Blended school

The new blended schedule at EHS allows for much smaller classes, meaning that teachers can more easily distance students.

The 2020-2021 school year has already been a trying year for teachers, students, administrators, coaches and everyone involved with education, but the effort and work teachers are putting in to the school year makes them truly unsung heroes.

While things are still not easy and teachers are being forced to navigate through uncharted waters this school year, those teachers have been going above and beyond the call of duty to make sure their students – both blended and virtual – receive the best learning experience possible at Enterprise High School.

EHS intended to begin the school year utilizing Troy University’s Alabama Connecting Classrooms, Educators and Students Statewide (ACCESS) Program for virtual learning – a program that dual-enrolment students at EHS were already using – but a week prior to the beginning of the school year, EHS was notified that the program could not handle the load of the entire EHS student body. So, while some EHS students are still using the ACCESS program, most would have to use an alternative distance learning method. The state has provided a distance-learning program called Schoology for schools to use but because of the volume of teachers at EHS that would need to be trained on the program, EHS went with Google Classroom for this school year instead.

EHS instructional partner – and former longtime teacher – Chrisie Osterhoudt said that many teachers were already using Google Classroom for certain teaching aspects before the pandemic hit – and for the second semester of last year all teachers were – so EHS decided to go with Google Classroom this year for most students.

“The transition has been very trying for a lot of different reasons,” Osterhoudt said. “We have a very energetic and proactive staff but we were caught in more of a reactive situation.

“Our teachers have been going above and beyond to devote the time and effort to make the necessary transition and amend their curriculum to include that virtual component. It wasn’t that we didn’t see a need (for virtual teaching) – we have a lot of teachers that have experience with Google Classroom and use it as a normal part of their teaching experience – but it has been very time consuming on the parts of the teachers to take a situation that would normally take place in a traditional classroom setting and convert that into a virtual situation.”

While some students will still be using ACCESS and most others will be utilizing Google Classroom, EHS still put together a pilot program of eight teachers that were trained on and are using Schoology this year. Those teachers will help train the rest of the faculty on Schoology at the end of this school year so that the entire staff can utilize it in the future.

EHS Environmental Science teacher Mark Edgar is one of the pilot teachers that is using Schoology this year.

“It’s been an adjustment just because we’ve never done it before,” Edgar said of Schoology. “It’s been an adjustment for the students and it’s been an adjustment for me but it’s finally coming together.

“Students are learning to log in from home better and learning to turn their stuff in more efficiently and in a timely manner. There is still some kinks to work out and I’m still learning about it. Some days it works great and some days it doesn’t go so well. It was a struggle to begin with but I’m getting more comfortable with it, which allows my students to get more comfortable with it.”

EHS history teacher Jason Searcy is another teacher that is using Schoology this school year and he said that Scoology is a lot more user friendly.

“It’s a lot different but it’s a lot better as far as virtual learning because of the organization and the grading is a lot more user friendly,” Searcy said. “The communication is also better.”

A big advantage for teachers in the future is that Google Classroom allows teachers to transfer their entire curriculum over to another platform – like Schoology – so that they don’t have to start from scratch when that transition is made.

In the meantime teachers are utilizing all of the tools made available to them to keep students invested and engaged with virtual learning when at home. Teachers use a program called Screencastify to record their lessons for virtual students.

“I don’t know that (virtual learning) is great for the student’s mindsets because it’s hard to focus at home. That’s been hard for them, to get the motivation to do stuff at home,” EHS math teacher Rylee Baxter said. “As far as teaching goes, it’s good that when they’re watching a video they can rewind and go back to certain parts or fast forward. I’ve had a few (students) that said they enjoy going at their own pace.”

The blended schedule for in-person students has also afforded teachers time on Fridays – as all students are distance-learners on Fridays – to do video chats with students so that they can ask questions and interact with teachers.

Also, the blended schedule has allowed for teachers to much more easily distance students in the classroom. The smaller class sizes also have other positive side effects.

“We’re not even within arm’s length of each other now,” Baxter said. “So, it’s much easier to sanitize and distance.

“I love the small group setting. They get a lot more help now instead of just a big group where you may get hidden in the back. It’s also been better for health purposes so that we aren’t sending everyone home if one person gets sick.”

With Schoology, the program allows teachers to see when and how long a student logged into the program each session. Google Classroom doesn’t have that function but teachers are getting creative with ways to have students check-in on the program.

“We haven’t mandated it but we have shown teachers how they can arrange check-ins via Google Form,” Osterhoudt said. “You have to be a little more creative with it but if you imbed information in the lessons you can hold the kids responsible.

“This was actually suggested by a teacher, that they would have a magic question for the check-in. Whatever the answer was would be imbedded in the lesson for that day. So, the students would have to be engaged with that lesson in order to be able to provide the answer for the check-in.”

Teachers are also using the Remind App more often to communicate with students. Students are able to send teachers messages through the app about classwork or questions about assignments and the teachers can respond from there. Edgar said that communication has been very important while trying to work through the virtual teaching part of the blended schedule and full-time virtual students.

“I’m trying to send out remind messages much more than I used to, to make sure that they are staying on and communicating with administrators and counselors about virtual students,” Edgar said. “I had one student that really wasn’t doing a whole lot but after some communication – I emailed and didn’t get a response but we got more of a response with calls – we got them a little more motivated.”

Baxter said the most important thing to her is just trying to ensure that students are receiving the best learning experience possible while at home.

“We’re trying to give them the same type of education as in the classroom,” Baxter said. “I post the same videos of lessons I teach in class, they get the same work sheets and they get the same practice problems that are done in class. They’re also part of the Remind (App) so they can send me any questions they have and I can message them back.”

Osterhoudt said that time management is something that remains an obstacle for students while learning from home.

“I think there are a lot of students that are doing well as far as the course work is concerned but the time management is a conflict sometimes,” she said. “Understanding that just because I’m not at school doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t be working on something.

“I don’t think it’s a huge negative shift, I just think it’s going to take some time and accountability and support. I think our staff has been very proactive in communicating with the kids.”

One unintended side effect of virtual learning will be a positive one, Osterhoudt said.

“I think a benefit to all of this – and no one would want it to come about this way – is we are preparing kids in a more real way for post secondary education,” Osterhoudt said. “For example, my daughter started at UAB just last week and with the shifts we’ve made since last spring she was able to go in with confidence knowing that she could handle her virtual classes and her hybrid classes and she knows how to manage her time better.

“The circumstances are unfortunate but I think that is one of those positive outcomes for our students.”

Osterhoudt said that it has made her proud to see the effort and work EHS teachers have been willing to put in to make this school year work.

“I’m just grateful to be in a system and work with people who really, at the end of the day and after everything they’ve been through and challenges they’ve faced, just want to do what’s best for these kids,” Osterhoudt said. “It is a privilege to be here and see it up close and personal and I don’t know how often the public gets to see that side of things and so I’m just grateful for that.”

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