While this year’s spring break wasn’t quite what many students had hoped for, teachers and administrators certainly did not envision spending their break planning to teach remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As Grain Valley students returned to school as homeschoolers the week of March 23rd, the mostly seamless transition was made possible due to the behind the scenes work from teachers and administrators.
Dr. Beth Mulvey, Assistant Superintendent for Academic Services, spearheaded the transition to a flexible learning plan and said the success of the transition was due to the team effort at all levels.
“There are really too many people to name when I think about how our flexible learning plan has come together. The elementary instructional coaches (Emily Twiehaus, Jane Wallace, Sonya Manz, and Kendra Carpenter) and instructional technology coaches (Audrey Harrison and Emily Hannah) have been absolutely essential in creating, implementing, and supporting our flexible learning plan. This group, along with all lead building administrators came to work at the district office for two full days and worked nonstop to put together the initial plan. I jokingly referred to our curriculum work room as the “Situation Room” for those two days. And we haven’t stopped. We just transitioned to online virtual meetings to continue planning. It truly was an unbelievable team effort,” Mulvey said.
“Having our middle and high schools equipped with 1:1 Chromebooks was a great head start for our secondary students, teachers, and administrators. Nearly 100 percent of teachers in these schools actively use a digital learning management program such as Google Classroom or Canvas as a hub for classroom communication, resources, and learning activities. This made their preparation more manageable. For elementary and secondary students, we also wanted to be sure we provided equal amounts of offline and online learning activities and resources. We continue to monitor and track families who may need help with reliable internet access or a device for elementary kids to use in the home.”
Emily Twiehaus, Instructional Coach at Prairie Branch Elementary, and her fellow coaches are now transitioning from the “situation room” to supporting teachers.
“Right now we are working to support classroom teachers with planning and fine tuning our process all while reassuring everyone that we are all doing the best we can under these unique circumstances,” Twiehaus said.
“We are so fortunate to have truly amazing teachers who are working so hard to connect with their students and support them with learning while at home.”
District teachers went through much the same process during spring break, working with their peers to develop lesson plans and seeking out resources for students.
Matthews Elementary Kindergarten teacher Amber Magee emphasized the process has been a learning experience for everyone.
“It takes a dedicated team to raise a child and I think we are proving that now more than ever.
As a kindergarten teacher, my main concern for children during this stage in their development is the screen time proponent. As an adult, my screen time is through the roof! I just hope that we are providing a variety of technology activities and tech-free options to encourage balance,” Magee said.
“Most kindergartens in Grain Valley have implemented purposeful play in their daily schedules this year. This is a 45-minute workshop model that provides direct instruction on social skills and time to problem solve social situations naturally through play. This movement in Grain Valley is truly wonderful and shows the commitment of the district for educating the whole child. While children won't have that ‘social’ aspect with other children around them at home, it is critical for all elementary school children to have that play time throughout the day. By encouraging solo free play time, children can still develop important skills like creativity and empathy during these few weeks at home.”
GVHS Spanish teacher Julie Lever and her department worked via group text to share ideas and resources.
“We all agreed that we should finish the novels our students were reading before quarantine and then give them some supplemental assignments to practice grammar and just work on fun topics to keep from starting over when we return to school. Our technology department and learning coaches have done a tremendous job of putting resources together for teachers. There is something for everyone, even those with little technology experience,” Lever said.
GVHS Math teacher Cody Beyers and his fellow department members worked diligently over spring break to put technology resources to use and ensure the students were comfortable using them. “The math department sent about 300 messages to each other trying to make sure we were all on the same page with what lessons should look like for week one of virtual learning. Once all of us had some sort of understanding of what the lessons should look like for our students, we got to work creating multiple lessons. Our main goal for week one was to introduce students to various online platforms and websites that we are going to use during our time of virtual learning. We wanted to make sure students were comfortable with using all of the amazing tools that are offered online. The teachers used Google Docs so we could all collaborate on different lessons, share resources, and easily communicate. Google tools such as docs, sheets, and slides have been extremely valuable to us during this time,” Beyers said.
Some classes, such as physical education and art, seem less adaptable to online learning, but teachers have figured out ways to keep learning going in these areas. GVHS Art teacher Lauren Snodgrass put her creativity to work in the kitchen to find materials all students could access.
“I wanted to be sure I could offer lessons that would encourage students to experiment and create art with whatever they had around the house. I spent quite a bit of time trying to find an alternative for paint and printmaking, mixing Jello powder and ketchup and other household condiments. The results were acceptable; the smell a little less so. I began recording videos and taking photographs of my process to help show students what we were trying to accomplish with each project,” Snodgrass said.
“Overall, I think the first week was very successful. I was so proud to be part of the math department and part of the team at GVHS. The amount of support that the teachers in our building offer each other is really incredible. Obviously, there were some hiccups, because everybody's learning how to navigate things in these strange times. I was really proud of our students during this time. They produced really high-quality work and have remained extremely positive and encouraging during this time,” Beyers said.
At the middle school level, teachers like North Middle School social studies teacher Nathan Perry, are pleased with how the first week has gone, but understand the change can be difficult for students.
