Reflections: Online Learning, Distance Teaching, and Life in the Midst of COVID-19

Fall 2020

By Dane Peters

Now, in the eighth week of the COVID-19 pandemic, my thoughts are constantly vested in our schools and teachers and how they are struggling with caring for their students and families. It is such hard work. Who would have thought that online distance teaching and learning would be needed this much and be this taxing and stress-filled? Much of the early advancement of the virtual world and remote learning goes to Khan Academy—hybrid learning, higher education, and their initial investment over the years—thank goodness that they did much of the heavy lifting on how it can all work.

As a retired educator who spent 40 years in teaching, school administration, and serving as head of two schools, I can appreciate how much effort has to be put into working a system for online learning for all students, particularly our youngest students and students with special needs. This pandemic, lasting as long as it has with no end in sight, places an immense strain on all students and their parents, yet teachers, parents, and students are finding ways to make this happen.

When I retired and settled on the New Hampshire seacoast, I continued doing part-time work as a writer and independent consultant to schools. At the same time, I missed being with students; so I immersed myself in my local community by volunteering for schools and nonprofit organizations. One important choice was volunteering for United Way’s K-Ready Readers Program where I was assigned to a school to read to children. I also finagled my way into my granddaughters’ school and read to their classrooms. I often read from books that I read to my children when they were growing up. I read those books so often, I could change my voice to take on the characters of the story. I loved reading and watching—at the same time—the expressions on the children’s faces and how they immersed themselves in each story. Each character was real to them.

All of this early retirement history is important to how it helped me become involved in the pandemic’s insistence on social distancing, using at-home schooling and online learning, and forcing humanity to work together to make it all happen for our children and future generations. Even as a Boomer, I asked myself, how can I take advantage of today’s technology to support the children in their at-home education?
 
For me it came in three perspectives:
  • FaceTime tutoring with grandchildren
  • Working with a school in China
  • Reading to children via YouTube and “Honey Punch & Pals”

FaceTime Tutoring with Grandchildren

Because we have the good fortune to live close to our two granddaughters, my wife and I have been working with them via FaceTime to support their at-home schoolwork. Grammar, editing skills, Wordly Wise workbooks, quadrilaterals, spelling, work with numbers, and ... have all been a part of our work together. As one of the older granddaughter’s editing assignments, I emailed this article to her so that she could be an editor, and she did a great job. Since we are observing social distancing, we were able to accomplish this via online communication. The virtual tutoring support has been especially fulfilling for my wife—a teacher in her own right—and me because of the relief we give to their parents as they continue to work from home and the hospital. The best part, though, is the appreciation the girls share with us in their work. It has given us an appreciation for the amount of work teachers have to do to make the online, at-home learning work for children and their families.

Working with a School in China

As part of my consulting work, I have had the good fortune to work with a school in Beijing over the past two years. Because of this experience, I was able to be a part of how schools in China dealt with this situation before we experienced it here in the U.S.—crisis management; having to deal with teachers learning how to respond and implement a new teaching system; and caring for parents and how they would be impacted and integrated into a brand-new educational system. Understandably, much of all of this was a trial-and-error approach. I was able to see that our U.S. response to online learning was similar to China’s response. One of the biggest differences, though, is that China had to respond without first seeing what was happening and without currently seeing another country’s experience of the pandemic.

Reading to Children via YouTube and “Honey Punch & Pals”

With my wife using my iPhone as my videographer, we were able to capture my reading of my favorite stories. I then uploaded them to YouTube and sent the links to the various classrooms where I read to children. The teachers responded with so much appreciation and with comments like the following:
This is such a great story Dane! Thank you so much for continuing to read for the kids each week!
 
Hi Dane, we LOVED the revised version of 3 Little Pigs! Your dramatic talents come through in these readings! (and you helped rescue the worst home-learning day we’ve had yet!) Thank you, friend.
 
Thank you so much for sharing these wonderful read aloud books. We have been posting them to our Google Classroom and we have heard rave reviews from the children. You even have your very own section in our online classroom platform.
 
After seeing you read a story on your YouTube channel, I must say that your reading style is one to follow, not to mention your use of multiple character voices.

I share these so you can appreciate how thankful classroom teachers are for the support and help as they work harder than they ever have in their classrooms. With this wonderful, warm feedback, my wife and I jumped in with much enthusiasm. Here are links to the library we have built up till now: Give one or two a try, and feel free to share with others. By the way, this is all on a volunteer basis; I neither receive nor do I want compensation for this joyful work. Helping the teachers help their children and families is the goal.
 
I also volunteer at a local theater, The Seacoast Repertory Theatre in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. When the pandemic hit, their mainstage productions ceased immediately; yet within a week’s time, they set up virtual programs using Crowdcast, an online video streaming venue for presenting theater productions. Some of the weekly programs are “Cabaret,” “Variety Hour,” “Meditation & Flow,” “Sunday Night Variety Hour,” “Honey Punch & Pals,” and many other programs. It is the last program that caught my attention because it is a children’s Mr. Rogers-type variety show with Muppets, singing, and story reading. Now, as part of each show, DD (aka Dane) reads one of his stories. The May 2 show had 326 viewers—viewers from all over the country.
 
While the COVID-19 pandemic has changed our lives in many ways, it has forced us to work together to get through this in the best way possible, especially in preparing our newest generations for the future. Ironically, the theme of this past spring’s Independent Teacher was “Politics in the Classroom” and how teachers can help our students understand the dynamics of the upcoming national elections. The articles' authors articulated well how to present ways of dealing with the divisions—or tribes—that exist in our country. Who knew back when the articles were written, submitted, and published that a pandemic would highlight the value of online/at-home student learning and everyone working together!
 
In closing, let us look at the COVID-19 pandemic with the glass being half full. We have been forced to learn that humanity is far better off when everyone is working together, using distance teaching and learning. Forming tribes and forcing people to care for their tribe rather than caring for humanity is not the way life should be. In America, we experienced this revelation before and after the Civil War and World War II. This evolution of humanity is so well explained in the popular book Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a must-read.
Dane Peters

In his 40-year independent school career, Dane Peters has served as head of two schools, a member of three education magazine editorial boards, and on the faculty of many training programs for teachers, administrators, and trustees; he has also sat on two independent school state association boards. He is now “retired” and works as a school consultant in the U.S. and China, and is a member of the Independent Teacher editorial board. Visit Dane’s Ed Blog.