep up-to-date on what platforms could offer better security and functionality.”

Internet access challenges

While many areas have good access to Internet and online programs, some areas are not as accessible. In the Wisconsin Conference area, the countryside has less access to reliable Internet as compared to suburban areas around the cities.

“With distance education, we are facing challenges with student’s who have language barriers, no computers, or in bad areas of online access,” says Nelson. “Our teachers have risen to the occasion to what’s going on and are keeping things on track while adjusting to their students’ situations. Anything our teachers have needed, we are trying to support them.”

Emptiness in the boarding academies

When the call for temporary closures came, Steve Baughman, Indiana Academy Principal, never thought that the closures would extend throughout the rest of the school year but planned for the long haul.

“Things are going well for a bad situation and although we’re no longer together, we are trying to provide the same community and support for our students,” says Baughman. “I think my staff did extremely well adjusting to the transition. We’re keeping a good assessment of what’s important and what can wait.” Each teacher is responsible for reaching out weekly to a group of students to see how they are doing, not just with classes but also personally.

Baughman and his faculty are feeling the emptiness of the boarding school. But in the meantime, they are trying to keep a semblance of normalcy for their students by doing personal check-ins, posting interactive worship thoughts, and making sure to recognize their graduating seniors.

“The outpouring of support for our seniors is great,” says Baughman. “We’ve ordered a bunch of “We Love Our Seniors” yard signs and are planning to deliver them to houses.”

Parent Partnership

Melissa Murrill, Hinsdale Adventist Academy volunteer librarian and parent to two boys said she was a bit nervous about the uncertainty of how she would help her children with their schooling. “There was definitely a transition at first,” she says. “I was overwhelmed by trying to provide for all of my kids’ needs.” Murrill’s husband works in healthcare and while his routine stayed fairly normal, with the exception of being busier, hers and the children changed drastically. “It was harder at the beginning adjusting to my kids’ education because it was new, and I was a little intimidated with everything.” But she has discovered that she has enjoyed the time with her children and “the growth of being together.”

Rachel Nephew, Holland Adventist Academy School Secretary and parent, was also flummoxed when she began home schooling her three children but is happy to report that things are going better than expected.  “Our teachers are really doing a great job with online school,” she says. “When this all started, our school principal sent out a couple of very well-done tutorial videos for parents on how to access Google classroom (the platform the kids are using for their class work) and how to find your way around.”

Finding Community

While students are missing their classes, teachers also are missing the community they have with each other. Teachers and faculty have been having weekly check-ins with each other and meetings with conference presidents or pastors chiming in to give updates and encouragement.

“I enjoy meeting with all the teachers every Monday through Zoom. Our teachers face both successes and challenges. Many teachers have expressed how much they enjoy seeing each other during our Monday Zoom to exchange ideas,” says Wisconsin Superintendent, Nelson.

In their time of online learning, teachers are finding community with each other by sharing various ways of providing the best educational experiences as possible in this time of transition.

Usually, the Cross Street Christian School would show their teacher’s appreciation during a teacher appreciation week. But since the quarantine, they’ve adapted their week into a five-week span of showering them with weekly gifts of appreciation.

“They usually go all out for the teachers during teacher appreciation week,” says Lisa Rhodes, Cross Street Christian School 3-5 grade teacher and principal. “Once a week they’ve been sending gifts like a gift basket with self-care and sweet goodies and they just sent us fresh homemade bread and pie made by our community church members.”

Rhodes adds that the Cross Street Christian School Board has been a huge support for distance learning by providing funding for more books, art supplies, and STEM materials for students and she hopes to be delivering these soon.

Unexpected blessing

During the lock down, Lake Region celebrated a virtual Education Day where all the schools came together for worship online. As a result of the appeal that was given, an individual pledged $1,000 to buy iPads for the students at Peterson-Warren Academy to help with distance education.

Katie Fellows is a Michigan-based freelance writer.