We met virtually with two Edwin Markham Middle School teachers — Jamie Schnablegger, English Language Arts (ELA) Team Lead, 6th grade ELA and History Teacher, and 7th and 8th grade Leadership Teacher; and Wendy Vanegas, 6th grade Math & Science Teacher and Peer Coach — to learn more about their distance teaching experiences. 

Wendy and Jamie are partner teachers, which means that they teach their respective grade-level subjects to the same cohort of 6th-grade students. This was particularly important during distance teaching/distance learning.

Wendy Vanegas and Jamie Schnablegger

As partner teachers, Wendy and Jamie identified a good system to support their students’ learning.

Now that the school year is over, what do you hope your students walked away with?

Jamie: Holistically, I hope that our students walked away with a sense of security and connections with their peers and teachers. Wendy and I left our Google classrooms open for the summer so that students can access summer activities. We also worked really hard during distance learning to teach them citizenship and digital literacy skills. We wanted to ensure that students felt equipped to appropriately interact electronically with other teachers and peers.

Wendy: I hope they walked away with the skills to be more independent. I would like for them to take what they learned in 6th grade to the next level so they can succeed in 7th grade.

What were the biggest adjustments you had to make to the way you teach?

Wendy: Since we are partner teachers, we synced a lot of things together. Our content varied, but our Zoom meetings with students were held at the same time and students got to interact with both of us. When Jamie was teaching, I was supporting by responding in real-time on her Google classroom and vice versa. To avoid confusion, our Google Classrooms mirrored each other and so did our grading approach.

Jamie: Traditionally, we both implement similar behavior expectations; however we lead our own content areas and approach teaching somewhat differently in the classroom. During distance learning, it felt like we were teachers 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and for all content areas. Although we were both in charge of our own lessons and delivery of instruction, we were very much co-teaching. We did our best to take advantage of our relationships, experiences, and interactions with our students to provide a better learning experience for them.

What did you learn about yourself and your students during this online learning period?

Wendy: I was surprised by some of the work I was receiving from students because typically in class they wouldn’t express themselves the way they were online. Some students really excelled and I was able to see them in a different light. So as I’m reflecting on what I learned about myself — I need to put into effect some of the changes from distance learning into my classroom, like giving more choice in the delivery of assignments or allowing them to express themselves through multimedia options. I think some students would have succeeded more had there been different avenues of expression in the classroom.

Jamie: Throughout teacher preparation programs we learn a lot about students and how they have multi-modalities; they learn and express themselves in different ways. Through distance learning, this was at the forefront of learning. I learned different ways in which I could incorporate activities to allow students to excel in all content areas. Just by tweaking a few things, students can build comfort in all subjects. When given a challenge, students rose to the occasion and that was something that I got to see in action. Our students still struggled through distance learning, but those who were struggling in the classroom were some of our higher performing students because of varied instruction given throughout distance learning. They felt very empowered to take control of their own learning. Being in a virtual classroom with another teacher showed me my areas of growth. Wendy has a great rapport with students and is a warm demander. I can and have learned a lot from her.

Wendy: We were pushed to grow in the professional field. Jamie is really organized and I felt like I had to redo my entire Google classroom because it makes so much sense that way she has it set up. This was a great opportunity for self-reflection, which is rare to find when you’re in the hustle and bustle of daily work in a physical setting. There was more opportunity to connect professionally with each other.

Jamie: I enjoyed that the kids had constant and consistent access to me, which is something kids don’t usually have when they’re in traditional settings. Often, I was answering student and parent calls well beyond the school day hours. I think students felt comfortable and more connected to their teachers. I want to carry this open line of communication into the next school year.

What specific strategies did you implement to engage your students with ELA and History, and Math and Science?

Jamie: That’s a tough question. A lot of our students read far below grade level. It’s challenging for them in the classroom, and now digitally even more so since they didn’t have me to directly support them. I didn’t want to lose the rigor through distance learning. I wanted to keep it high and the motivation high. I felt that I had to digitize the literacy strategies that we had already learned in class. Through Zoom meetings, we practiced choral reading and analyzed vocabulary. Specifically, there was a poem that was only six lines, but it took us almost four Zoom meetings to read it and understand it. By the end of it, they knew what it meant and they knew the vocabulary. It was amazing. So it wasn’t necessary to come up with new strategies. It was simply digitizing the strategies we used in class and making them effective in the virtual setting.

Wendy: I also saw Jamie incorporating video clips into her lessons. She was able to incorporate teamwork and collaboration into everything she did. For me, what changed for math was also going digital. Students had access to their tablets and books. In the classroom, students could join groups and work on different problems together. Online we changed the platform for how we were going to do that by creating lessons on Desmos — an online platform for students to interact with math. This allowed students to manipulate different components of math problems. The tools used in Desmos also mirror tools used in SBAC, which helps students prepare for it. For science, digital tools are used in the classroom so it stayed similar.

Jamie: I think we both tried to keep things as normal as possible by keeping things as consistent as possible.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Wendy: We were supported by both our administrators and Partnership in helping us navigate through the process of distance learning because it happened so abruptly. For math, I think that the Partnership team within a week had lessons available to us, specifically professional development training on how to create Desmos lessons. With administrators at the school, we were able to submit requests for our students. For example, if our students didn’t have access to technology or didn’t have internet at home, we could fill online request forms. Everyone helped with trusting our teachers’ voices to be able to advocate for our students. So big shout outs to all who stepped up to help!

Jamie: There was a well-oiled machine already in place. The team dynamics just worked. We both have on-site Partnership coaches — Adrian Hernandez and Geneviève DeBose Akinnagbe. If we wouldn’t have had these partners, I don’t think things would have worked out the way they did. I think because of everyone’s involvement, things went smoothly. It could have been better, but it went well given the circumstances.