NACOGDOCHES, Texas — Classrooms at the Stephen F. Austin State University Charter School are frozen in time. Incomplete drawings and books with marked pages rest in students’ cubbies.
“When we said goodbye for spring break, my students and I didn’t get a chance to savor the moment because we thought we would be right back,” said Alyssa Landreneaux, a fifth-grade teacher at the school.
Since March 16, the Monday after spring break in Nacogdoches, SFA Charter School’s 250 students in kindergarten through fifth grade have been sheltering in place at home with their families due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“As a teacher, your instinct is to be in the classroom learning with students each and every day,” said Madison Taylor, a first-grade teacher at the school. “The loss of this time together is hard to grasp, not just for the loss of in-person academic learning but also for the time and relationships between students.”
Lysa Hagan, principal and chief executive officer of the charter school, said the empty hallways and classrooms in the Janice A. Pattillo Early Childhood Research Center initially made her sad.
“Then it came to me that I knew exactly where to find everyone; the children and teachers were just in a different place,” she said. “I simply opened Seesaw, and there they all were laughing, talking and learning with one another.”
When schools around the state closed, the more than 30 SFA Charter School teachers sprang into action to provide high-quality online instruction through a remote learning platform called Seesaw.
Teachers use this platform to post videos of themselves teaching lessons and giving instructions for student work. In return, students can record themselves completing their work verbally or submit written answers. Then teachers assess student work and provide feedback to each student all within the same online area.
“Although all the teachers are using the Seesaw platform, each class is unique,” said Natalie Cardenas, SFA Charter School academic coordinator. “We are still able to assess each student’s needs, differentiate lessons for them and continue with the curriculum we have always used.”
Landreneaux said SFA Charter School teachers in the upper grade levels were already familiar with Seesaw and guided the other teachers in transitioning online. In the span of a few faculty meetings, expectations for learning were set, and a tentative curriculum calendar was established. In just days, many classrooms were up and running, and students were logging in and enjoying the lessons.
“Teacher instruction and learner response have been amazing!” Hagan said. “When everything else seemed uncertain in our world, school was the normal our students could count on.”
Following Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards, the teachers prioritized math and reading lessons and integrated science, writing and social studies curriculum throughout those lessons. Also, just as they would in their physical classrooms, teachers responded to individual student needs by modifying lessons and providing extensions.
“Our exceptional teachers are so grounded in our constructivist philosophy of learning that the how and what to teach were not even a discussion,” Hagan said. “We simply had to support one another to make the curriculum fit into the online platforms we had available. The instruction teachers are providing online is exactly like what the children experience in the face-to-face classroom.”
SFA students working toward teaching certificates also have successfully participated in the charter school’s online instruction.
“Our teacher candidates are still providing TEKS-based lessons following the same structure as when they were live in the classroom. They teach, assess and reteach just like before,” Hagan said.
Physical education, art and music lessons are posted each week to promote physical and creative growth, and students can choose which day of the week they want to complete these.
“Some teachers post fun how-to videos, such as how to catch a mudbug at the creek or bake a coconut meringue pie,” Landreneaux added. “Our goal is to have 100% student participation schoolwide, so teachers are working hard to keep the learning engaging.”
Students have taken advantage of the online platform to respond to their lessons in new ways.
“The creativity students are able to express through the different modes of communication on Seesaw have allowed for their thoughts to shine,” Taylor said. “The option to type, write, voice record or even video themselves has opened up a line of communication for students to express their thoughts on the learning in an interactive and engaging way.”
Landreneaux believes teachers will continue to use Seesaw even after the school reopens to provide more opportunities for differentiation, small group learning and at-home enrichment now that families are familiar with the platform.
In addition to Seesaw, charter school teachers are using their workshop approach via Zoom to continue fostering classroom communities and help students maintain their relationships with each other through real-time instruction. Zoom activities include book groups, small-group specific skill instruction, whole-group community meetings and large blocks of independent work time during which teachers give individual students feedback.
“Seeing the joy that lights up students’ faces when they see a classmate on the screen or begin to understand something more clearly through a small group lesson is something that every teacher is living for in our time online,” Taylor said.
Without the leadership of SFA Charter School administrators and her fellow teachers, Taylor said her online lessons would not be as successful.
“Something that is so amazing about the SFA Charter School family is that we are just that, a family — a family who works together, supports each other and encourages each member,” Taylor said.
Students’ parents and caregivers are a big part of the charter school family, too. They have been the teachers’ biggest allies throughout the online learning transition, according to Taylor.
“They are truly a partner in this process. Their support and involvement in the online lessons and activities have played a huge role in the learning of their children,” she said. “Not only are they an outstanding component of at-home learning, but the support and words of encouragement they have expressed for their teachers are appreciated more than they know.”
Landreneaux said the parents are working just as hard as the teachers. “They’re asking questions and making suggestions for improvement.”
Hagan added, “Our parents had to be the information technology department for a while. As students became more fluent with the learning technology, I think parent anxiety tremendously decreased.”
She said a grandmother of two charter school students shares her home-schooling experiences through Instagram posts.
“The learning appears to be exceptional under her watch,” Hagan said. “I am certain this is going on in many homes.”
Though this new online teaching and learning format has been successful in many ways, it still presents challenges, Cardenas said.
Some SFA Charter School families do not have internet access, so they must pick up a packet of materials every Monday when they return the student’s work from the previous week.
“Determining which children have access to technology and which need a paper packet for the week has been one obstacle,” Cardenas said.
So far, less than 5% of the students have needed or chosen the packets, and they receive real-time feedback from their teachers through phone calls.
Accountability also has been a challenge.
“Holding students and families accountable in a time like this is difficult,” Cardenas said. “Every family has a different situation, and expecting them to fulfill their own everyday needs and assist with their child’s lessons can be tough. Parents are doing their best.”
Despite these challenges, charter school teachers have been able to gather the data needed to provide progress reports for each child.
As the end of the school year draws closer, Landreneaux’s biggest concern is that her fifth-grade students won’t get to experience the customary charter school send-offs before they head into middle school.
“There will be no fifth-grade talent show or celebratory pool party,” she said. “I won’t get the chance to read one more book to them on the rug or hug them as they walk across the stage in our traditional graduation ceremony. Virtual learning just can’t replace these personal moments.”
The charter school is hoping to provide some closure to the 2019-20 academic school year by holding two graduation vehicle parades — one for the kindergarteners and one for the fifth graders — featuring mortarboards and tassels. These parades will celebrate students’ achievements on the last day of school in the ECRC parking lot.
Taylor also feels the loss of in-person moments, but she, Cardenas, Hagan, Landreneaux and the rest of the SFA Charter School family are making the best of the current situation and looking toward the future.
“Children are resilient, and they are learners,” Taylor said. “I know with the hard work of our teachers, the support from families and the love of learning from Junior Jacks, we will start out next year just as positively as we leave this one.”