By SARAH DOOLITTLE, Four Points News
Elementary teachers are working hard to bring meaningful instruction through their virtual classrooms until school ends at the end of May. River Place Elementary teachers Nicole Torres and Jessica Bombra, like millions of their peers around the world, are navigating a whole new world of online teaching.
“I could not wrap my brain around any of this until it happened,” explained first grade teacher Torres of her reaction to schools being switched to online in March. “Maybe the day before I was like, that’s never going to happen. Then it happened.”
Torres is in her ninth year at RPE, and in the more than two months of online classes she’s led, Torres felt that LISD, “did a really great job of providing us resources.”
She was initially surprised, however, by an issue she encountered time and again with her first graders: “I’ve been tech support for six-year-olds,” she explained.
This was made especially challenging by the fact that, while Torres was using a MacBook at home, her students were using Chromebooks issued by the school.
“I had a kid, one day, he was like, press the P? And I said, yes, P, like panda bear. And he said, okay, the right P or the left P? and I thought, oh my goodness.” She realized that while the letters on her keyboard were all printed as capital letters, his were lower case. What he was calling “the left P” was actually the lowercase Q.
She quickly concluded that she would need to “see what (the students) see” and asked the school to sign out a Chromebook to her as well, which has made a huge difference.
And having helped her students climb this steep learning curve, she’s already planning new lessons for the fall.
“I’m going to teach computers,” said Torres. “We are going to have a common language for all of the parts and pieces of the computer,” especially in case there is an ongoing or additional need for students to learn from home.
While she taught fourth grade last year to over 40 students, and most middle and high school teachers have an average of over 100 students, Torres is grateful to only have 20 first graders.
“I have to remind myself how little they are, how young they are and how this is impacting them,” she said of helping her students to navigate the emotional challenges of quarantine.
“I’ve seen them get teary,” said Torres. “Sometimes they talk to me about ‘when we go back to school’ and I say yes, one day we will be together again… giving them hope for their little brains.”
As for Torres’s emotional well-being, she has found that working remotely can feel disconnected.
“I start to lose my purpose. So I make it a point to call kids every day, just so I can hear their voices and remind (myself that) this is what it’s for and these are my people,” she said.
Having a routine has also helped. There’s a Zoom staff meeting on Monday mornings, followed by a first grade team meeting. Her class meets on Zoom three times a week, and between lessons, Facetime and emails, she tries to take a break every afternoon to exercise, to “turn my brain off.”
Torres has discovered as well the benefits of Zoom meetings where everyone is at home. “I’ve had access to things that I wouldn’t have seen in the classroom, experiences that we wouldn’t have had together in the classroom,” she explained. “So it’s kind of opened up. We’ve all had to be really creative,” including superhero dress up day, show off your pet day and dress like royalty day, when Torres got into the action with her very own tiara.
Above all, she reminds her students that, despite the changed environment, some things remain the same. “Their class name (is) Cowboys and Cowgirls. They picked that at the beginning of the year… That’s still who we are.”
Constancy with technology
Jessica Bombra, a former special education teacher, has helped her fourth graders to maintain constancy in part with technology.
“Fourth graders do a lot in Google classroom,” she said. “And so we decided we would just stick with that platform since the students were already familiar with it… We don’t want to reinvent the wheel. It’s a crazy enough time already.”
Unlike most of her peers, who teach only one or two subjects to the upper grades at RPE, Bombra teaches her students all subjects and so, like Torres, only has 20 students.
Still, an online class with 20 excited fourth graders who haven’t seen each other in months is not without its challenges. As Bombra explained, “The first couple of times they were really excited and needed a couple of reminders that, hey, we can’t all talk at once.”
Overall, though, it’s gone well, and she appreciates that she can share her screen with students in Zoom, which includes a whiteboard feature so she can draw and write instructions and notes just as she would in the classroom.
Having her own two kids, a middle and high schooler, at home with her while she works has been harder to get used to. It has allowed her a different perspective, though, and has reminded her that, “We’re all trying to figure this out together, you know… We’ve had to give ourselves a lot of grace.”
To Bombra, that has not meant, “that we have lower expectations for kids learning,” but instead that, “we just understand that right now their mental and emotional wellbeing is a priority… None of that material is going to sink in if they’re anxious and feeling stressed out.”
To that end, Bombra has taken time to take care of her own mental and emotional wellness, by doing things like finally learning guitar, gardening and making bread in the bread machine.
A little gratitude has gone a long way, too, such as for the fact that no one in her family or her students’ families have been sickened by COVID-19, or that next year she’ll be teaching only math and science. “It’ll be good to focus just on two subjects instead of five.”
Gains despite the losses
And even as her students experience the loss of traditional end-of-year activities like yearbook signing and field day — and Bombra herself acknowledges that, “from the teacher standpoint… all of us have been heartbroken” — she has still seen gains among the losses.
“I think that it’s brought us closer together,” Bombra explained. “I have amazing parents in my class. They are so supportive and so appreciative. This I think has made (everyone) even more so.”
Bombra and Torres agreed that, whatever happens, they’ll get through it because, “We are all in the same boat,” as Torres explained.
“We’re all okay, you know,” echoed Bombra. “And we’ll continue to be okay because we’re all in this together, and we’re all working together to do what’s right for the kids.”