Elli Kipper has been involved in almost every aspect of the Toronto Estonian Community - including as a Board Member at EFC. As a middle school teacher, Elli had to pivot her program to respond to school closures during the Covid pandemic. As the school year drew to a close, EFC asked Elli to share her perspectives.
My name is Elli Kipper and I teach grade 7 and 8 Science work at Maple Ridge Public School in Pickering, Ontario. Our school is a dual track school, meaning it has students in the regular English stream as well as the French Immersion stream. I teach Science to students in both streams in English. In a normal school day, in addition to teaching Science, I also taught Phys. Ed. and Health classes to younger grades, in French.
I am honoured to have been asked by the Estonian Foundation of Canada for some perspective on how teaching/learning experiences have changed since the pandemic. I realize that my experiences with online learning and how teaching has been since the school closures can be very different from others. There are many factors at play: grade-level, subjects, region, tech-savviness, etc. Before I begin, I will give some background on my teaching experience.
I’m thankful that before the school closure, I had incorporated online elements and technology into my daily teaching. A few years back, the DDSB began an initiative to get all grade 7 students their own Chromebook to keep until grade 10, when they would get a newer version to keep until they finished high school. Now, all my grade 7 and 8 students have their own Chromebook, which they brought to class daily. Due to this initiative, teachers also began taking advantage of online tools, which students could access. It was great, because now technology could be incorporated into the lesson without having to bring the students to the library or computer lab. My students were very familiar with the online platform, Google classroom, where I posted extra videos, homework/in-class work, lab instructions (to cut back on photocopies), notes, online quizzes etc. It was also where I was able to post their marks and give feedback, which students could always go back and refer to. Not only did this cut back on paper, but also the infamous “I lost/can’t find my work”.
After the school closure, I kept using Google classroom as my learning platform, since students were already familiar with it. Google classroom was now where I posted lesson videos, assignments, optional work, enrichment activities, etc. My work day, which used to consist of interacting with hundreds of students, became me interacting with a computer screen.
I decided early on to tape my lessons ahead of time, and post them to Google classroom. My reasoning was that I taught 5 different classes of Science. Each class also had their own homeroom teacher, hosting Google meets, and their other subject teachers adding work. Many students, understandably, felt overwhelmed. I figured with pre-recorded lessons, it could help students balance this new school normal, and watch the videos when they had the chance. My usual work week consisted of posting lesson videos online on Monday. These videos would be done using Screencastify. I would film myself going through the week’s notes. Students would see the notes on their screen, as well as a small box with my face. The challenge with doing notes/lessons in this format, was that in the classroom, students would have discussions, questions, comments, all which add to the lesson. Teaching science, I honestly found the best learning we did as a class was when a student would ask a seemingly easy question out of curiosity and then all of sudden everyone’s different life experiences would lead to an incredible answer. That element was very much missed!
After the lesson for the week was posted, I longingly waited for students to ask questions and complete work, so I could give some feedback. Anything to feel like I was interacting with them! I also worked on my lessons for the following week. One of my favourite assignments that my students completed had nothing (officially) to do with the curriculum, I asked students simply to tell me what they had been up to during the school closure. I received written responses, slideshows and videos. It was the first time in 2 months that I had heard my students’ voices. Then I truly realized how much I missed them.
Over the course of the school closure, I saw some great student successes. Some of my students really took online learning in stride, and developed strong independent work habits, which I know will help them in high school and beyond. Others, without the usual distractions in the classroom, were able to stay on top of their studies and improve their grades, some seeing true academic success. Unfortunately that wasn’t always the case. After students discovered that their work during the school closure could not lower their marks, some began submitting rushed/poorly done assignments (which in a normal classroom wouldn’t meet grade standard expectations) or students stopped participating altogether because it “didn’t matter”.
Online learning/at-home learning was definitely not for everyone. For some students, coming to school is their escape. School is where they feel safe, feel valued, feel normal, feel like a kid. In these cases, the curriculum takes a back seat, and teachers become the consistent adult in their life. That was lost during the school closure. Now they were at home, some with more adult-like responsibilities because they needed to be, and school was the last thing on their mind.
I don’t know what September will bring, and honestly thinking about the logistics makes me dizzy. Looking at how my school is built, I can say that classrooms and portables are not big enough to account for physical distancing with the current class sizes. New protocols will have to be put in place on how: students move through the school, use the washroom, enter/exit the building, just to name a few. Even the idea of students getting to and from school will have to change. Most of our students come to school by school bus, where if students are correctly distancing, probably less than half of would fit in the current number. Even with alternating days or weeks for students, that loses the consistency for the kids, parents and teachers. It will most definitely be a challenge, but in my opinion only online is not the answer either.
Let’s remember, what is school?
School is where students get the opportunity to interact with all types of people. School is seeing your friends. School is a place where students learn how to be: musicians, historians, scientists, athletes, free thinkers, writers, engineers etc. School is a place where social interactions and norms are taught and modelled. School is not teaching the curriculum, although that is important too; it is teaching life lessons and skills to equip our young people to be good humans. School is the people, not the building and definitely not just a computer screen. Whatever September might bring, we cannot forget that.
Want to know more? Read more stories from teachers in our community like Anneliis Põldre, Tiina Paluoja. Or read about our frontline healthcare workers like Teija Jõgi, Kristiina Nielander-Hildebrandt and Tomas Saun