‘We are all persevering together’

Published 5:00 pm Wednesday, April 15, 2020

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Albert Lea teachers, families adjust to distance learning


Albert Lea Area Schools students are closing out their third week of distance learning, and haven’t attended on-campus classes since March 6, before they went on spring break and the COVID-19 pandemic shut down schools, businesses and other organizations. 

Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order had distance learning continuing through May 4 as of Wednesday morning, but the governor has said the chances of students going back to classrooms before the 2019-20 school years ends are slim. 

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The news has been an adjustment for teachers, parents and students.


A typical distance learning day

Kim Larson, a first-grade teacher at Sibley Elementary School, said she begins each school day by posting lessons on SeeSaw that need to be completed for the day, along with a video of a learning concept, reading a book or words of encouragement. Then she looks at data from IXL and forms small group lessons or individual lessons to “help each student master the first-grade standards.” She said about every half hour she is on the phone with a family or on Google Meet with individuals or small groups of students. When she is not doing that, she’s back on SeeSaw checking completed work turned in by her students. 

Halverson Elementary School second-grade teacher Jessica Rassler also starts her day with SeeSaw, initially to look at students’ work turned in by those who complete their assignments the evening prior. She then responds to anything they need, any questions from students or their parents, and then answers emails. She said she has had a variety of meetings through Google Meet on Chromebooks with other teachers or students as well. 

The rest of Rassler’s day is then spent planning lessons, creating teaching videos, videoing read-alouds, creating and making all her assignments in SeeSaw that students have to respond to, recording voice directions for their work in SeeSaw, finding activities that match standards and how to teach them over the Chromebook, looking through students’ work for the day and responding to it, and communicating with students and parents. 

“I try to stay a week ahead with my planning and creating, so that if something goes wrong, I am able to fix it before it gets pushed out to the students,” Rassler said.

For Erin Gustafson, the work-based learning teacher for juniors and seniors at Albert Lea High School, the majority of her mornings are spent emailing students, families, employers and other staff members about various needs, as well as creating videos and lessons for students. Then, after lunch, she uses Google Hangouts, where her students can drop-in and say hello, get help with homework or say hi to Gustafson or one of the job coaches. After those Google Hangouts, Gustafson often has IEP meetings or Google Hangouts with other staff members. 

“And, in between all of that, I try and help my own kids with their school work,” she said.

“There is a lot of work that goes into distance learning,” Abbey Hullopeter said. 

Hullopeter’s daughter, Brooklyn Hullopeter, is in third grade, and her son, Brinkley Hullopeter, is in first grade — both at Sibley.

Abbey Hullopeter was expecting packets of papers to be sent home and worried she would have to spend evenings reviewing the next day’s coursework to make sure her children were getting their education. 

“However, the staff at Sibley goes above and beyond,” she said. “They have video calls daily with the class, they spend hours at night recording videos educating and explaining the assignments for the next day/week and they are always available when the parents or students have questions. They truly are appreciated.”


‘Distant learning is harder’

“Distant learning is very busy,” Larson said. “I am more busy now than when I was in the classroom.”

Larson said all of her lessons are differentiated to help each of her students succeed. Students are available to talk at different times of the day, so she is working longer hours, and she said students are enjoying talking to and seeing each other on Google Meet, which Larson uses to hold small group lessons. Still, it’s not the same as being in the classroom. 

“Students say that distant learning is harder than when we were in the classroom together,” Larson said. 

For Rassler, technology, while a convenience, has also been an initial challenge for students. Her second graders received Chromebooks for distance learning, but had only used iPads in the classroom. She said a lot of instruction videos were made to help walk her students through the new technology and how to use it. 

“Like anything new, at first, there were some learning curves for all of us,” Rassler said. 

“It’s certainly not an ideal situation for students, families or staff, but for the most part, it’s going as well as can be expected,” Gustafson said.

Hullopeter said, in general, distance learning has been going well for her family. 

“I am fortunate enough to be able to work from home, so I am able to keep both kids on somewhat of a routine. Some days are easier than others, because after all, I am still Mom, and they don’t always want to listen,” she said. “Some mornings they are willing to start right away at 8 a.m., and other days it’s 10 before they will even look at their assignments. At the end of the day, they know it’s a requirement, and they have work to do, so they get it done.”


Missing the classroom

In some ways, distant learning is the same as being in a classroom, Gustafson said. The student who always has a joke to tell in class, always has a joke to tell in Google Hangouts. In other ways, though, it’s completely different.

