The Smoke Signal, MSJ's Official Newspaper


HOMSJ: A Look Into Distance Teaching

by Centerspread Editor Amanda Pang, Staff Writers Nishi Bhagat & Anvi Kalucha 

With the start of a new school year, students and teachers alike are adjusting to the challenges of distance learning. To highlight the teachers’ perspectives of the new normal, the Smoke Signal compiled interviews of teachers from various departments to spotlight their experiences in this edition of Humans of MSJ. To hear the teachers say the phrases, click on the beginning of each highlighted phrase in the Teachers’ Perspectives section.

Art Teacher Edie Christensen

Art Teacher Edie Christensen is working tirelessly to ensure that the Arts Program at MSJ hasn’t suffered with the shift to distance learning. Since art is often a hands-on activity, she has structured the course to be flexible in order to accommodate students’ different skill levels and access to supplies. 

Physics Teacher Peter Geschke

To accommodate for distance learning, Physics Teacher Peter Geschke utilizes both computer simulations and at-home activities to make up for the lack of in-person labs. Though the materials for his curriculum have not changed, he is adjusting to electronically grading assignments and digitally determining student comprehension of the material. 

Computer Science and Math Teacher Charles Brucker

Computer science and math are two difficult subjects to learn, especially over Zoom. Computer Science and Math Teacher Charles Brucker has taken many suggestions from his students on the teaching methods that work best for them, such as using Google Classroom and Gmail. He is also using a website called HyperGrade, which gives students instant feedback on their Java code.

Math Teacher Scott Sugden

Despite having taught Accelerated Geometry/Algebra 2 for many years, Math Teacher Scott Sugden has had to make many adjustments to teach online. He has taken the time to construct new assessments and warm-up assignments to prepare his students for Precalculus next year. Since teaching math relies primarily on examples, he uses a tablet and pen to annotate and show problems step by step.

Music Teacher Monica Kraft

Music Teacher Monica Kraft describes playing together over Zoom as the biggest challenge of teaching music to Band and Orchestra online. Kraft currently uses SmartMusic, a practice recording software, to post sheet music and check on students’ progress. In the future, to make up for the lack of live performances, she hopes to put together virtual band and orchestra performances, in which she will combine students’ recordings together. 

Biology Teacher Lane Melcic

Biology Teacher Lane Melcic has adjusted to distance learning with the help of websites such as Google Classroom. Through these platforms, he can post assignments and interact with students. He has changed his grading significantly to accommodate for technical issues students have. Labs have been especially difficult since they have to either be conducted live or through videos the students can watch.

English Teacher Tiffany Stelle-Billman

By attending webinars to teach effectively on Zoom, English Teacher Tiffany Stelle-Billman has worked hard over the summer to prepare for the class. She has also incorporated the use of CommonLit, which is a website that allows teachers to assign poems and articles for students to read and answer questions on. To account for the newfound difficulties, she has implemented a “fail-safe” grading policy, which lets students re-do assignments they score less than 70% on.


Teachers’ Perspectives

What are some challenges you have faced during distance learning?

“Just seeing the kids reactions, joking around in class, making class fun. That’s a tough thing to do, because generally I just talk and everybody else’s muted, they don’t even talk back or interact … I try to put them in groups, but then I go to the group sessions, and they’re all on mute. So they’re not talking either. So it just seems like everybody’s isolated, and I do not like that at all.” — Math Teacher Scott Sugden

“The biggest challenge is trying to teach music in a group setting when we’re supposed to be playing together in a group and we cannot over Zoom.  That is the absolute biggest challenge.” — Music Teacher Monica Kraft

“The main issue are the sites that we’re using, like Zoom. I didn’t have any issues in the spring, but I think everybody’s using it now. A lot of kids are having trouble logging in. I’m also concerned about students because I still have students who it’s obvious that they’re having connectivity issues in their homes … And so nobody should feel ashamed if their Wi-Fi isn’t up to snuff. It’s fine. And … the district should definitely be covering that for anybody that needs that.” — Science Teacher Lane Melcic

What are some of your favorite parts of distance learning?

“In Computer Science, all of my students have laptops, and there’s some valuable value added, features that Zoom for example, can provide. So learning some new tools, and I’m most excited to be learning things.” — Computer Science and Math Teacher Charles Brucker

“You guys are starting to engage and stuff … [The] [c]hat feature in zoom allows students who normally would be really shy and not say anything to privately send me questions and stuff. And so I really like that. So I’m getting many more responses in the chat.” — Science Teacher Lane Melcic

“I can see [students] more one on one and in small groups using breakout rooms, and they’re not distracted by the noise of the classroom or, or what other people are doing. So I’ve noticed an increase in engagement and increasing focus for my students, which is amazing.” — English Teacher Tiffany Stelle-Billman

How did you prepare for distance learning over summer?

