By Matthew Nguyen
The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly left a devastating impact on several businesses in New Orleans including our local restaurants, beloved shopping malls, lively music venues, and many others. While the shutdown and restrictions have definitely changed the lifestyles of many New Orleanians, any high schooler or teacher in this city can tell you about another drastic change in their lives due to the pandemic: education. With most of the city’s public high schools adopting some form of online learning during the past two semesters, education in 2020 has surely been a unique experience for many; and while learning in the Zoom classroom is surely a difficult experience for the students, the task of teaching through an unfamiliar, virtual setting has proven to be and even greater challenge faced by our public school teachers.
When the first few COVID-19 cases arrived in the city in March, public high schools were forced to shut down in-person operations and find a new way to finish the Spring 2020 semester. According to Mr. Ryan Gilbert, Warren Easton Charter High School sent all students home and provided them asynchronous work for the rest of the semester. Mr. Gilbert, who has taught biology and chemistry at Warren Easton for the past four years, noted that he and other Warren Easton teachers had online Zoom classrooms opened during the week to provide students with an open space to ask questions about assignments or to just socialize with one another. “Kids could just come in and talk. Having online class every day with lectures was not feasible at the time since some kids may not have computer access” Mr. Gilbert said. Similarly to Warren Easton, Benjamin Franklin High School also implemented an asynchronous, lecture-free approach to finish their school semester. Mrs. Kate Youngblood, who has taught English I and AP English for six years at Ben Franklin, spent a majority of her time during this period providing students with assignment feedback rather than planning out or conducting lectures.
Once the Fall 2020 semester arrived, many public high schools started their first full semester of synchronous online learning. Understandably, many public school teachers expressed nervousness and unfamiliarity with this new teaching format. “It felt like being a first-year teacher again”, said Mr. Evan Sipher, who has taught AP World History for nine years at Benjamin Franklin High School. He described the online teaching experience as unmarked territory, which required him to try several new strategies to adjust to this online setting. “I would text other teachers and ask them what they were doing during those first few days”, he recalls. However, despite all the advice he received from his fellow teachers, Mr. Sipher had found that more experience in the online Zoom setting has helped him adapt to this transition more so than any other strategy. “I felt like I was always learning as I kept teaching more online,” he said. Similarly to Mr. Sipher, Mrs. Youngblood also felt like a first-year teacher during her first few Zoom classes; but fortunately, she would find the transition easier than expected thanks to her very collaborative students. “My first-year students were very open to try hard and just ‘play ball’ with the new situation. And my AP students were really great at giving me feedback,” she stated. At Warren Easton High School, Mr. Gilbert had also initially found the transition to be challenging to overcome. “You can normally feed off of the energy in the room during in-person classes”, he said when comparing in-person schooling to online classes. “But since we’re in a virtual setting, I couldn’t always read students’ faces to know if they were engaged.” But despite this lack of physical interaction that made engagement hard to detect, Mr. Gilbert would also find his own effective strategies to bolster his online teaching skills such as implementing guided practices and frequently asking for student feedback.
Striving to adjust to such an unorthodox school setting, all three teachers were faced with several challenges during their online transition. Mr. Gilbert found his physical, interactive methods of teaching biology and chemistry were compromised. “Biology is very content-rich. I like making models and setting up experiments to better teach my students.” he said. Mr. Gilbert continued providing more detail into how he applies his interactive, physical experiments to teach biology content. “When I teach osmosis, I like using the dilation bags and differing concentrations to help my students understand it. Now that we’re no longer in-person, and I have to find virtual experiments for students to watch.” In addition to having his physical teaching style hindered, Mr. Gilbert also elaborated on how the transition made him less accessible to his students outside of the classroom. “Usually when students have a question, they can just come in my classroom and ask me directly. But with online classes, now I have to wait for their emails and engage in a back-and-forth with them. Multiply that by 130 students, and now I spend a lot time with emails”. At Ben Franklin High School, Mr. Sipher reported having initial difficulties promoting impromptu student engagement in his World History class. “Fostering verbal communication was difficult. I could have structured the lesson if I needed to, but I preferred for it to feel natural” he said when describing the challenges of mediating class discussions in Zoom. Essentially, the fruitful discourse that was normally seen in his AP World History classroom was now replaced with intermittent student comments in a fairly quiet Zoom room. However, Mr. Sipher was wary of how nerve-wracking in can be for students to participate in his Zoom discussions. “Zoom screens become front-and-centered whenever students talked. The attention can make them nervous. It really hinders the free flow of discussion,” he said. In addition, he also had some students who wanted to engage in the discussions but were unable to due to barriers such as poor internet connection. Transitioning over to the English department, Mrs. Youngblood found herself carrying a much heavier workload with the online transition. “There is a perception that online teaching is easier, but it is much harder. I spent a lot more time grading and giving feedback on assignments. My work day used to be from 7 AM to 4:30 PM, but now I am working from 7 AM until 6 PM and later,” she noted. In addition to having a heavier workload, she also had difficulty checking students for understanding of the class concepts. “Reading checks were difficult. We had a whole crazy week of using Google Forms, Kahoot!, and a bunch of other apps.” But throughout the online semester, Mrs. Youngblood found that the best solution to her problem was through student essays, in which students could freely exhibit their understanding of the content in their own words.
Having the responsibility of teaching mostly upperclassmen taking AP courses, both Mr. Sipher and Mrs. Youngblood shared an extra problem that was exacerbated due to the online transition: preparing students for the AP exams. When Ben Franklin High School adopted its hybrid format, the school shortened the class times from 90 minutes of instruction to 45 minutes. Experiencing this drastic change, Mrs. Youngblood noted, “I have to jam-pack a lot of information in a much shorter amount of time for my AP kids”. As for AP World History, Mr. Sipher shared a similar opinion when addressing this extra challenge. “AP classes try to behold a curriculum that we have to completely cover for the whole year. The pandemic had really amplified this problem,” he stated. He noted that because AP classes normally focus on such a rout, expansive curriculum of topics for the AP exam, in-depth engagement and flexibility with the material were lost due to their school’s decreased class time.
Going through the online transition was undoubtedly a tough obstacle for public school teachers; however, all three teachers noted that the unique experience had provided them some key skills and takeaways they look to implement for future in-person semesters. Mrs. Youngblood developed a new strategy for organized scheduling during her online semesters. “Because online days were Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I always made homework due for my students on those days. This consistency and clarity is something I want to keep using”. Mr. Sipher also gained some new insight from the online experience in terms of creating new methods to facilitate classroom discussions. He also developed much stronger preparation and pre-planning skills when he was getting ready for all his Zoom classes. As for Mr. Gilbert, he noted that online experience has helped him discover some very useful online teaching tools. “Applications like Google Classroom really helped keep everything integrated. Kids can share things and work together remotely on projects, and no one would have to worry about forgetting a flash drive since it’s so accessible,” he stated. Nevertheless, despite the useful takeaways they have gotten from online teaching, all three teachers exhibited tons of excitement for the future return of in-person semesters. Mrs. Youngblood stated there is just “something lost without that classroom interaction” when talking about her enthusiasm to teach a full class of students in-person soon. Mr. Gilbert shared a similar opinion on the aloofness of online learning and how it simply “cannot mirror teaching in the actual classroom.” Overall, the online transition due to the COVID-19 pandemic was undoubtedly a significant challenge for these public school teachers; however, their adaptation to such an unprecedented obstacle has provided them with some very beneficial insight and takeaways that they look to implement in their future teaching methods once in-person schooling returns.