“Being in the classroom with kids, working with them and seeing their growth is the reason so many of us go into teaching,” Gustafson said. “Distance learning has taken away many of those sweet moments we have in the classroom that just can’t be replicated online.”

Missing the in-classroom element is felt by Rassler, too. For instance, she said when she reads a book to her students in their classroom it opens up into a great discussion. Now that she is reading to them through a recorded video, that discussion piece is missing. 

“It is entirely a different experience, because you don’t have that personal connection with the students. You don’t have the same opportunity to be face-to-face with the students and have daily interaction with them,” she said. “When you are in the classroom with your students, you can read them — you know what they are thinking or feeling, if they are understanding or need help — and I can’t do that over technology. I think we are all missing that personal connection with each other, and they are so excited to do the Google Meet with me, but it is still not the same.”

That in-person connection is missed by Larson, as well.

“I miss teaching in the classroom more than words can describe,” she said. “Seeing the students walk into the school with big smiles on their faces, watching and encouraging students problem solve and apply their learning, and seeing those light bulb moments are all missed very much.”

Hullopeter said her children definitely miss being in school, and miss seeing their friends, especially.

“Anyone that knows them knows they are pretty social, and not having the social interaction is tough,” she said. “They also love going to school, and I feel they aren’t learning as much as they would be if they were in the classroom.”


‘A great life lesson’

Gustafson said Google Hangouts has been a new way to connect with students, and has given teachers the opportunity to see them in a new light. 

“Another upside (is) this has been a great life lesson on how to adapt to unexpected changes, and how to roll with what happens,” she said. “The students have had some really interesting insight into the situation that has been neat to be a part of.”

Rassler said the added technology teachers and students have learned to use will benefit everyone as well.

“An upside is that when we transition back to a more traditional method of teaching in the classroom, we, as teachers, will have some new tools and strategies at our disposal in how to incorporate more technology into our teaching and student learning,” she said. 

For Daylynn Alm — whose daughter, Sophie Alm, is a sixth grader at Southwest Middle School — distance learning has helped her daughter.

“Sure, she is now home every day and is missing out on social interactions with her peers, but this distance learning experience has actually been a positive thing for her thus far,” Daylynn Alm said. “It has been a rough school year with behaviors and such, but distance learning has allowed her to exhibit her independence and self motivation, as she gets up every morning and jumps online to complete her school work each day without being told and keeps at it until she is finished.”

Alm said her daughter looks forward to the daily contact with her teachers, where she can ask questions or for any assistance she may need, and Alm said the teachers have been great. 

“This experience has allowed her teachers and I to see a whole different and positive side to her, allowing her to utilize her full capabilities,” she said.


Getting back into the classroom

The time away from their students has been difficult for teachers, and they look forward to getting back into their classrooms together, whether that will be next month or next school year. 

“Seeing the smiles on the students’ faces, holding morning meetings, interacting with the students and being there in times of need are things that I miss,” Larson said. “I am so excited to be back in the classroom when it is safe.”

Gustafson, too, is excited to see her students again in person, and said she misses being able to talk with them before and after class to talk through whatever is going on in their lives. 

“The personal connection and face time with my students, I miss that the most,” Rassler said. “We are together with them all day long and are a big part of their lives, and now we aren’t in that same role.”


‘We are all persevering together’

“As a first-grade teacher, helping parents has always been a big part of my position,” Larson said. “Now, I am encouraging, inspiring and motivating parents to help their children succeed as their only teacher.”

Daily phone calls with parents help Larson trouble-shoot problems and discuss any possible issues.

“I am so proud of my families for all they are doing to succeed. Everyone is trying their best with a positive attitude,” she said. “We are all persevering together.”

“Our students have really risen to the challenge and I am so proud of them,” Gustafson said. “The seniors have lost a lot with events like prom, plays and concerts needing to be canceled, but they haven’t let that bring them down. They have been amazing.”

For Hullopeter, she said she is grateful for the teachers and support staff working with her children, and said even through distance learning, they are going above and beyond to do everything they can to educate and support students.

“As a parent, there is a constant worry that you are not doing enough to help your child, and it can be very overwhelming while trying to work a full-time job, yet be tentative to your child’s questions, but we are doing our best given the situation,” she said. “There are many more positives than negatives. I feel much more involved in my child’s education, which allows me to use what they’ve worked on that day in our everyday life. Most importantly, I love being able to spend all day with them.”


About Colleen Harrison

Colleen Harrison is the photo editor at the Albert Lea Tribune. She does photography and writes general-assignment stories.

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