Teachers upgrade their tech savvy

First-grade teacher Alexis Currier assists Taylor McDowell during a Google Classroom phonics lesson at The Villages Charter Elementary School Primary Center.

Even teachers who thought they were tech whizzes in 2019 have encountered a steep learning curve in 2020. From virtual staff team meetings and finding or making a plethora of videos they post online, to helping parents learn to navigate online assignments to help their children, teachers say they are always on their computers doing something. “We are all more technologically adept than a year ago,” said The Villages Charter School third-grade teacher Kerry Taylor. The charter school was fortunate that students all had Chromebook computers and were used to using platforms such as Google Classroom before the first cases of COVID-19 were discovered, teachers said. 

However, they said they never expected to spend so much time on their computers.

First-grade teacher Alexis Currier is in her second year at the charter school. When she was in college just a couple of years ago, every lesson plan she created for her education courses had to incorporate computers, technology such as interactive white boards, or both.

She brought fresh computer skills to share with her fellow first-grade teachers. However, the technological demands of 2020 has been a shock to even young teachers such as her.

“Never would I have thought this would happen to us,” Currier said.

“We were so fortunate that the students had the Chromebooks already, and they knew how to work the programs they were using,” she said. “I’ve talked to friends back in New York. Their schools had to find computers and purchase them.”

The charter school was among the first schools to actually begin online learning in March, when COVID-19 prompted schools to close for what turned out to be the rest of the school year. Sumter County School District, which issued the school’s charter, was one of only four in Florida that were ready for remote, online learning.

Yet, that transition wasn’t easy. Teachers had about two days to prepare. They shared ideas and planned many lessons together, they said.

“In March when we were first at home, we recorded our videos as a team,” third-grade teacher Kerry Taylor said.

Now, they use Screencastify to help create instructional videos, which can be recorded with a smartphone and are usually faster and easier to make than hunting for an instructional video online, said first-grade teacher Christina Bingham.   

She also uses more features of tools and programs she and her colleagues have used for years.

“We’ve always had Google Classroom. That’s a constant,” Bingham said. “We’ve learned new ways to use Google Classroom.”

She taught her first-graders to use Google Slides for activities such as learning contractions. Students have learned to drag the word “can” to “cannot” to show the word “can’t,” Bingham said.

“The kids are used to getting their Chromebooks everyday,” she said. “For parents, it was hard getting them onto the platform,” which she said was different than the computer platforms most of them had used before, including requiring a password.

“It’s hard when we’ve got little ones who may not remember their password,” Bingham said.

Teachers all credited Patrick Murphy, the charter school’s curriculum, instruction, assessment and technology supervisor, for providing support and training.

“He’s been a lot of help,” Bingham said.

They’ve learned from each other, too.

“They’re eager to say, ‘Hey, I found this shortcut or this resource,” Bingham said.

She said she graduated from college a long time ago and has learned more computer skills on the job.

“Everybody has a lot of knowledge, and a lot of gifts they bring to the table,” she said.

Communicating with parents is mostly online now, so individuals’ Teacher Connection pages are more important and elaborate than a year ago.

Currier said she saw a teacher’s interactive page on social media and created something similar for her Teacher Connection page. Her page features nine brightly colored circles with links to information, such as one about herself, another with the daily schedule and one with classroom rules.

She said she shared page-building tips with the other first-grade teachers, most of whom created similar designs, as well as a few teachers from other grade levels.

“The parents have been great, too, and when we went to online learning last spring, they knew it was new to all of us,” Bingham said.

“Getting parents familiar with the technology was the biggest challenge,” Currier said, especially the parents of first-graders who are too young to understand all the school’s directions.

Elementary grade levels recently made and posted videos instead of the traditional face-to-face parent night.

Communicating with parents virtually has been the hardest part for The Villages High School dance teacher Shelly Warren, she said. Warren came to VHS this summer from Mainland High School in Daytona Beach and said she was used to recording videos as a dancer and coach.

She conducted several virtual meetings for parents but missed face-to-face interaction. Warren said she met a lot of the parents for the first time during the Closet Clutter sale in the school parking lot in November. 

Most teachers said recording so many instructional videos and videos of themselves for parents has been the hardest, most time-consuming part.

They said they have to record them several times to get everything just right. For example, they will like the way they said everything but then realize their hair was sticking up funny and go back and re-record everything.

“I think we should save all our bloopers,” Taylor said. “With everything going on, there has to be some laughter.”

Recording and editing videos is getting easier now with so much practice, teachers said.

Taylor teaches online full time this year in Buffalo eLearning. She said she now makes fewer videos because using their computer’s camera, she livestreams lessons all day except when her students go to weekly classes such as music, art or Spanish.

She said she was happy when another teacher taught her to create virtual breakout rooms for small groups of students’ leveled reading groups.

“They can read the books and talk to one another,” Taylor said. 

The hardest subject for Taylor to teach online is cursive handwriting. In class, she said, she could walk over to a student and suggest sitting up straighter or at another angle to the paper.

Just like students who learn and practice, technology is getting easier for teachers, too.

“We’re teachers,” Taylor said. “We adapt well.”

Staff writer Dayna Straehley can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5408, or dayna.straehley@thevillagesmedia.com.