April 28, 2020 | Abby Liu
This interview with Fourth and Fifth Grade teacher Melissa McCallihan was conducted over Zoom on April 20, 2020.
Melissa McCallihan is a veteran teacher with 28 years of experience who, like all of us, is navigating Distance Learning for the first time.
To be successful in the Distance Learning environment, Ms. McCallihan has had to establish a framework for her fourth and fifth grade students that enables them to work independently and effectively. She’s had to build a way for them to learn where she’s very involved as their teacher, but not with them throughout the entire school day.
To do this, Ms. McCallihan and the other fourth and fifth grade teachers have created “landing docs” in Google Docs that they use to communicate with students. From the landing docs, students can navigate to the information they need, whether it be in Google Classroom, YouTube videos made by teachers or others, or documents in Google Drive. Throughout the day, students have their email and calendars open. They’re working on documents and slideshows. Posting responses and having asynchronous conversations in FlipGrid. And attending live classes. Students have a lot to juggle and it can be difficult for them.
The very first day of Distance Learning Ms. McCallihan remembers being on google chat with her class. A student asked if he could see everyone, and he clicked “video.” Suddenly, the screen lit up with faces. And there was this moment of amazement and desperation. The students were clearly starved for connection with each other. It was a moment of clarity for Ms. McCallihan. She realized that her students needed live sessions every day. From that moment on, she started a 9 AM video chat with the class, in addition to the pre-recorded instruction video that she posts every day. Soon they added Zoom, Google Meet, and Flipgrid. She says that these technologies have really helped with the learning and connection. And any time a student or group of students ask if they can call her, Ms. McCallihan says yes. She also encourages them to call each other for help.
During the first two weeks of Distance Learning, Ms. McCallihan felt like she was working 24/7. When she wasn’t answering questions or responding to students, she was thinking about them. She wondered how they were doing, and if their families were ok. As she grappled with the best way to implement Distance Learning, she thought about it and worked on it all the time. Soon she was exhausted and teary. By the middle of week three, she established a plan to make the work sustainable. Now she gets online at 8 AM and is available to students until 4 PM. This feels more like a normal school day.
Ms. McCallihan finds the new, virtual learning environment reveals unexpected strengths and weaknesses. Some students are proving to be much more resilient than she was expecting, and are able to work autonomously. Others, who were able to navigate the classroom environment more easily, are less independent in the virtual classroom. Because they relied on others to help them at school, they struggle on their own at home. Ms. McCallihan reminds these students to reach out for help when they need it, and she says that it makes a difference.
Overall, she finds that her students have had to learn to ask better questions so that they receive the answers that they need to do their work. They’ve been more resilient and autonomous than she expected. In fact, some students have risen up as leaders in the virtual environment that didn’t in the classroom. She notes that students are much more forgiving of each other and their teachers, because they understand that this is new for everyone. That they’re all in this together.
Still, distance teaching is harder than she thought it was going to be. Ms. McCallihan misses her students. She misses being able to give a hug to a student who’s having a hard time. And those little moments throughout the day like when someone says something and the room erupts with good-natured laughter. Her class used to enjoy the closeness of the morning meeting circle and a read aloud story. To not have those moments causes an ache in Ms. McCallihan’s soul. She tries to recreate some of the sense of closeness in the video that she makes for her students every day. She invites them to find something special about the day, something for which they can be grateful. But it’s not the same. She finds that it’s hard to be the teacher that she wants to be in the online environment.
Ms. McCallihan admits that she feels grief. Her class does, too. They’re grieving for the “normal” end of the year that they don’t have together. For the moments, big and small, that are lost. The closeness of a read aloud. Passover. The spring concert. Time together at the park.
And Ms. McCallihan feels grateful, too. She’s thankful for the support of the middle school team. For the internet. And the way that the school provides what students need, especially for loaning laptops to those who need them. She’s thankful for parents, who she knows are working so hard. They’re providing excellent feedback about what’s working and what isn’t working, which allows her to adjust her teaching. And she’s very thankful for her students
Right now, the order of the natural world is bringing Ms. McCallihan joy. While life does feel chaotic, she says that the birds are still chirping, the trees are still blooming, the grass is getting greener, and flowers are popping up everywhere. While there is no sense of normalcy, God is still faithful. He’s showing this through springtime. She points to the verses in Matthew that tell us that God cares about the birds of the air and the lilies of the field. And He cares about us. We do not need to worry. God has order and He shows his faithfulness through it. And that brings Ms. McCallihan great joy!