MONTVILLE, NJ – With the first week of distance learning having come to a close, TAPinto Montville spoke to parents and teachers to see how the system was working. Overall, Schoology, the district’s new learning management program, has been indispensible in this process – although no one foresaw that it would be used in quite this way.

Towaco resident Magdalena Szczur said her second-grader Daniel is still learning in every subject – music, social studies, math and reading.

“We receive an email each night that tells us what he needs to do the next day,” she said. “He writes letters, watches a video and takes a quiz on it and submits it, and after he does his math homework, we scan the sheet and send it to the teacher.”

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She said he doesn’t have a strict schedule, but the day is laid out.

“Whenever he gets up, he reads a book for 20 minutes while I make breakfast,” Szczur said. “Then we refer to the list of what the teacher has assigned.”

Daniel likes that he doesn’t have to change out of his pajamas, but he missed his friends, according to his mom.

“The first few days were challenging because he thought of it as a lot of homework,” she said. “I had to explain that this was his classwork. But he likes spending time with his family.”

Szczur is content with the system and remaining in place with her family, which includes her husband and pre-school-aged daughter.

“This is kind of easier for me because I am a stay-at-home mom,” she said. “It’s OK. As long as we’re safe.”

Teachers Working Together

Montville Township High School teacher Richard Andes is a special education and in-class support instructor. He teaches earth and environmental science classes.

“I’m the tech-savvy guy,” he said with a laugh. “When it was announced that we were going to distance learning, my phone started ringing non-stop.”

Andes said that when Schoology was introduced at the beginning of the school year, some teachers explored many aspects, while some kept things simple.

“There are a lot of options – you can do tests and quizzes through Schoology, for example,” he said.

Then, when the distance learning initiative was announced, the more tech-savvy instructors gathered together and put together hand-outs and videos on how to perform tasks using the learning platform.

“A lot is just trying this out,” he said. “It’s teachers helping teachers – they’re there for each other. There’s a high school staff group on the platform and we have all the resources there. There are many options that were explored and discovered very quickly.”

In his classes, for example, they’re using Schoology Conferences for “live” question-and-answer sessions.

“The students will do the assignment from GoogleDocs, then ask the general education teacher or me any questions using Schoology Conferences,” Andes said. “It’s as if they’re in the room and everyone can hear the question. Then as a special education teacher, I can create a ‘break-out’ conference and give more support, as needed.”

This week, his earth science classes will be embarking on live demo astronomy labs through YouTube and interactive labs on pollution for his environmental science classes.

“There are a lot of resources – we just have to put them in one spot,” he said.

As far as working from home, he said, “My students were already prepared to work on Schoology, but they’re missing the interaction.”

Kenneth Nadzak agrees. The MTHS assistant vice principal wrote March 20 in his daily update, which was posted on the Schoology platform for parents to read:

“Through survey results, e-mail messages, and Schoology conferences with staff and students, one of the most common pieces of feedback about distance learning that we have received is, ironically, a greater appreciation for ‘normal’ school and classroom instruction. While we are all doing our best to make distance learning a success, it seems like there is overwhelming agreement that we would all jump at the first opportunity to return to campus.”

A Teacher and a Parent

Leslie Walch wears two hats – she is a district teacher and has a fifth-grader and a senior in Montville schools.

“My fifth grader has a table in the playroom that he cleared his Legos off of; my high schooler is in the dining room, and I’m at the kitchen table,” she said.

Her fifth grader likes to plow through his multi-subject coursework and be done by 11 a.m. or so, she said.

“With my own social studies students, I used Facetime and Google Hangouts to ask how their assignments are going,” which have included interactive videos about the Indus River Valley, she said. “The sixth graders loved it but only two seventh graders ‘showed up,’” she said with a laugh. Coursework has included videos with embedded quizzes about the valley and writing assignments, plus reading two articles.

“I just continue with my plans because I am a believer in keeping things as normal as possible,” she said. “But we miss the face to face interactions with the students and each student I spoke with today said the same thing. We can give work over the computer but nothing can replace our interactions with the students in the class.”

Superintendent of Schools René Rovtar said she was so impressed with the way her staff is sharing resources and the steep learning curve they’ve conquered.

“My overall impression of the first several days of distance learning is amazement at how administrators and teachers have pulled together,” she said. “I think they’re doing a fantastic job. When I think about where we are today compared to a week ago, we’ve come so far so quickly. The teachers are sharing resources and working to help each other out – it goes on into the night as teachers share them – it’s an affirmation of the passion that teachers have about trying to do the best that they can for the kids.”

As the district faces at least two more weeks of distance learning, Rovtar said that knowledge of the Schoology platform will flourish as teachers learn more about it.

“We’re going to continue to grow through this process,” she said.

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