News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Teaching under the distance learning model

As front-line workers facing the challenges of working through the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers have been forced to pivot quickly and adapt on the fly, to meet the needs of their students in the months that have forced most schools in Oregon to operate under Comprehensive Distance Learning (CDL).

The Nugget checked in with some of the teachers at Sisters Middle School (SMS) and Sisters High School (SHS) who have been conducting their instruction under CDL since March.

Fifth-grade teacher Tiffany Tisdel acknowledged the adaptations required of teachers and students to succeed at CDL.

“The learning curve has been steep for both students and teachers, and I think we are finding our rhythm with this distance-learning model,” she said. “The technology skills, resilience, and patience to problem-solve the challenges that come up every day are impressive. As teachers we are helping each other navigate this learning model and fine-tune systems that make access easier on both ends.”

All of the teachers interviewed expressed the view that, while CDL is clearly not ideal, most students have adapted effectively and some advantages have emerged.

A number of teachers reported that students’ ability to access one-on-one help has actually increased under CDL and that the ability to rewatch video lessons for review has been instrumental to learning.

Deb Riehle of SMS said, “I think the availability of lessons 24/7 and the ability to re-watch videos is a real plus for students in CDL. Overall, the teachers are more available to help small groups and students really benefit when they access those opportunities.”

Michele Hammer, who teaches social studies at SMS agrees. “One of the advantages with CDL is that students actually have more one-to-one access to teachers than when we are in person,” she said. “Every teacher has office hours available every day for students to get one-to-one help.”

She added, “Remediation is available as well, which also can provide that connection that students are craving.”

At SHS, students are carrying fewer classes at a time in shorter six-week terms, which makes organization and management of students’ academic loads more manageable. Language arts teacher Samra Spear explained that for her two-hour sessions “changing things up” and requiring students to stay online for the duration helps them succeed.

Other keys to success, according to Spear, include “Staying positive, being flexible, and giving screen breaks.”

One of the universal concerns about CDL is the sense of connection and the impact overall of the pandemic on students’ social and emotional well-being.

“Mental health is a concern for sure,” said Spear. “I try to check in with students outside of class, but I know these needs are not being met for each student. To be honest, I don’t know how we can fully meet these needs. This is a real concern and something that haunts me daily.”

SMS staff have found creative ways to connect with kids beyond the academic portion of the day through breakout sessions and homeroom activities.

“Breakout rooms and group work provide students with opportunities to work together on projects which keep them connected,” said Tisdel. “In our homeroom class we intentionally create time for community-building activities by playing games, sharing read-alouds, doing daily check-ins on student interests and sharing what is happening in their lives.”

School counselors are available for check-ins and are reaching out to students individually, as well as sharing resources with students and families for support.

For students found to be struggling, both schools have offered in-person opportunities for students to come to the building to work with staff members. For example, earlier this fall ninth-graders who had failing grades were brought in for remediation work in a supervised meeting area in order to focus on learning that had not yet taken place. The middle school has operated similarly, including to help kids facing other obstacles including lack of access to WiFi.

Riehle wanted parents to be reminded that they too can reach out to teachers for help in supporting their students. “Asking for help goes for parents too!” she said. “Parents are welcome to contact us for suggestions on what would work to help their child,” she said.

When asked what they believe are the keys for students to succeed under the CDL model, teachers agreed on some key elements, including consistent participation during live sessions, commitment to completing work and asking for help when necessary.

“The biggest key to student success in the CDL model,” said Tisdel, “is really the same key to success in any classroom—it all comes down to students taking responsibility and ownership in their learning. This model has really brought the ownership of learning to the forefront.”

Riehle added, “The best ways for students to be successful is simple: show up and participate, keep your video on and complete assignments on time, because getting behind is when kids feel overwhelmed.”

Tisdel said she has used Limited In-Person Instruction (LIPI) also to help struggling students.

“I use LIPI for small group instruction,” she said, “and my focus is twofold. The first is providing additional repetition of the current concepts and topics we are studying in class. The second is to support students that have gaps in their learning continuum so they can access the new concepts that are introduced in the group lessons.”

As the name indicates, LIPI is limited in the sense that it has to take place outside the normal instruction windows, and by how many students can be in the building during a certain time period.

In wrapping up her view of CDL overall, Spear shared the sentiment of her colleagues, concluding, “I miss seeing students in-person, that’s for sure. But I am really proud of my students — their commitment, their efforts, their positivity, and their grit.”


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