Teachers are being taught how to teach from a distance. Courtesy photo.

While school may be out for summer, teachers in Santa Monica are hard at work developing new skills and lesson plans for the upcoming semester of distance learning.

After the Santa Monica Malibu Unified School District shut down in-person classes on March 16 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, teachers taught their students remotely for the remainder of the semester. Now, they must plan an entire semester of distance learning for students they have never met. In preparation, many teachers are voluntarily giving up hours of their summer to create adapted lesson plans and attend technology trainings and distance learning workshops.

“The challenge for me this fall is trying to build a sense of community and having the kids feel like I have a relationship with them, even though it’s on a computer,” said Kitty Donohoe who teaches 2nd and 3rd grade at Roosevelt Elementary School.

This summer Donohoe took it upon herself to apply for a grant from the Cotsen Foundation to attend a virtual two week learning institute run by Teachers College at Columbia University. Through this program she learned strategies to build community virtually and methods for teaching reading and writing remotely. One activity she is excited to try out is to have her students draw mind maps of what they have learned during the pandemic.

“I’m trying to come to this distance and pandemic learning not with a deficit lens, but with a mindset of thinking kids are coming to this situation having learned things they never would have learned,” said Donohoe. “While they haven’t been in traditional school, they’ve learned how to get along in a small space with their family, they’ve learned about finance with COVID, and they’ve learned about social justice.”

She hopes activities like these will help her connect personally with her students and foster a positive attitude towards learning during the pandemic.

LaShawn Moore, a Kindergarten teacher at McKinley Elementary, also worries about building relationships with her new students, especially since many of them are coming from preschool and were not enrolled in distance learning in the spring.

“I’ve taught kindergarten for a long time but this is a very different animal,” said Moore, as she prepares for her 23rd year of teaching. She has spent time finding how to personalize lessons on Seesaw, the remote learning platform adopted by SMMUSD, so that her students feel connected to her. This includes recording instructions in her voice and planning sharing activities like having kindergarteners introduce their family to the class via photos, videos, drawing, or audio.

Gilda de la Cruz, an English teacher at Samohi, has similarly done extensive preparation for the fall, and said “I went to so many trainings I have webinar notes coming out of my ears.” According to de la Cruz, teachers have banded together this summer circulating useful webinars, sharing workshop notes, and exchanging advice on distance learning Facebook pages.

In the spring semester many of de la Cruz’s high school students struggled with motivation and had limited participation in distance schooling. She hopes that live instruction alongside clear expectations will lead to more effective learning in the fall. Through online trainings she has learned methods to make remote learning more interactive, to incorporate choice for students, and to integrate technology in creative ways.

All three teachers mentioned that mastering all these new technology platforms has been a challenge for them and their students’ families, but hope that the spring and summer provided good training grounds.

Donohoe, who is beginning her 33rd year teaching in the district, said, “It takes me a long time to pick up tech because I am not a digital native. I got my masters at UCLA on an electric typewriter, so it’s a big learning curve, but that’s a positive for me to get more adept at it”.

Positivity and attitude are other factors teachers said would be essential to a successful remote semester.

“We have to remember to be flexible because this is new for all of us and we all have to continue to display a positive attitude to our students about learning and about school,” said Moore. “I know that this is challenging, but I think that a positive attitude is going to go a long way. We are all in this together and want it to work as best as it possibly can.”