Toni Wombaker, Pahrump, NV

Reconciling the struggles of reaching students digitally

April 30, 2020 |

Nevada was our featured state for the 50 States in 50 Weeks project on May 1st. Each week, National Rural Education Association and I Am A Rural Teacher show how vast rural America is. To go with this feature, we shared the following perspective from Toni Wombaker of Pahrump, NV (Rosemary Clarke Middle School), about how her school responded to the COVID-19 closures.

I live and teach in Pahrump, Nevada at the only middle school in our community. Our town is home to approximately 36,000 people. We have a pre-k campus, four elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school. I teach four periods of 6th grade STEM (STEAM..I love art) and one period of 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Lego Simple and Powered Machines class at Rosemary Clarke Middle School.

My husband is the principal of our middle school, and fortunately has two amazing assistant principals, which is the only reason I can work at his school. I am glad to be under his leadership during this time. He has supported his teachers, staff, and students so that we can do the best job possible in these uncharted waters. He has been out several days delivering Chromebooks to students at their homes that the school is loaning to them.

Our school district has been amazing. They have managed to continue providing meals to students through most of the shutdown, except for a 15-day period after a school employee tested positive that was delivering food. That has passed and they will resume distributing food just in a different, more cautious manner starting next week.

We have shifted to this online schooling as best we could, and I think we did so fairly quickly. What this online learning has done for me as a sixth-grade teacher is challenge me beyond what I ever thought. I have cried tears of frustration and I have cried tears of overwhelming pride. There have been moments when I am interacting with a student or reading something they wrote that I have been moved to tears and feel such a deep connection with them. There have also been moments I want to scream at the top of my lungs because what seem to be such simple directions to follow, I just can't seem to get some students to follow.

I use a classroom management tool in my classroom called Classcraft. It is perfect for the STEAM classroom because it really addresses many aspects of what STEAM should be, in my opinion. I have been so very thankful for this platform for many reasons. I can send class announcements to students or parents, I can reward students with points, I can have students access lessons, and it brings some consistency as we have used this all year.

I decided early on to attempt to make this online adventure as close to routine as possible. This one decision has been a source of great joy and extreme frustration. In my classroom, each day as I take attendance, I have students watch an inspirational video clip. I also have a daily precept written on the board that students can write down if they choose to each day at the beginning of class. I also do a daily challenge that is on the board. These three things all took place during the first 5 to 10 minutes of my class.

As I was faced with what to do from a distance, I decided the students’ social and emotional well-being was probably most important during this time, and I really felt like students could benefit from these routines I had in place at the beginning of each class before we went online. That was, IF I could figure out a way to do these from afar.

It didn't take me long utilizing the features that Classcraft has available to create two daily quests, one for the inspirational video and a response, and one for the daily precept and daily challenge with a place to guess at the challenge. I also implemented a weekly STEAM assignment along with the two other STEM teachers at my school.

We provide the students with several STEM based choices for the week and they are to pick three to complete and report on by each Friday. These activities vary and range from online coding, virtual museum and national park tours, reading scientific articles, to building catapults and exploring ratios with a bag of candies. I made a goal to make sure to respond to each and every student during this process and every evening I respond to every student's inspirational video response and I also let the students that guessed on the daily challenge know if they got it correct, and if they didn't what the correct response was.

Some days I feel like maybe that is a bit more than I should have attempted, but every day as I read the students responses, I am glad I am doing what I am. I am definitely working harder than I ever have and in different ways. Maybe the source of my frustration and heartbreak is also a blessing in disguise and a silver lining.

You see, I currently have 144 students, and many seem unreachable at this distance. I worry about them when we can’t get a hold of them and I feel bad when they do work for other classes but nothing for mine, so frustration and heartbreak are a constant.

However, like I said maybe this is a blessing though because the students that I am responding to daily is an average of about 45-55 students on the video and challenge responses. That is a lot and maybe I couldn’t handle more.

I am reaching some of my 144 students, that is what I need to focus on, that I am reaching some. Of the average, I have had about 26 students that have done all that I have asked of them for my class consistently for the last two weeks. Of those 26 about 6 of them have exceeded my expectations and I have no doubt they are doing that for all six of their classes. They have done my daily inspirational video response, the daily challenge (even if typing "I don’t know this one") and the weekly pick 3 assignment exceptionally. I have had about 64 of my 144 students provide zero evidence of learning, not one response or assignment for my class.

Many of them provide evidence of learning in other class, but just not mine. That can be a little tough on the "teaching self-esteem" at times. That leaves approximately 54 students that provide a little evidence of learning each week for my class. Let me mention too, we, as teachers at our middle school, are calling home, emailing, and communicating remotely with our students on a weekly if not daily basis. We have weekly assignments and expectations and we document in our attendance program every educational interaction.

My husband has it set up so that we are responsible each week for reaching out to students from one of our class periods that are not getting work in for any teachers. For me, for the students who are meeting my expectations and continuing their learning and are interacting with me on a daily basis, I feel more connected and closer to those students. On the other hand, the ones that are not connecting with me I feel bad about, sad, frustrated, and at times, worried.

One thing I know though is that I have made every attempt to connect with all 144 of my students and I will always feel good about that. Much of this time is out of our control and I have to let go of a lot of my expectations.

I know that many of my students have other worries right now that are more pressing that watching a video and responding to it. They are in charge of a younger siblings care while parents are at work or helping parents do things like yard work. They are worrying about trying to make ends meet. I just hope every one of my students knows I am here and that I care. Their principal does too, more than they will ever really know.

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