“I took a lot of classes and webinars. I did a week long intensive from Stanford … I did some self-studying of different things like CommonLit, Flipgrid, Pear Deck, and lots of different tools just just trying to learn.” — English Teacher Tiffany Stelle-Billman

“I set up a studio here in my, in my room for examples, I’ve gotten different artwork examples and set up.” — Art Teacher Edie Christensen

“I did some training on Zoom, understand some of the features of Zoom. But some of those features weren’t made available to me until the day before school started because the school district purchased for us the pro license but we didn’t have access to that until the night essentially the night before. So I’ve been learning some of those Pro Tools but I don’t have them all down. [I] also did some other work with some other applications that I’ll be using.” — Physics Teacher Peter Geschke

In comparison to in-person learning, what is the biggest difference you have experienced with distance learning?

“The problem for music is not hearing more than one person play at a time … [Being] in a room without any problems from microphones and other things that are going on …  is the big component that’s missing and the hardest one. You cannot replicate it right now online — it’s not really feasible.” — Music Teacher Monica Kraft

“It’s the lack of the little side conversation with a student. Like we’re working on something and I’m walking over and just checking on how they’re doing. That I haven’t figured out how to do that … It’s almost … the informal connection between students that you just get to learn about them more. And I feel like we’re missing that a bit.” — Physics Teacher Peter Geschke

“Well, I’m using the free Zoom and just one screen. So when I’m sharing my screen, I can’t see my students so I’m learning to recognize voices, but I’m not learning to recognize faces. I do have a keynote ritual where one student presents to the class each day, something of interest. And I’m getting to know my keynote speakers but not getting to know the class as a whole by face it really bothers me.”  — Computer Science and Math Teacher Charles Brucker

How has the curriculum for your class changed to accommodate online learning?

“I’m just kind of sticking to what’s in the book, and exactly what’s in the book, because that’s what’s accessible to everybody. So the rigor has actually dropped down, which makes it nice for the kids … I don’t want them to be stressed. There’s enough stress in the world right now.” — Math Teacher Scott Sugden

“I plan to do more in their sketchbook this year where they’re going to be doing more ink work, they’re going to do more collage in the house … So I am changing my curriculum quite a bit, but I think in some ways it will work out a lot of the things that I teach the basics of art … [F]or long term learning of art, it’s actually going to be kind of fun, because they’ll be able to use something they can use the rest of their life.” — Art Teacher Edie Christensen

“The labs are definitely an issue … What we can do is what are called simulation[s] … [T]hose are good because you get to see what’s supposed to happen. But it’s also bad because you don’t experience it yourself.” — Physics Teacher Peter Geschke

What do you wish you knew students knew about distance learning from a teacher’s point of view? 

“I’m just hoping that my personality comes through the Zoom. And I hope that they know that I have a good personality, and that I’m approachable. And if they have any questions, they could come and ask me.” — Math Teacher Scott Sugden

“We just have so many emails piling up, because it’s the only way to communicate with us. So instead of a student like raising their hand or asking a question, like outside of class, we’re now getting emails … So just be patient with us if we don’t respond right away, because we really want to, there’s just so much time in the day to answer emails.” — English Teacher Tiffany Stelle-Billman

“There’s a lot of us for the teachers, they’re juggling, I’m juggling five different … classes. More than anything, I think everyone should be optimistic but also compassionate with each other and understanding of each other.” — Art Teacher Edie Christensen

“My main perspective to the students, once again is to keep up on the work and make it easier for the teachers to do what we need to do.” — Music Teacher Monica Kraft

“[W]hat I’ve discovered is that, you know it’s not going to be perfect, you know it’s not going to be the same … I’m thankful for that because there was this fear, this pressure that teachers felt over the summer to be perfect, and to make it perfect … Instead, we’ve just gotten nothing but support and so I’m thankful for that. [A]nd when there’s an issue, we will figure it out … I’m not going to hold you guys responsible. I’ve had students try to submit things several times, and it’s not working …  [J]ust keep trying. I’ll give you the points once once we figure out how to make it work.” — Science Teacher Lane Melcic

“There’s a lot of clicking. So I’m constantly like battling my screen of trying to connect with the students but also clicking on seven things I need to click on to make the next thing happen. And I guess in a perfect world, there would be another adult or someone, I would call it a producer to do some of the clicking. So learning, learning what that’s like over the last few weeks has been challenging.” — Physics Teacher Peter Geschke

“It’s entirely what I wish I knew. I think my students are on top of everything. And they could handle more tools. I’m not using Kahoot, for example, or Pear Deck … I just got my first smartphone over the summer. So I’m way behind, I’m not Facebook connected … [I]’m learning from my students. I’m not at all worried about what you guys are able to do, and I’m hoping you’ll teach me more frankly.” — Computer Science and Math Teacher Charles Brucker

Cover Photo and Soundcites by Web Editor Mahek Bhora

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