“Many students have been waking up early to start their work, and communications between teachers and students have been amazing. Many, many students have emailed me saying how much they miss school and their friends, even adding in that they thought they would never say that. I think this has been the greatest challenge, too. Not seeing their peers, not being able to simply raise their hand to ask a question, or not being in their normal routine has been pretty difficult for many of my students,” Perry said.
Learning to handle difficult situations like these is a valuable lesson in itself, and Magee said teachers and counselors are ready to help parents.
“I just made a video for my class where I told them I was feeling sad because I am missing my students and coworkers and I want to go to school. Communicating feelings through words is a huge skill to model and kids need to know that it is okay to feel big feelings. They also might need more help in knowing what to do with big feelings. Our counselors have great resources on this, so I highly recommend reaching out to your school's counselor to learn more about how you can help with emotional regulation during this time,” Magee said.
While the transition can be stressful, there are many benefits for teachers and students. Many students have reported to teachers that they are enjoying the extra time they have to spend with family and to devote to outside interests. The transition also offers students and teachers the opportunity to expand their online learning skills.
“Many of our students will be required to take some sort of online class once they graduate high school. This could be an online college class or training program for a job. Until this point, a majority of our students did not have any online learning experience,” Snodgrass said.
Parents who have been taking on the role as teacher might think teachers are relishing this time away from the traditional classroom. But just one week into teaching from home, it is clear that the teachers miss the daily interaction with their students.
“I miss their smiles and their stories. I even miss the brutal honesty that kindergarteners have like when they tell me I should really brush my hair ‘a little better’ or if my shoes don't match my outfit. I love hearing children play and the stories they create through it. On the last day before spring break, my day was filled with busily preparing materials should a shut-down occur and I didn't get to interact during play time with them as I usually do. When we return, I know for a fact that I won't ever be too busy to accept a make-believe cake from a student anytime soon,” Magee said.
“I miss the relationships and meaningful interactions. Sure, I can see my students through Google Meets or in video responses, but it’s truly not the same. Being able to talk with groups of my students throughout the day every day is what makes teaching so fun. I love students telling or showing me about the dance showcase, their picture they finished drawing by hand, or that their sibling is coming home from college. This is genuine conversation and relationship building, and it is much more difficult to do in this situation--but not impossible,” Perry said.
“I miss my students so much. Teaching is my passion and it's difficult to sit behind a screen instead of interacting in the classroom because that's part of what is so rewarding in my job. I worry about my students and I'm heartbroken for my seniors that might not get to experience a lot of the activities and events that make senior year so special,” Lever said.
“I really miss the collaborative aspects of our classroom. It was very typical to see students help one another, ask questions, give suggestions, and ultimately grow and learn together. But mostly I just miss checking in with my kids -- their ridiculous banter, stories, thoughts on current events, updates on sports, activities, and life,” Snodgrass said.
“I hope that this time away from my students truly makes them appreciate the relationships they have with me, and all of their other teachers. I know I've reflected alot the past 2 weeks and this is the biggest takeaway for me: I never realize how much of an impact students have on me until I don't get to see them for a few weeks. I appreciate my time with them, and I hope they feel the same way about me,” Beyers said.
Many parents have been quick to extol the work teachers do now that they are serving as primary facilitators in the learning process. Memes and humorous stories of parents feeling pressure to create an idealized homeschool experience abound. The advice from teachers is to relax, rely of the professionals when needed, and try to have some fun along the way.
“Some might believe that teachers are in the business of creating great students. While we do focus on educational skills through their schooling, our main focus is creating great humans who positively affect our world. Learning during this time does not always have to be math and reading. Maybe it is something big like encouraging an active lifestyle or teaching recycling. Or maybe it is teaching things like responding to people when they say "Good morning", or waiting to eat until everyone has food in front of them. Don't feel defeated if this was the only thing you could teach one day. Feel proud!,” Magee said.
“This is new to all of us! Give yourself, your child, and everyone else a little bit of grace. I do not think anyone could have predicted what it would have looked like, so we are all trying to go about this as best as we possibly can while putting the needs of our students first. Check in with your children. Have conversations with them and ask what they need help with. It could be scheduling their work, they could be anxious about the unknown, or that they cannot see their friends as they used to,” Perry said.
“Give yourselves (and your kids) buckets full of grace! Don’t stress over every detail of the activities and resources we are providing. When in doubt, keep it simple and remember to try and have some fun,” Mulvey said.
Students continue their studies from home, thanks to the behind the scenes efforts by Grain Valley Schools teachers and administrators. Grain Valley High School art students continue their work, including Vanessa Gonzalez, a Photography II student working on dramatic portraits (photo above left), and Kenzie Lair, an Art and Design Foundations student exploring paper weaving (work above right).
Images courtesy Lauren Snodgrass, GVHS
GVHS art students Noah Krueger (top left), Jaquelyne Escobedo (top right), and Kaitlyn Lemery (above) are working on creating patterns using printmaking techniques.
Photos courtesy Lauren Snodgrass