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Teaching during the pandemic

One middle school instructor gives us insight into the daily lives of students
Oct 12, 2020
Middle School science teacher John Dietter works with students outside.

Camden — We talked to John Dietter, who has been an educator since 1995, has 16 years high school teaching experience, and currently instructs in biology for 7th graders at Camden-Rockport Middle School.

How have you had to change your approach due to the pandemic?

I usually study ecology with my students in the fall, and this fall I’ve taken Dr Fauci’s advice to spend more time outside with them during school. Frankly, I feel lucky to be a science teacher during these times. In class, we are currently doing field observations looking at symbiotic relationships in the environment. This involves us going on walking field trips from school to Megunticook Stream (literally a stone’s throw from my classroom), to the Tannery site, and the forested edge of the Mountain View cemetery. I’ll give a briefing in the classroom, review concepts and expectations simultaneously on Zoom and in-person, then I’ll go to the field with my in-person students, and send remote students to conduct observations near their homes.

Students then post their observations to a common online platform (SeeSaw) where I can review and comment. As we move through the school year and invariably spend more time inside, I’ll work to maintain a comparable class flow: direct instruction for all (live or via Zoom) followed by independent work time for all (either at school or at home), and online submission of a work product for that day for me to review and comment.

What has been the greatest challenge?

For me the biggest challenge has been balancing the needs of students in the classroom with those who are connecting in from home, while keeping the learning engaging and relevant. A big part of this has to do with figuring out how to juggle working between an iPad, a computer, a projection system (or TV), and multiple apps. All of this is often compounded by bandwidth issues (typically) on a student’s end. I think I’m getting better at this, but it is a big lift. I’m thankful that we have a platform like Zoom, and that our school has 1-to-1 computing, but the structure of Zoom tends to drive class to look and feel like a traditional lecture-based class. When people talk about “Zoom fatigue,” I think a lot of what is fatiguing is ...20 people standing by while one person talks.

How are the students responding to the changes?

Our students have been incredible. They are still kids, but they have been incredibly thoughtful and patient with the entire process.

What is something good that has come out of this for you and your classes?

Last spring when I was sending content and activities to students through Google Classroom I got some really helpful feedback from a colleague — speech and language pathologist Tricia Magri — about how to clearly and succinctly create instructions for a wide variety of learners, including students with speech and language challenges. In the classroom, if you are unclear with a set of written instructions, you can fill in the gaps with an additional explanation or a visual created on a whiteboard in the moment. It is also easy for a teacher to “read” the class, to see with a glance if they are engaged. On the other hand, if a remote student misses one or more parts of your plan for a class, it is much more challenging for them to be able to reengage. They are more likely to drift off, sign off, check out and not come back. So needing to work in this environment has forced me to be a better teacher.

How have you dealt with your own concerns and fears about working in a public space during a pandemic?

To start with, our school has done a really thoughtful job of creating good practices relating to movement through the building, transitions from class to class, and other aspects of the school day that we can control. Most of the concern that I have is about others. In particular, I am concerned about students and staff who are immunocompromised. I have several colleagues who are older, or who have other risk factors. A big part of my role as a teacher these days is in making sure that our practices around masking, distancing, and sanitizing are reliably adhered to by our students.

What are some misconceptions the public has about the situation in our schools during this crisis?

I’m not sure what misconceptions the public has about schooling in a pandemic.

I guess one thing would be the assumption that teaching and learning is the same — or even similar —from school to school.

One thing that is clear to me from talking to colleagues and friends is that the experiences of teachers, students, and parents throughout the state and country vary radically. In Camden-Rockport we are lucky to have had school leaders who had the vision to implement a remote schooling pilot for snow days a full year before the pandemic. As a result, students and teachers had already had a chance to work remotely, problem solve, learn from our mistakes, and evolve some local best practices before we were called to go remote long term.

How would you compare the experience for students who have opted for remote learning vs. being in the classroom?

I know that it is tough to be a remote student in a classroom that is primarily populated by in-person students. It is quite different from being in a class where everyone is participating virtually, as we did last spring. If you have experienced a meeting or gathering where part of the group is face-to-face, and part is participating via Zoom, you understand what it might feel like. I realize it is an important option, and that families are choosing it for a variety of very good reasons. Being in-person is challenging right now, as well, but in different way. The rhythm and flow of classes and the school day are invariably set by the ebb and flow of the 400 students moving about the building and the campus. With the measures that we have in place to minimize the possible transmission of the virus, transitions take much longer. We sanitize desks and chairs, and stagger the dismissal of classes to reduce the number of students in the hall at any given time.

These things impact the school day for in-person students, but they also impact the way that the school day is experienced by remote students, in that there are gaps in their connections to classes and classmates that are necessary and not always predictable.

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