'Everyone is overwhelmed.' A teacher struggles to engage her students via distant learning

©The Sacramento Bee

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Kimberli Heck counts the students she’s connected with online since distance learning began: seven students out of a class of 26, and 34 students out of a class of 36.

The English and history teacher at Winston Churchill Middle School in Carmichael has been teaching her classes online since April 13, exactly one month after schools abruptly closed in March at the start of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Some students treat this time like it’s summer, but there are also a lot of parents who are just overwhelmed,” Heck said. “Everyone is overwhelmed.”

Distance learning has proven to be challenging for everyone involved: parents, students and their educators. As some families jump onto online platforms and use Zoom for the first time, teachers are also left learning as they go.

No one has done this before, including Heck.

Heck said she has been reinventing her job: Testing out technology, helping colleagues navigate online portals and working hard to grab her students’ attention.

“It’s been very challenging,” she said. “It’s like starting a new school year. Here we are at the end of the school year, where we are usually winding down. You have a relationship with your kids, and you look forward to doing lessons that are a little bit more mindful to the students and their needs. But the way we are doing things, it feels like August.”

Heck said her workload has tripled since the start of distance learning. Students engage at all hours of the night, asking questions on Google Classroom. Her husband reminds her to be off the computer at 5 p.m., otherwise Heck would lose track of time.

Her students are reading “Touching Spirit Bear” in an English class, an award-winning novel of a boy who must overcome the effects that violence has had on his life. Heck’s voice breaks, lamenting at the thought that her students are reading one of her favorite novels with no physical classroom to reconvene and share their thoughts.

“There are horrific scenes, and my students always love talking about them,” she said.

But distance learning created a lot of disengagement. Students thrive on communication – especially middle school students. In her classroom, Heck is always opening the floor for literary and history discussions. Students are now sharing their thoughts on the book through journaling.

“This whole idea of taking your verbal ideas and putting them into words is a challenge,” Heck said. “They don’t want to write journal responses.”

So, as Heck and her students get ready to embark on the history of the Renaissance period in her social studies class, she is asking students to choose a figure and submit video recordings of themselves in character.

Heck hopes outside-the-box lessons will allow students to lean into their virtual world classroom more – at least those who are already engaged in distance learning.

“A lot of families have been displaced,” she said. “I don’t know where they are.”

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)