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Fairmont Area teachers explain new routines

FAIRMONT — Distance learning and teaching has been a new venture for students and teachers alike. One thing it has created is flexibility for both.

Distance learning has been taking place since mid-March, when Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz announced that all schools in the state would close because of COVID-10 concerns and districts would have to create distance learning plans.

Since then, Fairmont Area Schools has received several complaints from community members who report seeing teachers out and about during the school day, when they are “supposed” to be teaching.

“We’re convinced teachers are putting in their eight hours a day, if not more,” said Superintendent Joe Brown. “Many are working on the evenings and on weekends.”

Brown explained that teachers have an eight-hour day by contract, but it looks different now.

“With virtual learning and virtual teaching, it doesn’t just happen from 8 to 4,” he said. “That’s one thing we’ve learned. Kids are all over the place and turning in their assignments at different times of the day. Things have changed.”

At the elementary level, parents pick up packets of worksheets and assignments from students at the beginning of the week. But for students in grades 7-12, it’s all virtual learning.

“If you’re doing your virtual teaching well, we really don’t care if you’re teaching from home or from your classroom,” Brown said.

He added that the flexibility is nice for teachers with young children, since they can be home during the day while their own children are also home from school.

Angie Simmering teaches reading and written language to seventh- and eighth-grade students in special education at the high school.

“With two young children of my own, it felt safer for me to leave the school building to work, learn and teach from home,” she said.

Simmering said that in a typical work day, she sets up by 7:30 each morning to get ready for the day, then begins communicating with students through phone calls or emails around 9 a.m. She also checks in with paraprofessionals who are helping students in her class.

Simmering schedules Zoom video calls with students throughout the afternoon. She also watches for student work throughout the day to check for progress, give feedback and grade. She does this well into the evening.

Simmering admitted that a drawback to distance teaching is that it can be difficult to separate her work day from other parts of her home life.

“At any time of the day or night, every email notification draws me to my computer,” she explained.

She noted that distance teaching has made her better at communicating with parents. She also believes this time has made many educators see the value technology has in day-to-day instruction.

“I would like to think that when we’re back to face-to-face instruction we will be more streamlined and polished with technology options,” she said.

Brad Haugen is a math teacher at the high school. He has been going into the school building early to teach from his classroom. He has been there along with about eight other teachers.

“Typically about 8:15 students roll in, but they’re not coming in, so I make a video for the day. I still make up notes like I normally would for my Smart Board but now I’m recording that session. I have a webcam, I’ve got my screen share for my computer so kids can hear my voice and see my face but still see the same notes they normally would. I try to normalize it as much as I can through video,” he said.

Haugen teaches two sections of advanced algebra, an AP calculus 2 class, an AP computer science principles class and STEM 8, which works with computer science, robotics and drones.

When asked why he chooses to teach from his classroom each day, Haugen said, “It’s easier. Especially with math. I deal with notes and work through problems so it’s easier to use the Smart Board in my classroom. I could use a little white board at home but this is easier.”

Haugen said it does not matter what time of the day students complete their assignment. He said they use a program called IEXCEL.

“They go in and work on problems and it keeps track of their work and their progress. They can get it done right away or they can wait until midnight. Whenever they work on it they’ll get credit,” Haugen said.

He said that while some students take advantage of the lack of a deadline, it gives them an opportunity to figure out what works for them. He noted that many are working more at grocery store jobs, so now they need to manage their time.

“That was a big skill they were kind of forced into. They had to develop that skill if they didn’t have it to make sure they’re getting done what they needed to,” Haugen said.

He has gotten creative when it comes to teaching his STEM 8 class, as it is all about exposing students to things such as drones and robots.

“Realizing that they couldn’t come in and be around the drones, I thought about how I could get them some exposure to drones so they could have some fun and peak an interest in this subject,” he said.

He broke his class into groups, with each having video meetings with him. Students in each group work on the same project.

“I fly the drone but they’re telling me how to program it. They watch it on a live video feed. If it crashes, they see it crash and the hoots and hollers when they complete the project is pretty cool,” Haugen said.

So far, students had to program the drone to fly through a hula hoop and land on a platform. This past week, Haugen created a maze in his classroom for the drone to be sent through.

From his standpoint, Haugen said a downside to distance teaching has been communication issues.

“The biggest drawback has been the kids that haven’t engaged. When you have them in your classroom and they’re not engaging it’s easier to have that personal conversation,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, Haugen said one of the best parts of the experience has been when students reach out to him asking for more help or a one-on-one conversation.

“Those sessions have been uplifting,” he said.

Haugen has created video lessons in the past when he had to leave school early to coach a golf meet. He said that when school looks more normal, it could be beneficial to keep video lessons as part of a teaching plan.

“If I could record a lesson, that gives me an opportunity to pull kids aside who might need some extra help. I can use what I learned throughout this time to improve when kids come back to the classroom, and that’s a big takeaway,” he said.

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