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An SB Teacher Explains what a Digital Classroom Looks Like -and Why Distance Learning Can Work

By Jen Griffith

As teachers, many of us have been sharing publicly our great concerns about not being ready to return to our classrooms due to health and safety reasons. I realized that we weren't taking our explanations one step further and describing and explaining what our classrooms would look like in the digital realm.

Because many people might not know exactly what a digital classroom in the Santa Barbara Unified District can, and did in the spring, look like, I want to share an overview so that the community has more of an idea of why we, the teachers, are so sure that we can go digital.

My teammate and I had already been teaching our 61 fifth-graders in the same room (either my portable or hers) for many of our lessons.

We did this because we, like many of our peers, have known for years that we cannot count on getting a substitute teacher when we need one. This way, if one of us had to be out, we could cover for our partner, and no learning was lost.

In the process, we found that the students really enjoyed being able to intermix in more varied and different small, collaborative group configurations on a regular basis. So, we asked our principal if we could try out teaching with a kind of team-teaching model, and it worked! The kids loved it, and we loved it, and the learning was magical, and we became one giant learning community.

Then, BOOM, MARCH 13TH! Suddenly our schools were physically closed.

A digital curriculum. However, because we had already been working as one big learning community, we were able to continue doing so. Yes, there were many bumps in the road, but we kept going.

My teammate and I immediately started to contact families and track down our students, finding out who had internet access along the way. After about three weeks, we had tracked down almost every kid. Then for the remaining two months of school, it was all systems go.

My teammate and I taught together every day, and this is what we did:

Started every day with fifteen minutes of meditation, then yoga, then tai chi

Read two core literature books aloud with the whole class, with a focus on the academic vocabulary for English Language Development.

Many free digital platforms came our way, but once I learned about the NEARPOD Student Engagement Platform, I took the online professional development courses and learned how to create my own lessons; both the students and the teachers in our fifth grade learning community fell in love with using it on a daily basis. It became an integral part of our digital learning experience.

Continued to teach the newly created math lessons for the Illustrative Math Alpha Curriculum launch we had been involved in all year

Completed the current six week Science Unit of Inquiry that we were in and started and completed one more, still covering all the Next Generation Science Standards content that fifth graders needed to learn for the year

Followed our regular PE routine every day, just like we had on campus

Had "Wordy Wednesday" for additional language development, focusing each week we on a different aspect of the grammar in a fun way.

Went on one virtual field trip a week to a surprise location through the Nearpod platform.

Taught engineering standards and built Rube Goldberg Machines and Homemade Rollercoasters that ended up being family projects.

Had once-a-month "Little Buddy" days with our First Grade Little Buddies, just like we throughout the school year, during which we went on scavenger hunts and to a virtual amusement park.

We sang songs, had dance parties and theme days where we dressed up in outfits; once we had PJ Day and stayed in bed the whole time : - )

We did art together on "Fun Friday," made videos and had kids come up with and create original projects.

And we gave Google Slide work to do every day.

Now, of course, we did not get 100 percent work completion every day. In fact, asking kids to complete pages of work, then having to check in that work and correct it, and then follow up with parents when it was not turned in, was really the only low point of our digital classroom.

But that is the same as a normal day at school. We are always chasing kids around asking where their work is. But, the magical thing was that 55-59 kids showed up every single day for our morning two hour zoom and they never missed it. They wanted to be in class with us.

Enrichment and activities. Additionally, we had kids attending class with our music, PE, and art teachers every single week because they are such necessary parts of their education. Our music teacher and PE coach regularly attended our morning meditation and yoga sessions a couple times each week, just because they enjoyed it as people in our community.

Our students also attended weekly Speech, CALM counseling, and daily classes with their Special Education teacher. They quickly learned how to switch between classes, much like Jr. High and High School students do, without missing a beat, and they did it via zoom.

We also had a Reading intervention teacher who saw anywhere from five to 20 kids on any given day for the hour following our class, depending on who wanted help with homework that particular day.

Some days students needed more help than others because, just like us adults, there were times when it was just hard to think and function in the middle of a worldwide pandemic and you don’t have all of your cognitive resources available.

We had six special needs students regularly attending our fifth grade class, and we had three multilingual students, as well. I often taught class in both English and Spanish (to the best of my ability!) for their benefit.

All of these kids would stay after to get more help if they needed it. The three multilingual students were also given the core literature book in Spanish so they could read it in both languages simultaneously, and would attend daily classes with our Reading interventionist for their own study group in Spanish to get a more in-depth understanding of the book.

We also held a safe reading awards assembly where we had one parent come to school to pick up the reading award on a Friday and hide it until Monday morning. Then, with all of the kids and as many family members as possible surrounding them, and our principal in attendance, we announced each child's name and it was their parent who put the medal around their neck, which was very special.

Often, our parents don't even get to come to the assemblies we hold at school to see their children receive awards because of their work schedules.

So, as you can see, it was all systems go! As we told our kids every day, we were still in school, we were just doing it in a different location. When our students would fill out the reflections we gave them every single Friday to check in with how they were doing, they would reiterate fthat back to us.

They clearly understood that we had never stopped attending school, we were just doing it in a new way. It was a mindset that we helped to instill in them, and this helped all of us to keep the learning environment going.

New challenges. Of course, we have kids who attend our school from all walks of life. We had some kids sitting in their parents’ walk-in closet because their four brothers and sisters were also on zoom and they wanted peace and quiet to learn with us.

We had some kids sitting in cars so they could get a WiFii signal and didn’t have one at home.

And we had some kids sitting with their baby brother on their head, we had some kids at the kitchen table with their mom next to them, and one day we taught with all blacked out screens because that is what zoom looked like that day.

But it didn't matter.

We were a learning community and every single day, we all showed up to learn, no matter what, even though it was hard. We all know that we can do hard things.

Bottom line. I hope that this gives a sense of what a digital classroom can look like. I also hope that you can see that I did not do this alone and could never have done it without the hard work, collaboration and teamwork of my partner, Madeleine Bordofsky, as well as the other specialist teachers and staff that work at Harding University Partnership School.

Creating a digital learning realm can be done with teamwork and planning and it can be a good experience for all involved with some creative ideas. I think teachers are ready and up to the task if we are just given the chance.

(Jen Griffith is a fifth grade teacher in the Santa Barbara Unified School District. This op-ed is adapted from a letter she sent to the SB school board as members considered options for the new school year).

Images: Jen at her kitchen table desk in her classroom; Nearpod; On her yoga mat singing with her ukulele, a daily occurrence in classroom; Out in nature, where she takes photos and makes mini blog videos to share with students for teaching about local ecosystems. (Nearpod logo via; others courtesy images).  

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