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CUSD teachers fine tune distance learning for fall

by Mick Rhodes | mickrhodes@claremont-courier.com

One off. Anomaly. Unicorn. These adjectives denoting something unique, unexpected or mythologically rare are apt when discussing what Claremont educators are attempting this year as they begin teaching some 6,800 students entirely online.

Claremont Unified School District, along with most the country, was thrust into the same situation in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit. It rode out the 2019-2020 school year as best it could. It was a catch as catch can few months, to put it mildly.

But this year CUSD staff and administration had the summer to plan for online school, and teachers worked through their traditional downtime to prepare.

On top of that, many have their own school-aged children, and have been simultaneously gearing up for school at home, presenting still more atypical challenges.

“What summer?” joked Kara Leeper, an 11-year CUSD speech pathologist. Her two sons are a sophomore at CHS and a seventh grader at El Roble and her twin girls are fourth graders at Condit.

“There were parts of the summer that were nice because as a family we didn’t have anywhere to go or be, but as a teacher it definitely feels like there was no summer,” Ms. Leeper said, adding she’s spent untold hours learning to navigate the district’s online course management system, Canvas.

“Just knowing this year was going to start out completely different I think most teachers spent the summer learning and preparing and trying to be ready for this week,” Ms. Leeper said.

Tamara Nicoll teaches ninth grade honors freshman English and senior AP literature and composition at Claremont High School. She’s been an educator for 29 years, the last 15 at CHS. Her 11-year-old daughter is a sixth-grader at Sycamore Elementary.

She too has been working on getting up to speed on Canvas and has thus far been less than thrilled with the platform.

“But I think there are so many things to complain about now, but I don’t want to spend my days complaining anymore,” Ms. Nicoll said. “I don’t want to make my brain waves go toward complaining.”

Instead she honed her curriculum to respond to the moment.  

“I always try to make things intentional,” Ms. Nicoll said. “Every summer I have the goal to reevaluate what I’m doing and make sure that what I’m doing with curriculum and my approach to teaching, I always want to make sure it fits with what’s going on in the world for kids in that time. But this year there was just so, so, so much more to attend to, knowing that we were going into online learning, and knowing that we have a health pandemic and the pandemic of racism, I had to do a lot more thinking and a lot more strategizing.”

Among those strategies has been a focus on empowering her students to feel confident in sharing  what’s on their minds.

“What I’ve done is I tried to find ways within my curriculum to help kids raise their voice and talk about themselves as individuals and to share their stories,” Ms. Nicoll said. “I think there’s a story that everybody has to tell, they can only tell it in the way they tell it. And I think by doing that it helps us understand each other better.”

Heather Stradley has spent her entire 22-year career at Mountain View Elementary, where this year she is teaching a fourth and fifth grade blended combination class. She has one daughter at Grand Canyon University, another who is a junior at CHS, and a son in seventh grade at El Roble.

“We all feel like first year teachers this year,” Ms. Stradley said.

“I’m preparing more than ever,” she said Tuesday. “My partner and I were talking about this. We’re running off copies, we’re making packets and getting supplies together, because we want to make sure that our students have things to do whether or not their technology is working. So that’s been a big thing.”

That thread of having to learn a new skillset was universal among the teachers interviewed for this story.

“I’ve been doing a whole lot more to try and figure out and navigate the online teaching world,” said Chris Depew, a sixth-year El Roble Intermediate School math teacher. He spent the summer attending CUSD tutorials and webinars put on by Stanford University. He joined multiple Facebook groups where other teachers are sharing their ideas, and scoured YouTube in an effort to learn new ways to integrate his curriculum to an online setting.

“I think I’ve got a good plan for the online world and what this will look like,” Mr. Depew said  Tuesday. “But again, I have no idea if it will be successful. I’m keeping my fingers crossed and we’ll reassess after this first week ends.”

All of the interviewees had praise for CUSD’s efforts to help staff familiarize themselves with Canvas and the other pandemic related changes this year will bring.

“I think the one thing that’s been so awesome to come out of the pandemic is to watch teachers work together in order to make everyone’s life easier and share materials and post classrooms,” Ms. Leeper said. “It’s been amazing.”

Back when COVID hit in March, Ms. Leeper started a Facebook group, “School SLP Resources Covid-19,” which now has 13,000 members from across the country. She’s also gleaned information from other social media groups in an effort to learn all she can in front of what will be a challenging year.

“That part has been awesome,” she said. “We’re all desperate. People have shared all kinds of resources that they’ve found. It’s such a time saver. It’s been amazing.”

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