Taught remotely, students’ lights still burn bright

Learning continues in novel ways, even without a traditional classroom

PORT ORCHARD — Having taught elementary school kids for 16 years, all at Mullenix Ridge Elementary in South Kitsap, Danett Mustard has seen just about everything and answered almost every question imaginable posed by her fourth-grade students.

But as the cheery teacher might be the first to admit, all things unexpected are to be expected by a teacher. That element comes with the job, just as a love of children and education comes with the individual entering the teaching ranks.

And that’s the case with Mustard, who even has a name befitting the protagonist of a children’s book. So when the coronavirus swept ashore in America this spring and necessitated that schools close their doors to in-person education, she and countless other teachers and administrators were forced to not only adjust — but reinvent — educational instruction to fit the crisis.

While it hasn’t been easy, Mustard said she was up to the challenge. After all, it’s been an exercise for her — and for her young charges — in how to adapt, innovate and learn. And, in its essence, that’s what education is all about.

“That we have had to change our routines and find ourselves challenged also has provided us opportunities to learn new things in completely different ways,” the SKSD teaching veteran said.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that the changeover to remote teaching and learning has been at times a difficult transition.

“I’ve been sharing the lesson that life is full of change and barriers and obstacles,” she said. “It’s how we learn to adapt to those changes that’s valuable in the long run.”

Conversely, Mustard reminded us that teaching and learning can take place regardless of the educational platform — in-class, online or a combination of both methods.

“As teachers, we want to provide our kids with the best education possible,” she said. “We want parents to be reassured that we are working hard to give kids what they need. I enjoy communicating with parents, and the increased interaction with them during this time has been rewarding.”

Mustard said she’s gotten feedback from some parents who fretted over the experience of remote learning this spring, which was hastily forced on school systems in the state after Gov. Jay Inslee’s edict that prohibited in-school teaching and even limited remote learning to a fraction of what in-school hours are.

“Parents shouldn’t take that experience to heart. I think they will be quite happy with what we’ve been able to create for their kids this fall.”

While some predicted the children would quickly lose focus sitting in front of a computer screen, the Mullenix Ridge teacher said that really isn’t the issue.

“The problem isn’t the computer. It’s sitting for long periods, whether at the computer or at their desks in school. It’s making sure they [the students] are allowed to pick up and move to another area and be more comfortable when not receiving direct instruction,” she said. “We also have two recess breaks so the kids can stretch and shake off their restlessness.”

And as for students not settling in for the school day without a teacher looking over their back, Mustard said it hasn’t been more of an issue than it was in the first month of in-school teaching and learning.

“With just a few exceptions, kids are taking the classroom experience seriously. Just as in our classroom, sometimes it’s necessary to speak to a student separately or after class about attitude or behavior issues. And we do that.”

To the non-student observer, the curriculum and interactive function of online remote education is rigorous, yet interesting. It’s just as engaging when presented remotely as it is in the classroom. Students at home are presented lesson plans and diagrams on their computer screens, just as they would have on their whiteboards at school. They have access to handouts, which they can print at home or type directly in Google Docs, and can view videos through links in Google Classroom, the platform the district has chosen to work from.

This added technological insertion into their educational day also allows the students to be creative in how they present to their classmates. One girl in Mustard’s class created on the fly a short newscast, complete with news graphics on-screen, addressing a character’s fall into a dungeon from the novel that the class is reading together. Additionally, students were given a link to a recording of her reading from a book about the life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in light of her death a week ago.

Remote learning has also demonstrated the quick adaptive skills of 21st-century students, who are less intimidated by computer technology and interactive tools than are many adults. And Mustard said her students don’t hesitate in connecting with their fellow students during breakout sessions that don’t include the entire class of 22. They also have the ability to text on-screen with each other with questions or comments.

As any parent can tell you, their kids are quite accustomed to communicating electronically with each other, more so than many adults.

Still, for each hour in class, teachers will tell you many more hours of preparation work has to take place. And teaching remotely has added additional hours to their already long day with documents and videos needing to be created and loaded on the online platform.

“I work 12 hours a day,” Mustard said with a laugh. “A lot of hours go into preparing for the class, that’s for sure.”

Technical glitches and distance issues aside, remote learning has generally been a productive — and educational — experience for herself and her class. But this veteran teacher concedes, there’s nothing quite like teaching, face-to-face, with young students the old-fashioned way.

Mustard’s fellow teachers — and countless students across the nation — likely would agree.

“We really want to eventually work together in the classroom, but only when it’s safe to do so.”