Elementary students in the Flagstaff Unified School District had the opportunity to learn online for the first time this year through the Flagstaff Online Academy.
The program is run by Thomas Elementary and Ginni Biggs, the principal of both schools, said it tries to reflect the education received by students attending an in-person class.
FOA has three virtual classrooms, each of which can accommodate up to 20 students. Like in-person students at Thomas, children in the distance learning program have activities in small and large groups, participate in specials (art, music, physical education) and meetings to open and close the school day. Once a week, the school counselor visits classrooms for a social-emotional learning lesson on topics such as conflict resolution or stress management.
“They obviously have more free time, but they work from home,” Biggs said. “…It’s just that instead of a hot lunch, they come in every lunch from home.”
Three teachers with online learning experience were hired for FOA’s first year – Amy Riley for the kindergarten class, Laura Atkins for first and second grades, and Lauren Lykovich Uno for third and fourth grades.
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“They’re so incredibly committed to the work they do,” Biggs said. “They are constantly learning, revising, revising, re-teaching… They are really committed to ensuring a rigorous learning environment and having high expectations for these students. I honestly can’t say enough how proud I am of the work they do.
Lykovich Uno, who taught fourth grade for FUSD for seven years before joining FOA, said teaching online “feels good for where I am in my life right now.”
She wasn’t sure what to expect for the fall semester, but “really enjoyed my experience.”
The biggest difference between teaching remote learning at the start of the pandemic and at FOA, she said, is that there is more engagement when families can opt into the program.
“I communicated with my families and I really felt like a team with them this year, more than ever, because I speak to them several times a day. [and] they do it with me. … We’re all this great team and that’s something I loved seeing this time around. …The involvement of students and families is very important. I really appreciate all the support they’ve been able to give across the iPad,” she said.
Biggs also said communication is an unexpected benefit of online learning. This is especially true for families with young children, where an adult is more often present to support their student’s learning.
“We don’t normally have this experience in physical schools where parents watch their child’s learning all day and that’s exactly what they’re doing now,” she said. “Parents are able to say very quickly to the teacher afterwards, ‘I noticed that my child is struggling with subtraction, do you have any ideas?’ I think what we see is this closeness, this depth of partnership.
The increased presence of family members has allowed FOA teachers to receive feedback and make small adjustments as things arise throughout the year; as Biggs put it, FOA continues to “think and then refine” during its spring semester.
“The changes … just happen at the class level or at the individual student level rather than at the program level,” she said.
When asked about his plans for the upcoming program, Biggs said they were evaluating the success of FOA and the community needed to make a decision “in the next few months” on whether FOA would be offered next year.
At the start of the second semester, Lykovich Uno said she was adjusting the curriculum “to be much more rigorous.”
“I was very focused on how they’re going to get into the program in the first half, and now that they can get into it, I’m very committed to that growth and I’m able to prepare them for the next stage. next year,” she said.
Teaching at a different grade level was actually a bigger change, Lykovich Uno said, because of the differences between the two age groups. Of the 17 students in her class, 12 are in third grade.
Lykovich Uno says she uses group work to accommodate the mixed grade level format, with students divided into skill level groups for subjects where they might have different needs (primarily reading, writing and mathematics). While one group does a guided lesson with her, the other two work on independent projects.
Some subjects, such as social studies and science, involve more group lessons. These are often live lessons using Nearpod, which allows it to see student screens as they work and offer feedback.
The class uses the same program as an in-person class at Thomas, with some adaptations to make it work online. Most of these relate to moving course materials to digital format and adding additional material (a multiplication game, for example) to keep students engaged in their learning experience.
Families come to Thomas Elementary occasionally (about once every six weeks for the third and fourth grade class, more often for younger students) to pick up supplies for their students, worksheets, and manipulatives to art materials or even pieces of a pool noodle for a special gym unit.
It’s something they haven’t been able to do as much in the 2020-21 school year, Biggs said, and it allows teachers to be more creative in student engagement efforts. She also said that it helped her get to know the students better.
“I’m going to log in and join the class, trying to get to know the kids through the squares of their Zoom boxes and their personality comes through,” she said. “But the students, when they’re in the building, I’m able to get to know them more personally on a deeper level sometimes. [and] I had to really work to connect with online students in the same way. When they come to pick up their gear…it’s a chance for me to stand in the car window and say hello and…hear how their learning experience is going. »
Biggs said there haven’t been many changes to program enrollment over the year so far, although families have the option to join or leave the program at the end of the year. each academic term.
Most of the reasons for enrolling in the program for families were related to COVID-19, Biggs said. Either they have found unexpected pleasure in learning online, or their families have been affected by the virus, prompting a desire or need for extra precautions.
For the most part, Lykovich Uno’s class had the same students. She had added two students to her class this week, and some families had wanted to try the school in person once their children could have been vaccinated. To help new students adjust to the online classroom, Lykovich Uno said, she has a Zoom call with their family to show them what they can expect from the classroom layout and tools.
She said she saw a lot of growth in her students during the fall semester.
“It took so many of them picking up the slack and just saying this is something that I’m going to tackle and I’m just going to get better every day,” she said. “They really exceeded all my expectations and they’re not giving up.”
The format of the program teaches students technology and time management skills, she said, such as their ability to defend themselves and solve technological problems.
“I think technology will be an integral part of all these children’s lives, no matter what,” she said when asked what pandemic-related changes in education she expects. to continue. “I think we were heading there regardless of the pandemic, but the pandemic really got us started…integrating [technology] in the lessons instead of just using it as the final piece. I think it’s definitely something that’s here to stay and stay…I’m thrilled that [my students] are going to be super prepared for life in the digital world.