Fort Dodge Community School District

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Teaching During a Pandemic - from The Messenger

December 19, 2020

Editor's note: This is the first part in a series highlighting the work of Fort Dodge teachers during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Emily Kloberdanz likes to start her classes with a different introductory question each time she meets with her fourth-grade students.

"That is something I always make time for," said Kloberdanz, a fifth-year teacher at Butler Elementary School. "They can share their feelings, how they feel. If they want to. We have been doing morning meetings now for the last three years. And I feel like I build a better connection with my students because of the morning meetings. I always try to model for them. Use complete sentences. Just getting to know each other. I always tell my kids, 'we are a family.' That gives us time to share about each other so we can become closer."

In a year where a global pandemic has disrupted the traditional mode of delivery in education, connecting has been more important than ever, she said. And by forming connections with her students, she believes that helps them become more accountable. Kloberdanz highlighted accountability as the biggest challenge she faces as a teacher.

"I have very good attendance with my students," she said. "They want to be here. They are willing to follow the mask mandate to be here.

"I'm as transparent with them as possible. I treat them how I would want to be treated. I've got some good connections with these students. I really do love them. I can go around and tell you one thing about every kid that I love about them."

On Wednesday morning, she asked her students if they could only celebrate Christmas or their birthday, which would they choose?

"So I would rather not celebrate my birthday," Kloberdanz said to the class. "My birthday really doesn't matter anymore. I would rather celebrate Christmas because more people can join in on the fun."

The question was asked via video chat, where she met with 11 of her students for about an hour.

At the elementary level, the district has been using a hybrid learning model where students are split into cohorts.

Students in cohort A come to school on Monday and Tuesday. Students in cohort B learn virtually on those days. On Thursday and Friday, cohort B comes to school, while cohort A learns virtually.

Wednesday is an intervention day. That's where students are invited for small group instruction.

The district has used this type of model since early November when the COVID-19 positivity rate increased in Webster County.

While the hybrid learning model has its advantages in keeping students and staff distanced, it has created more work for educators. And across the state, schools are seeing an average of about a 10% dip in achievement, according to Dr. Jesse Ulrich, Fort Dodge Community School District superintendent.

"There is zero substitute for 100 percent face to face instruction," Ulrich said. "There is nothing we can do that is of the same quality when teachers and students are in the same classroom."

Kloberdanz said it's been difficult to keep up with the online aspect.

"Recording lessons. A lot of the activities we would normally do we would do in a workbook, but because we can't see what the kids are doing in their workbooks, we have turned them into online assignments," she said. "Checking their work has been pretty tough. I try to make comments on their assignments like I would in person, but instead I make comments online. Contacting families and reminding them they are on a virtual today and need to be on at 9 am. That has been really exhausting.

"We have a pacing guide. We have this many days to teach this many lessons and staying true to that to meet all the standards that the Iowa Core says they have to meet."

One skill fourth-graders are learning is how to cite textual evidence.

"That is one of our main standards that we have highlighted," Kloberdanz said. "My fourth-grade team here, we are hitting it hard with each module making sure they can read text. That they are able to read a complex text and explain what it says in their own words."

To help achieve that, students are currently working on a "choose your own adventure" story.

"They had to study an animal and identify defense mechanisms of that animal and how they would react if an animal came near," Kloberdanz said. "They are doing a really good job. Usually we only let them choose from a few different animals. In a normal fourth-grade year, we go to Blank Park Zoo, so this year we are letting them study animals they would see at the zoo."

During her virtual session on Wednesday, Kloberdanz read from an interactive survival book. The book includes three story paths, 41 choices and 18 endings. Students voted on which path they wanted to take.

In addition to teaching, Kloberdanz sometimes has to provide technical support to her students to ensure they are properly connected and interacting on video chats.

"The schedules we are creating and getting materials prepped so we can make sure they are ready to go for our virtual days," she said. "People don't see how we have to do tech support and troubleshoot things for kids and make sure they are able to do what they are supposed to be doing. Even in a normal year, we are working our tails off. Now we are working twice as hard to do some of these things."

Working with staff has made the process a little easier.

"I have a team teacher who is on the same cohort days as me," Kloberdanz said. "We plan how we are going to teach what lessons and when. Working with someone has been so helpful."

Recent feedback from one particular student was also uplifting.

"She said, 'Ms. Kloberdanz, I think you're doing a great job.' Hearing a 9-year-old say I am doing a great job means a lot because sometimes you want to do even more even though you go home exhausted every day," Kloberdanz said.

Wednesday's virtual session also included a math check-in and a Christmas Kahoot game. The game included 32 trivia questions for students to answer.

"Oh, I love Kahoot," one student could be heard saying.

"I know you do, honey," Kloberdanz said.

"Can you send us the code again?" another student asked. "Are you sending the link right now?"

"Yes, it's in the chat," Kloberdanz said.

Kloberdanz isn't sure yet which model the district will use when students return after Christmas break, so she has to prepare for all possibilities.

"Granted I want everyone to be safe," she said. "At the same time, it's just really hard. There's no happy medium. No matter what we do, someone is not going to be happy about it. We go in-person, someone more health-conscious will be upset their child is put at risk. We go hybrid, parents struggle with day care. We go 100 percent virtual and that is just a nightmare."

She is hopeful that the experiences of 2020 will strengthen both teachers and students.

"This could make our kids more resilient," she said. "That they survived the 2020 pandemic."

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