By Jack Helbig

Jack Helbig

As a teacher, I would like to think that what happens in our classrooms is essential to my students’ education. I believe that’s true. But there is more to a high school education than completing assignments and taking tests. Much of what makes a school like Holy Trinity a great place for learning takes place between the lessons, in the hallways, in the cafeteria, at Mass, or after school in the myriad club meetings and team practices. In these more relaxed settings students are still learning – and growing – even if they don’t realize it. They are learning from their teachers, coaches, and other mentors and, because it is a true community, we are learning from them.

Ideally, this takes place face-to-face, in real-time, in a real building. But we do not live in ideal times. These are times that try men’s souls, and women’s souls, too (to paraphrase Thomas Paine). So we are practicing social distancing and, whenever possible, we are sheltering in place.

Remote learning is not ideal. But right now, remote learning is the only kind of learning that is available. This is not the case just for HT, but for schools across the country. My neighbor uses Zoom to teach her preschool class. And as I write this, my daughter, a freshman at the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, is in the living room on her laptop talking to a classmate and doing group work for her first-year econ class.

We teachers were lucky at HT. For the past few years, we have become increasingly digital at HT. Students were given Chromebooks and teachers were encouraged to use technology in our classrooms. We devoted professional development to learning the new tools available on the web and our devices, and we got a chance to try out e-learning last year during the polar vortex.

We are also lucky that we are a Holy Cross school. You may not know it, but the Brothers of Holy Cross grew out of a time of crisis – the chaos and confusion of France in the 1820s (following the various upheavals of the French Revolution). The call to teach in difficult times is a charism, an essential part of the Holy Cross values.

Still, when it came time to teach remotely every day – for weeks and weeks – I learned I had a lot of learning to do. It was not enough to just post assignments and expect students to do the work. Remote learning had to be fun and engaging. Because we seek to educate our students’ hearts and minds, it also had to, in some way, make up for the community the students were missing.

Again, we are lucky. The very thing about our students that sometimes drove us crazy in class – that they were on the phones so much, “addicted” to social media – also means they are very much digital natives. Many of them are quite adept at e-learning.

I surveyed my students and found a fair number of them like having their lessons online. This was reflected in Schoology, our e-learning platform. About 25 percent of my students are receiving better grades on assignments now that we are in remote learning, as compared to our first three quarters of this year when we were still in the traditional classroom.

Strong, interesting e-learning assignments go a long way to creating teachable moments in remote learning. Mr. Morales, for example, challenged his Spanish students to beat his time reading aloud a Spanish tongue twister. In my survey, a lot of my students mentioned Mr. Morales’ assignment as their favorite e-learning experience so far.

The same survey, though, also revealed students are experiencing major challenges to remote learning. Students with weak internet connections experience ongoing problems. Other students have trouble finding a quiet place to work at home or have responsibilities at home that make remote learning hard.

Some students have learning styles that don’t fit well with e-learning. Several students told me they missed being able to talk to teachers directly or ask questions in-person about assignments. As teachers, we have tried to adjust to this. I spend a lot of time on email; I have always been a teacher who tried to answer emails immediately, no matter what time the students hit send. But thanks to shelter-in-place, I have students who email me very late at night or very early in the morning, which is harder to accommodate.

Some teachers held office hours Google Hangouts, and many others started scheduling teleconferences. I have held some of my Theatre Arts and Junior English classes online. I have a lot of friends who are actors or writers who currently have a lot of free time on their hands (not only have all theatre productions close for the crisis but most TV and film productions as well) and are eager to talk to HT students about their lives in the theatre and the movies (watch one here).

The HT Drama Club also continues to meet once or twice a week online. We have done some virtual improv and written some dramatic scenes we also perform. These meetings are important to sustain the HT community and lift the morale of club members who are, as a group, intensely social and missing the company of other Drama Club members.

Every student who answered my survey about online learning mentioned how much they miss seeing their friends and teachers face to face. We miss them, too. Education is an intensely social thing. Community is everything.

What I am learning with e-learning is, thanks to the internet, it is possible to maintain the HT community. When this is over, and we return to our classroom, I think the experience of remote learning will have taught us all more tricks – giving us more tools for our teaching toolbox – while strengthening our resolve and community.

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