Middle School Faculty Team Leads, Derek Bowley and Denise Yassine on Teaching During a Pandemic
When school reverted to remote learning in March 2020, faculty members, Derek Bowley and Denise Yassine quickly set about devising a robust middle school schedule, working closely with Middle School Director Brent Hinrichs, to ensure learning continued for students in grades 5-8. Classes in these grades presented a more complex scheduling issue than the homeroom-based classes in primary and lower school.
“Special schedules were something we had taken on before the pandemic, to help lighten Mr. Hinrich’s heavy workload,” said Mr. Bowley, “so devising the remote learning schedule was a natural fit for us, he said. “As the middle school team leads, it made sense,” stated Mrs. Yassine. “The schedule really needs to be created by people who live it and have a deep understanding of it as we do.”
Over time, the two have developed a strong level of collaboration, which served them well when the pandemic necessitated a quick revamp of the schedule. It took them about a week to get it done. “I remember talking to Mr. Bowley while driving down to North Carolina,” said Mrs. Yassine. “We were going through everything, and asking ‘is there anything we haven’t thought about?’”
One of their first tasks was to devise a separate attendance system. “In the beginning, we weren’t having morning advisory,'' said Mr. Bowley. “The students were heading straight into their first class of the day and our normal attendance system wasn’t going to work. We needed to devise a system so that teachers could keep track of students to make sure they were all there and none were slipping through the cracks.” They ended up creating a spreadsheet that was shared with all teachers and worked well.
“Communication was very important during this time,” said Mrs. Yassine. “We stopped the grade-level newsletters and instead produced slides that were shared with students and parents every Sunday. The idea was to have one central place where everyone could go to get the information they needed for the week. It made it very easy, and no one had to go searching for anything,” she said.
“We re-shuffled the schedule so that classes met every other day for 40 minutes each period,” said Mr. Bowley. “We built in extended breaks from 5 minutes to 10 minutes, extended recess, and extended lunch periods to one hour. It was important to give everyone breaks from sitting in front of the screen. We were also able to align class times for grades five through eight. The whole middle school schedule was in sync.”
In the early days of remote learning, the middle school schedule ran through 2:30 p.m. each day. After spring break, the day was extended to 3:30 p.m. “We kept classes every other day to give teachers more planning time,” said Mr. Bowley. “As teachers, we had to change the way we did everything to help support the kids. It was a very different learning dynamic.”
Also after spring break, they added back advisory time. “We also added office hours during study hall. Students could contact teachers and request a meeting during those office hours,” said Mrs. Yassine, “and we created workshops where each teacher could meet with their grade level because we realized that teachers needed more time with their students.”
“We knew it was important to look out for our teachers as well as the students,” said Mr. Bowley, “so, we loaded all the core subjects into the morning, and afternoons were filled with things like study hall and reading zone.”
“We got through our curriculum somehow,” sighed Mrs. Yassine, “although I don’t know how. We just made sure that teachers had everything they needed to communicate with their students and that information was easily accessible. It really unified everyone because everyone had the same information. It was essential,” she said. When asked whether the schedule worked well, they said in unison, ‘it worked like butter.’ “It was a beautiful thing,” said Mrs. Yassine.
During the remote learning period, which as Mr. Bowley pointed out they thought would only be for a couple of weeks, teachers met regularly online to collaborate and brainstorm. “We really hit the ground running when we went online,” said Mr. Bowley. “We kept the bar high.”
“I believe there were some gifts that I hope don’t leave us after this,” said Mrs. Yassine. “When we went remote, we were always in communication with students, and I hope we can maintain that. We also managed to keep other things going outside of classes, like the Student Council meetings and we worked with faculty to do a virtual field day and middle school awards,” she said. “We wanted to keep things as normal as possible for the students.”
For Mr. Bowley, remote teaching last spring did not phase him. “In a way it had an aspect of adventure to it,” he said. Mrs Yassine referenced the outpouring of love and appreciation that parents shared. “We were invigorated by it.”
The remote teaching schedule came in handy this year too, during the phase-in periods at the beginning of the school year, and after breaks. “It has been much easier for us to manage those transitions,” says Mr. Bowley.
Teaching in person this year created a new set of challenges and they both agreed that teaching bimodally and in person is very hard. “Teaching when everyone was online was not that hard,” said Mr. Bowley. “Teaching everyone in person is less challenging - it’s what we do, but splitting attention between in person and online can be difficult,” he said. “Everything has to be planned for two modalities, which can make it difficult to be spontaneous,” added Mrs. Yassine.
They both agreed that things have eased up as the year has progressed, but in the beginning it was hard with a high level of worry, the cleaning protocols, and concerns about keeping kids physically distanced. “It was a challenge just to get through the day, yourself,” said Mr. Bowley. “There are so many things to work around this year, including different room arrangements, moving locations for every class, it takes a lot of planning, and you don’t have everything at your fingertips” added Mrs. Yassine.
Looking back over the journey through remote learning and the return to school this year, Mr. Bowley and Mrs. Yassine are both very happy with how they and their colleagues have managed. “I’m incredibly proud to see how teachers have adapted,” says Mrs. Yassine.
“I even got teary-eyed thinking about it at one point.”
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