Akron Teachers Keeping Students Engaged In A Year Of Constant Change

I Promise teacher and interventional specialist teaching remotely
I Promise teacher Melissa Beitko and intervention specialist Kelsey Kent online with their 4th grade students. [I Promise School]
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Learning isn’t easy for students or parents during a pandemic, with classrooms closed and lessons delivered remotely.

It’s not easy for teachers, either. In front of a computer screen instead of a classroom, they work to keep their often distracted students engaged, but not overwhelmed. They miss the interaction in-person schooling affords – the chance to help with emotional issues or simply to give and receive a reassuring hug.

And many teachers are parents themselves, teaching their students while also supervising their own children’s learning. It’s a lot.

We talked with four Akron Public Schools teachers about how they’re adapting to a year of massive change.

Teaching (And Parenting) From Home: Katie and Bill Metcalf

Katie Metcalf spends every Monday and Tuesday in the basement, alone at her computer, online with students from her 12th grade English classes. Meanwhile, her husband, Bill Metcalf, is upstairs, texting and emailing his physics and physical science students.

He’s also watching over their three kids: a 3-year-old plus a third grader and a special-needs first grader who are learning remotely while their parents are both teaching remotely.

On Wednesdays, the Metcalfs switch and Bill heads to the basement for a couple days of synchronous classes – teaching from a distance, but at least in the virtual classroom at the same time as his high school students.

The Metcalfs teach remotely from home while watching over their three children, including a first and a third grader, who are also learning remotely. [Katie Metcalf]

It’s a dizzying routine, but one that works for these teachers at National Inventors Hall of Fame STEM High School in Akron, and one the married couple has refined since the spring with help from a positive demeanor and large Starbucks coffees.

“I feel like as teachers, we are doing a really good job of providing [students] with lots of different ways to access information. But as a human being, I'm exhausted,” Bill Metcalf said. “It’s really tiring to be a parent and a teacher at the same time. And a lot of the time it feels like I'm teaching first grade and third grade and ninth and 12th grade all day. And that's a lot.”

NIHF STEM High School teacher Bill Metcalf online with students during a "synchronous" teaching block. [Katie Metcalf]

Teaching from home while caring for their own children, who are also learning remotely, creates “a lot of blurred boundaries,” Katie Metcalf said.

“You’re ‘mommy’ and you’re ‘teacher’ and you’re ‘wife’ all at the same time and it never stops,” Katie Metcalf said. “You know, I was up at three in the morning answering kids’ emails and texting them back and grading papers, because that's hard to do when the kids are around, because you can't focus, your train of thought gets broken up.”

Remote learning has forced the couple to be inventive with their subjects to keep students engaged. Bill Metcalf has been using this pandemic-driven time of improvisation to throw some “MacGyver-style” science at his students.

“Instead of having these kits that they use to explore the world around them through science, I've been having them just kind of look around [their houses],” Metcalf said. “‘What do you have available and how can we use that to perform science experiments?’ Some of the examples I've gotten was of children creating a density cylinder in cups in their houses, where they pour different fluids into it, and it separates into layers and they use that to determine density.”

Katie Metcalf tries to push her English students beyond writing essays and toward expressing themselves through other mediums. It’s been a fun way to engage with them, she said.

“We read ‘A Modest Proposal’ and talk about how satire can be an act of protest,” she said. “And so for their big project, I said, create something that is an act of protest against injustice you see in your community. And they got to do their own photo spreads or original art pieces or essays or creative stories that would fit seamlessly into our textbook, which I just think is so much more applicable to the skills that I want them to take away from this.”

Still, many students are struggling with remote learning and the pandemic generally, the Metcalfs said.

“We emotionally adopt these kids every year, and we take on their problems and their burdens,” Katie Metcalf said. “And that is, in a normal year, emotionally exhausting. Their burdens are so much more right now. And so the normal kind of ‘worried’ and ‘concerned’ that we would be experiencing for just normal seniors in high school is multiplied a lot. Lots of students are talking to us about how their depression is back or they just can't get out of bed. And that's exhausting to go through with them.”

A lot of C and D students have disappeared from their grade books, said the Metcalfs, who are seeing a deeper divide in their virtual classrooms than they usually do with in-person schooling. Some students are doing well with remote learning and getting As and Bs, they said, but then there are the students who aren’t logging onto class, aren’t turning in assignments and are getting Fs. Reaching out to struggling students is extremely difficult in the remote learning environment, they said.

