News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Adaptability, patience, for new teaching model

Teachers and students across Oregon are adjusting to a new way of doing school as the “Distance Learning for All” is being rolled out.

Here in Sisters, creativity, flexibility, and learning new approaches to teaching through technology are abundant.

Distance teaching looks a bit different depending on the grade level and subject matter, but a common theme runs throughout: adaptability, patience, and humor are required.

Sisters High School art teacher Bethany Gunnarson explained that firing up “distance” art required a ton of preparation up front, but seems to be working out so far.

“Last week, after calling students individually as a part of the district-wide effort to contact each family on the phone, I was working to get a survey out to all my classes to get a pulse of what was possible from home,” she said. “I found that most students were willing and able to continue their curriculum/projects at home if I could get materials to them, so that was the next thing I did.

“All day Friday (April 10) I was running from the art room to the curb to hand-off materials for students for the remainder of the term. I literally was hustling from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. and felt dead tired by the end,” she said.

She elected to forgo live classes in place of videos of herself outlining expectations for each week.

“My philosophy as of Day 4 is that their art classes should be the ones that they use as stress-relief around their other classes, choosing the time of the day that works best for them, not in the 30 minute window that our classes are pared down to,” she said.

At the other end of the educational spectrum, first-grade teacher Annie Reid admits it has been a bumpy ride to start off, but a sense of humor and teamwork helps.

“I have been forced to learn about how to effectively use technology in different ways to reach my students and their families,” she said. “For example, it’s a real challenge videotaping a lesson from my home with a shared screen in Google Meets with a document camera plugged in — and actually having the sound work — while my kid and dog vie for my attention.”

Reid deeply appreciates the “can-do” attitude of her colleagues. “Working as a grade-level team we all bring different experiences, passions, and knowledge to the table,” she said. “We are communicating with each other multiple times every day to problem solve, teach, and learn from each other, and plan together so that our students are all receiving similar lessons, just as they would in our regular classrooms.”

Middle and high school choir director Rick Johnson is doing all he can to keep his students engaged, but trying to direct a choir via video conference has its limitations.

“The choirs are meeting ‘live’ online up to three times a week,” he said. “The students get to see their teammates and still make music, even though it is from a distance. Unfortunately, Zoom and Google Hangout technology is not advanced enough to let us all hear each other in a rehearsal. The sound lags and breaks up, depending on the quality of each student’s Internet connection.”

However, he and his students appreciate being able to work together.

Johnson also teaches the Americana Project classes at the high school, which he says works quite fluidly.

“I meet with the students live, guitars in hand, through online conferencing three times a week,” he said. “Every two weeks, the students will perform song tests demonstrating the skills they have learned in class in front of the rest of the class in the online conference. After they perform, the rest of the class has the ability to offer constructive comments and share in their success.”

Gail Greaney teaches U.S. History, AP Government, and a literature class at the high school and said, “A lot of things are really going well. Students have been great about really trying to engage and adjusting to this new reality. They have problem-solved ways to work around technology issues and have been pretty tenacious in making sure they connect with me and with the class,” she said.

Speaking of her colleagues she said, “The staff has been incredibly supportive and helpful and everyone has really been kind and forgiving and understanding when things don’t work out perfectly or take longer or have to be adjusted. I’ve gotten a lot of help from our technology department, especially Wes Estvold, on trying to help me get set up and deliver my content.”

She does think it is important for everyone to understand the complexity of what teachers are facing to make distance learning work.

“Even though I had lessons already planned for my classes, digitalizing everything is a herculean task that takes gobs of time,” she said. “It’s a challenge to do everything — live class time, office hours, preparation, answering emails, helping students with make-up work — in the span of a day.”

She continued, “Technology has been a challenge both for me and for some of my students. More importantly, I find it challenging not to be around my colleagues and students. I chose teaching because I love kids and like being around them. To be at home looking at a Zoom screen all day is not optimal. It’s difficult to ‘read the room’ and to have those interactions with students and staff that are so rewarding. I’d say the biggest challenge is adjusting to that relational/interactive piece. That’s the part I miss the most.”


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