Publication Date

July 23, 2020

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily

AHA Topic

K–12 Education, Teaching & Learning


  • United States


Digital Methods

On March 13, I watched as the national news reported that many schools in the United States were beginning to close in response to COVID-19. I immediately wondered, “what will we do if we have to close?” My small K–12 school district is in an agricultural area with many of our students living on remote farms or in the small town of Granada, Colorado (population 517, according to the 2010 Census). Many of our students would struggle without in-person instruction and some lack access to technology or the internet at home. Most of their parents are essential agricultural workers, so they would still have to work even if our school closed. During spring break, Governor Polis issued a statewide order to close schools.

For James Hysell, teaching on Zoom while separated from his students has been especially challenging.

Remote teaching isn’t new to some educators in rural Granada, CO. J. Stephen Conn/Flickr/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

What was I going to do for my students? I teach grades 10–12. My seniors are in college dual-credit classes with Lamar Community College and, through a distance lab that allows me to teach in Granada and have my lessons broadcast, I teach to 7 other rural schools across 150 miles in southeastern Colorado. Although my students were used to receiving instruction from me remotely, they no longer had the support of their on-site proctors or schools. Likewise, I could no longer rely on the on-site proctors to help with simulations, hand out supplies, or serve as a student’s primary point of contact. Without them, I suddenly had 55 students spread across southeastern Colorado in my first-hour class and no additional support. In stark contrast, the rest of my sections were small, just eight to twelve students from my own district. Luckily, I was able to use my distance lab for all my classes during COVID.

In the week we had to prepare to teach totally online, local internet providers connected more homes to the internet while the district distributed phones that could act as wireless hotspots. Even with these programs, I had 15 students who relied on smartphones to complete all their work. I needed to get creative to make sure they could submit written assignments and exams. Students who used their phones for class assignments did not have access to Microsoft Word, so I asked them to write down their answers, take a picture or scan it with an app, and send it back to me. Some students texted the photo to my phone instead of trying to send the picture via email. This worked well and allowed them to complete their assignments.

I had 15 students who relied on smartphones to complete all their work. I needed to get creative to make sure they could submit written assignments and exams.

Thanks to being in a very remote part of Colorado, my district has been using various distance-learning tools ever since fiber optics arrived in the area. My first couple of years teaching this way were tough, but the longer I used this technology the easier it became. Having years of experience with using this technology was a major advantage during COVID. I was used to interacting with students over the web and had access to more advanced technology than many of my peers in my district.

Because most of my students took classes semi-remotely before COVID, I did not have to change my delivery and taught in more or less my usual manner. I obtained permission to continue teaching from my distance lab despite the campus closure. The computer I use in the lab has both a DVD and document camera built in, allowing me to seamlessly display historical documents and show videos during lectures and discussion. The major difference was teaching in an empty classroom on an empty campus. To help me feel connected to my students, I hooked up my computer to a projector. This allowed me to enlarge my students’ faces so that I could see them as people, not just heads in small boxes.

Advanced technology made my transition to remote teaching easier but the fundamentals of good teaching did not change. I still had to adjust some of my teaching strategies to account for students working in isolation. I altered demonstrations and activities so students could complete them alone at home. Class size still dictated some classroom decisions. My first-hour class was large, so I mostly asked simple questions to check that they understood the material. My other classes were much smaller, so we could spend more time on longer discussions.

Advanced technology made my transition to remote teaching easier but the fundamentals of good teaching did not change.

I was pleased that the transition to entirely remote learning went well. However, there are definite drawbacks to this kind of teaching, even for someone who is used to teaching students in multiple locations. I struggled to gauge if every student was understanding the information as we proceeded. In my regular classes, I have a much better sense of student engagement. Problems with engagement caught up to them on their exams when we switched to this online format. When discussion items came up on the exam, it was easy to tell which students had been engaged during class sessions. This helped me realize that I needed to check for understanding more frequently and I needed to keep a checklist with information about who was asked specific questions and who was not. With these changes, student engagement improved (as did their exam scores). I also made each student a different set of questions—an enormous amount of work, but essential to ensuring that my students were engaged, completing their own projects, and not looking at something else on their computer screens or phones.

As of July 16, the state of Colorado will be going back to school this fall. If I have to teach online again for some or all of the autumn, I will be more prepared with different activities that students can do on their own. I may even try to work a couple of group projects that they can complete together using Zoom or email. Like tens of thousands of my fellow teachers around the country, I will adjust and adapt.

John Hopper teaches grades 10–12 for the Granada School District in Granada, Colorado. In 2019, the AHA awarded him the Beveridge Family Teaching Prize for distinguished K–12 history teaching.

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