NEWARK, NJ — Welcoming his audience to “NPS grade 8 Math Day 1," Jerome Hancock begins making strokes on a whiteboard and narrating his lesson like a bona fide Bob Ross of mathematics, numbers serving as his happy little trees, while soothing music plays in the background.
But the lesson is no ordinary one — instead of standing at the front of his eighth-grade classroom at Elliot Street Elementary School, Hancock, a 25-year veteran Newark teacher and a product of its school system, is in his living room filming. His muse is not a landscape, but the 15-day remote learning packet the district hastily created and distributed as the coronavirus forced emergency school closures across the state last week.
Much to the delight of parents now finding themselves impromptu teachers, Hancock has been uploading his lessons to YouTube and posting them in community Facebook groups to make the information easy to find.
“Teaching, I have an audience every day, so it was second nature,” Hancock, who also commentates at West Side High School football games.
Though students are scheduled to return to school on March 30, reopenings are clouded in uncertainty as the COVID-19 pandemic escalates. Some charter schools, including KIPP and North Star Academy, have already pushed closures into April.
The crisis has forced teachers, administrators, parents and students into an abrupt homeschool experiment complicated by Newark’s socioeconomic factors. Now, as everyone learns to navigate Google Classroom, Zoom, ClassDojo and other e-learning and communication tools, it’s teachers who are going the extra mile to not only educate but transfer the real-life connections they’ve built with students and parents online.
“It’s taken us out of our norm because we’re used to the classroom. I’m hearing that parents are frustrated, but we’re kind of frustrated too learning the new media and ways to get the material out to the kids,” Hancock said. “Teachers are strong. We’re given different challenges each day, and we just have to adapt. Everyone’s trying to help each other. Newark schools teachers and kids are doing the best we can.”
For younger students, remote learning is especially challenging due to their greater need for structure, stimulation and supervision. Lauren Kline, a first-grade teacher at Ivy Hill Elementary School, has tried to overcome the physical distance between her and her students by uploading story time videos to Facebook every day.
Kline’s book choices are made with careful attention to her students’ learning needs, routine and engagement during such a major break in their regular routines. She’s in touch with her families daily through digital avenues to make sure they’re on track.
“One of my absolute favorite things about teaching is story time, being able to read to the kids,” she said. “Right before this, I had gallbladder surgery and was out for three weeks before all this happened, so I really missed my kids and they missed me. I really wanted to make sure that now that I’m up and about, that they see me every single day.”
Another Ivy Hill Elementary teacher, Denise Contreras, has been uploading content for parents as well as her kindergartners. The responsibility for students’ academic survival during this period of isolation, she said, is as much on teachers as it is on parents.
The parent of a child with special needs, Contreras is especially concerned about how different learners will fare. Younger students, she said, will suffer the most as a result of school closures.
“I miss being there with the kids, I felt so much growth happening. My children were really starting to hit that benchmark that they need for the first grade, and now I’m worried that these children are not going to be ready for the first grade. What’s going to happen to all these kids all around the world?” she said. “I just hope that this is a big wake up call for everyone all around the world to be prepared for anything.”