“[The pandemic] has taken a lot of those kids that teachers would be holding their hands and pulling them through this,” Katie Metcalf said. “And they're just not there for us to hold their hand. I mean, not physically, but also just not they're not engaged. They're not coming into the Google Meet. If we don't see you at all, it really limits our ability to work with the kid, which is unfortunate.”

The Metcalfs fight over Baby Yoda in a Star Wars-inspired image created from home for the school's Spirit Week. [Bill Metcalf]

Keeping 9-year-olds Engaged: Melissa Beitko And Kelsey Kent

Everyone is learning new things this year because of the pandemic, including teachers. Part of that learning process has surprisingly included expecting students to be online less, not more, said Melissa Bietko, a fourth grade teacher at I Promise School, a public school in Akron supported by the LeBron James Family Foundation and aimed at at-risk students.

When Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine ordered the move to remote learning in the spring, there was a lot of emphasis on being logged in, she said, but that has changed and teachers have adapted.

“We keep them on for 30-minute chunks because it's too long for 9-year-olds to stare at a screen all day long,” Beitko said. “So we give them a lot of breaks. We keep them for such a short amount of time, I think they look forward to coming back.” 

Of the 17 students in Beitko’s class, 11 are special education students with individualized education plans (IEPs). Beitko essentially co-teaches with intervention specialist Kelsey Kent. Every morning, they go into the school building, sitting together but still far enough apart in their empty classroom with their computers while the students log in.

Fourth grade I Promise teacher Melissa Beitko and intervention specialist Kelsey Kent start the day with their full class of 17 kids for social-emotional learning, then have the students log on and off in smaller groups throughout the day. [I Promise School]

The day starts with the full class for a social-emotional lesson, then for the rest of the day the kids log on and off in smaller groups for subjects like math and reading, Kent said. The smaller groups have helped cut down on distractions and helped both the teachers and students focus.

The majority of I Promise elementary school students come from low-income households and are among the bottom 25th percentile of Akron Public Schools students. On average the students are between one and three grade levels behind in reading targets. Keeping them logged on and engaged is the top goal for Kent and Beitko, especially when the kids might have lot going on at home.

“We have a lot of wonderful fourth graders who are helpful to their own little siblings for school,” Kent said. “Like, our one fourth grader will remind us he has to help his little brother get on his school at a certain time. So we kind of adjust his schedule as we can.”

Even when remote learning is working for both teachers and students, Beitko misses the personal connections with her students, especially hugs. [I Promise School]

Beitko said the students aren’t the only ones missing things in the current remote learning situation – she misses their hugs and even their brand of 9-year-old chaos.

The teaching duo have seen their students in person several times – always masked and at a distance – including while delivering supplies for a STEM-related design challenge. It’s something for the kids to do away from a computer screen, potentially with a parent.

When it comes to remote learning, Beitko and Kent simply say there are good days and bad days. A good day is when all the kids are logged on and involved.

“I don't assign anything that would be too difficult for them to do on their own, but also encourage them to work with family,” Beitko said. “I think that helps build a relationship between them, and it also makes them feel successful.”

Bad days often mean factors beyond their control, Kent said, particularly because many students have distractions at home. 

“Anything from parents not being able to be there because they are working so much,” Kent said. “We've had some cases where some issues are going on at home, maybe arguments, yelling, and it's embarrassing for the student in that moment because they don't want that out there. But they also don’t want to miss school so they don’t log off.”

Making virtual learning work and keeping those “good days” coming means being creative with lesson plans and accepting of what the students are able to take in, Beitko said.

“I feel like we are not on the same pace as we were last year,” Beitko said. “So I'm not pushing… I'm trying to give them the foundation of where we are right now because I think that's the most important.”

The educational toll of being in a virtual classroom for almost a year can’t be known completely right now, the duo said, but it is taking an emotional toll that is already apparent.  

“There are many days, right, that I love my job and I love the kids and I couldn't imagine doing anything else,” Kent said. “And then there are days where I'm kicked off during math, or my computer just shuts off, and I have no idea what my kids are on right now because everybody is probably staring at my frozen screen.” 

More often than not, Beitko’s frustrations with virtual learning come out because remote work runs so counter to her teaching style.

“I need my kids in my classroom. I need hugs in the morning. I need noise and chaos because that's the kind of teacher I am,” Beitko said. “And it’s just very quiet and empty in the building and it’s disheartening.”

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