DHS Special Education Teacher Motivated by His Students’ Response to Distance Learning

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted how education is delivered. Beginning in March, all Stanislaus County school districts – including Denair Unified — were forced to suspend on-campus classes and move to a distance learning model. Today, in the latest in a series of profiles, we talk with a Denair teacher about distance learning, some of the challenges involved and the lessons that can be learned.

Teacher: Robert Moore

School: Denair High School

Grade/subject: 9-12/ Mild-Moderate Special Education

Years in district: 4

What does a typical school day look like for you now? How do you organize your time? 

Right now, my typical day is having six periods of instruction live on Zoom with my students. Periods are 30 minutes apiece and we have a five-minute “passing period” in order for students to navigate between classes. I teach three periods of math, two periods of English Language Arts and a period of our Project Life curriculum to help kids with their post-secondary transition needs. I then try to take lunch after this synchronous time is done so that I can be back at a little after noon because I have a prep for seventh period. I then have open office hours for students to get help on content or assignment completion. I also use this time to communicate with other staff, set up IEP meetings and work on writing IEPs, meet with my induction mentor and prepare for the next day’s lessons. I do all of this from my classroom computer and then try to complete this by 3 p.m.

What are some of the things you are doing during live instruction with students? 

During live instruction, I have been using my Ugee graphic tablet to write math content on the virtual whiteboard. I think we have gravitated to this because of how easy it is and how easily I can switch colors and size in order to help with math concepts. We also will watch short videos on new concepts together and I will pause for us to work on the examples together. I usually draw on the screen using the graphic pad. The students give their answers to me, usually privately in the chat using Zoom so that their answers don’t influence their peers.

I have also used this time to look at our reading materials using Savvas Realize and the Kami app. This allows students to use highlighting, dictionary and text-to-speech tools in order to comb through the material for the academic vocabulary that they aren’t familiar with. We spend a lot of our time close reading using these tools. Students then usually have some time to read aloud in order to get some of that practice. We then will have some writing assignments where my classroom aid, Maria, and myself can help them edit their work and discuss writing strategies using Google Docs and Google Classroom. I also spend some time just having brainstorming sessions for our writing using the graphic pad to draw on the screen so that we can have a free flow of ideas.

For Project Life, we often have social skills and career-related material that we work on. We have worked to build and fill out our resumés, research websites for desired job opportunities, conducted mock job interviews, talked about social skills in the workplace vs. in less professional settings, conflict resolution, etc.

What are the biggest adjustments you’ve had to make?

I feel that the biggest adjustments we have had to make as a class would be the amount of work they are responsible for completing while unsupervised. Normally, my class doesn’t require students to do a lot of homework. Right now, students are needing to take more responsibility to turn in their assignments during our asynchronous time. Also, our students are having to adjust to turning things in using primarily Google Classroom. This means navigating technology that they may not be completely familiar with. Our biggest struggle has been students making a copy for themselves, attaching their work rather than just emailing me, using different extensions or tools to annotate PDFs, and communicating with me when the work hasn’t been attached or when there is something missing.

What are your favorite teaching tools? Why?

My favorite teaching tool right now would be the graphic pad I got this year using grant money. My students all know that I like to use the whiteboard and overhead to use drawings or images to supplement the material in order to try to give them visuals to work from. This tool allows me to do that with the same specific style and personality that I can in the classroom. I would also say that I have really liked using Kami as well. This has allowed my students to be more independent when reading material that is above their natural reading level. Zoom is a great tool as well because of the ability to let us meet in real time and be creative with our backgrounds and communication style as well as sharing our screens to troubleshoot issues.

Are there teaching techniques you’re using now that you’ll be able to apply in your classrooms when in-person classes resume?

I would like to maintain our online learning as much as possible even when we are in the classroom so that my students have access to these tools that will make them more valuable in the work force. I want to continue to use the Google apps to complete our work and I want to continue to encourage them to use tools like Kami so that they can do this on their own for material that might be hard for them to decode or comprehend.

What are your biggest concerns about students and distance learning?

My biggest concerns for my students during distance learning would be their socialization. I feel like I get a lot from meeting my students in person every day and reading their non-verbal cues. I am sure this is true in the reverse as well. I am happy that we are able to meet on Zoom, but I always worry about the missing component of in-person socialization. Also, my pride and joy for Denair High is our Project Life/Work Studies programs. This how we allow our students to intern in local businesses in our community as well as neighboring communities and gain the skills that will ensure that they are employable upon completion of high school. This component is missing right now and it is a shame. My students love this program and are very excited to get back to work.  

How often do you interact with parents? What are their most common questions? 

I interact with parents on a regular basis because of the nature of special education. I hear a lot of parents concerned about their student’s active engagement during the live synchronous meetings, especially for parents who have to go to work and leave their students at home. I have also heard some concerns about their student’s ability to manage the amount of work during asynchronous time and that students can feel overwhelmed because of the way they are managing their time. I feel like the most common questions are, “When will we be resuming our normal school routines?” and, “How can my student get more specialized support for their problem areas?”

Do you have a favorite distance learning story to share?

When we first started distance learning, I had a student who gathered up all of his classmate’s cell phone numbers that he could get and shared them with me to start a group text and then started to text students in the evening to make sure to remind them to complete their work to be ready for class on Google meet in the morning. He also texted me sometimes when he felt like I wasn’t posting work on Google C;assroom as fast as we had agreed upon. Another student, who had a reputation for very slow work output and motivation, was texting me very early in the morning almost every day to ask me what work he could be doing and when I would be posting more work on the Google Classroom.

These are my favorite stories because they are stories about students with a lot of obstacles in their way who chose to rise up to these challenges rather than complain about how different things had become so quickly. They motivated me to fulfill my duties to the best of my abilities and maybe even try to do more than I was being asked because that is what they were doing. These are only two of these examples, but I have probably 5-10 of these examples of students who didn’t do the easy thing and just take advantage of a difficult situation. I have seen a lot of growth in the maturity of my students, hopefully because our classroom is more tight-knit due to the challenges that students with disabilities are accustomed to facing. I am proud of our district for holding everyone to high standards during this time because these students that I have discussed deserve our very best efforts and to know that they haven’t been set aside for easier times.

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