A Teacher's Story: How Middle School Teacher Beth Simpson Adapted Her Teaching for Distance Learning

“Distance learning is really a complete reconfiguration of how you teach, but not necessarily what you teach. While it is different, in no way does it have to be lesser than. Going through something like this together is something we'll never forget, and the kids' resilience, positivity, and perspectives will stay with me forever.”
 – Sycamore Middle school teacher Beth Simpson
In the past couple of weeks, we have highlighted a few of our Early Childhood and Lower School teachers.  Today, we talk one of our Middle School teachers, Beth Simpson, who teaches Language Arts, about how she was able to incorporate group discussions of books, one-on-one time, and teach the writing of allegories from afar.
“When we closed the building, we were about halfway through reading To Kill a Mockingbird in seventh grade and then we moved on to Fahrenheit 451,” she says. “In fifth grade, we were reading Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories. Since every student learns differently, I kept expanding my teaching and checking-in methods.”

Simpson says Language arts is discussion based, so her initial goal was to find ways to recreate that. “I began with discussion boards, where I would post a couple of open-ended questions about what we were reading. I gave students a couple of questions to answer, and sometimes I differentiated the questions based on skills I wanted them to work on,” she says. “Then, before the due date, students would respond to two of their peers' posts with guided responses, designed to take the discussion deeper.” 
It was important for Simpson to find ways to connect face-to-face for the students who had more questions or wanted to have deeper discussions about the topics and books  She instituted “office hours” though Zoom calls, and had great turnout for her live calls. “The day after a discussion board was due, we would discuss that reading on Zoom. Out of respect for students' individual situations, they were not required to join, and if they couldn't, they watched the recording at their convenience,” she says. “Out of the 40-ish kids in each grade, usually 25-30 would join our live conversations. These discussions would go even deeper into the reading's topics.”
Differentiated education is a hallmark of Sycamore, and Simpson found ways to keep that piece of her teaching while students were in their own homes.  “Sometimes I broke kids into smaller groups in Zoom's breakout rooms, where they would have small-group discussions and then we'd reconvene and put their ideas together. Other times we'd collaborate on an online whiteboard or a bulletin board application like Padlet. 
One of the important pieces that Simpson found along the way that she wanted to address was when a student might need some extra help or individual time to better understand what they were reading “that didn't add pressure or embarrassment for students to ask for help,” she says.  “Many 10-12 year olds feel uncomfortable asking questions on large Zoom calls, so I began sending out weekly Google Forms, which asked some key questions that helped me check for understanding, and also had a section where kids could ask for individual help.” Simpson began setting aside one day a week for each grade where she would schedule one-on-one or small-group Zoom calls. “This became a game changer, and opened up dialogue for students who needed it.” 

“In fifth grade, students write original allegories after reading Haroun and the Sea of Stories. I'll be honest, when we first shut down, I was worried about how it would go; writing allegories, which teach an important theme by exclusively using symbolism, present complexities under the best of learning circumstances.” To do it, she broke down the assignment into manageable parts (like story mapping and then writing interesting introductions), and students submitted those parts. “I scheduled a one-on-one writing conference with each student, so I could make sure they were including the necessary parts while also checking in on common challenges. By the time students submitted their final drafts, we were all confident that their allegories were solid.” 
In the past, when students have finished this project, Simpson has an "Allegory Fair" where parents can come in and do a gallery walk while students explain their stories. “I didn't want to lose that piece, so students recorded their presentations on a site called Flipgrid, and we spent time during Office Hours watching and commenting on their peers' creations. Then we sent the link to their parents so they could do the same.” 

Simpson says she would spend the first few minutes of her “Office Hours” Zoom calls just checking in with those logging on. In the beginning, she says students would show her their work spaces or their pets. As our time went on, students would talk about their days, their workload, and what they were reading or watching. “After a few minutes, and everyone was signed on, we'd start class, she says “I also tried to respect whether students wanted to have their cameras on or off. School at home can feel invasive to some kids, and while teaching to small, boxed avatars like Spongebob or Thanatos had its own challenges, I think it's important to honor kids' feelings if they need privacy. Then occasionally, I'd have everyone turn their cameras on to make a silly Zoom freeze face, just so I could see them.” 
In middle school, teachers also have a small group of students in an advisory group, which is typically 8-10 students who meet for weekly activities. “I think the most important part of kids' social and emotional health during a time like this is to make sure they are still seen and heard.,” she says. “We loop all four years with our advisories, so we become very close. I met with my advisory each week, usually after the school day. Sometimes we'd play games, like online Scattergories or trivia, or we'd have a show n' tell, or we'd just catch up on their lives. It was always a highlight of my week. Sycamore is special for many reasons, but the like-minded peer groups are a large part of what makes us so special, and it's important we find ways to preserve that. My daughter, who is going to be in eighth grade at Sycamore, had daily lunches with her friends, and they were magical. About 5 minutes into their time together, I would hear any stress or worry just melt out of her voice.” 

“It was a ton of work, but I love how we made it through together,” Simpson says. “This shutdown is one of those situations around which we will all order our time: events will be before, during, or after these months. We were all out of our comfort zones at times and sharing many of the same uncertainties. Going through something like this together is something we'll never forget, and the kids' resilience, positivity, and perspectives will stay with me forever.”
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