To begin semesters in Eric Olsen’s high school math class at Idaho Technical Career Academy, students are given a Google slide on which they write their name and add five to 10 images that summarize their interests.
Some students add photos of their favorite sports teams. Some add photos of their pets or their favorite TV shows.
Over the next few days, Olsen’s students present their slides to the class, allowing the students to get to know each other better. Sometimes the class will engage in long conversations about their favorite dog breeds. While none of this had to do with math, Olsen said it was crucial in developing the culture of the classroom in a virtual environment.
âIt was the highlight of the year for me,â said Olsen. âSome children may have developed this feeling of ‘I’m not alone here. “”
Meridian Technical Charter is completely virtual. Olsen’s classes, made up of students from across the state, will never meet in person, so Olsen places a priority on building relationships between his students.
For the 2020-2021 school year, at least 11 school districts in Idaho will begin or continue online school offerings launched during the year affected by the pandemic. Among them are the three largest school districts in the state: West Ada, Boise and Nampa. In these schools, many teachers will have to adapt to a new style of teaching, knowing that their classes will remain virtual all year round.
Lisa Stitt has been teaching for 20 years and just completed her ninth year at Boise. While previously teaching in sixth grade, she moved to teach seventh and eighth graders at Boise Online School.
Stitt joined Boise Online School for the 2020-2021 school year. With a child at home, Stitt didn’t want his schedule to be disrupted by the shift from distance, hybrid, and in-person schools. She knew that staying online year round was the safe choice for her family.
âI love technology and I’m good at it, so I thought I would try something new,â she said.
Before the start of the school year, Stitt said Boise offered training on using virtual classroom platforms (such as Zoom or Google Meets) and added that there are full courses available for credit. made available to teachers.
âThe district did a good job of making sure we were prepared,â she said. Throughout the year, grade six teachers at the Boise Online School have gathered every Wednesday to keep up to date with each other.
Olsen said he had not received any formal training for his job as an online teacher. Instead, Olsen said he followed another teacher from the school for a few weeks. And while Olsen taught his classes, he continued to seek advice from his peers.
He said the switch to online classes reminded him of his first year of teaching, and any teacher who attended an online school should be prepared to make adjustments.
âBe flexible and be prepared to adjust your expectations,â he said. âFor both you and your studentsâ¦ not everything translates perfectly. “
Although he has been able to find his place in distance education, Olsen said he still faces persistent problems when teaching distance education. Idaho Technical Career Academy policy states that teachers are not allowed to require that students be videotaped with their microphones on during class, making it difficult for Olsen to ensure his students participate.
âMotivating students to do their jobs when they’re not in class is a whole different ball game,â he said.
As a math teacher, Olsen also worries about his homework. He is concerned that students simply click on their homework online and not learn the material presented.
Not only that, but Olsen said that there are websites that students can now access that will solve math problems for them while showing all the work, making it impossible for the teacher to know if the students have done the duty themselves or not.
âI have this balance between what can be assigned and the work the students will actually complete,â he said. âThere is no plagiarism checker for math. “
When Olsen taught in person (he taught for nine years at Meridian Technical Charter High School), he says his strength was developing the culture of the classroom and having strong relationships with the students. Her goal for the 2021-2022 school year is to keep improving to accomplish them while teaching online courses.
Olsen taught five classes last year and said two of them established a culture he liked, which led to more students using their microphones and cameras in class and engaging in classroom conversations.
âIt’s huge,â he said. “Just make the children talk to each other.”
Olsen also used other tools at his disposal to foster relationships with students through the computer. He initiates a conversation with students before class starts, often about something unrelated to school. Olsen also has a virtual bulletin board called Padlet where students can write down things they have in common.
While still working on it, Olsen said that creating a classroom culture will be one of the most important tasks for the future of virtual education.
âIf kids are connected to the teacher, they learn better,â Olsen said.
Although much of the 2020-2021 school year felt like an ’emergency response’, Stitt said she was still able to connect with her class through online group activities, games and other projects. The students at Stitts created a class mascot, organized fancy dress days, and took comfort when someone was having a bad day. The class also took their own class photo although the students did not meet in person.
âIt was really cool to see that happen,â she said.
Stitt said the biggest thing she’s learned from distance teaching in the 2020-2021 school year that she’ll take with her as she continues at Boise’s online school is to constantly check the emotional well-being of students. Stitt said she started making it a priority to reach out to each student to see what they need to be successful in the classroom.
âKids know what they need,â Stitt said. âOne day is more time for a mission. One day it’s the grocery store. I have never asked this question so much.
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