SRU education majors help ease local schools’ transition to remote learning


Student teacher in the classroom

Sophia Joanow, a Slippery Rock University senior early childhood/special education major, teaches first-graders at Mohawk Elementary School in Bessemer as part of her student-teaching requirement before classes went online only due to the coronavirus.

May 8, 2020

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — The coronavirus pandemic turned the world on its ear in a variety of ways. From stay-at-home orders to toilet paper hoarding and everything in between, everyday life has been anything but normal. For students of all ages, that "new normal" included continuing their educations from home.

Delivering those educations - particularly to grade-school children - became an immediate and enormous challenge for teachers and parents alike after schools were forced to transition from face-to-face instruction to online modalities. Enter Slippery Rock University education majors who came to the rescue in a variety of ways for several local school districts in the form of student teachers and a special partnership between SRU and the Slippery Rock Area School District.

"School districts are trying to get students to move forward as much as possible but certainly not in the same manner," said Jim Preston, assistant to the dean of the College of Education, who oversees SRU's student-teacher placements. "I hear from supervisors and cooperating teachers that having a student teacher during this time has been a blessing because they were not as prepared to do remote teaching and our students were prepared with the technology and the resources and they were able to supplement the instruction quite nicely.

child watching classes online

   A kindergartner watches a video
   of Katie Lewis teaching from home.

"Our student teachers really stepped up to the plate during this pandemic and they've taken this opportunity to demonstrate that they are going to be ready to return the classroom or for whatever the new normal will be."

There were more than 150 SRU students completing student-teaching requirements during the spring semester in more than 30 school districts. Additionally, 32 underclassmen education majors not on student-teaching assignments partnered with eight teachers from the SRASD to assist with their remote teaching by researching projects and coming up with ideas the teachers could use to improve online learning.

The SRU students involved with the SRASD partnership had work-study positions that they could not perform remotely with campus closed, but they were able to pick up their eight hours a week thanks to an agreement between William Behre, SRU president, and Alfonso Angelucci, SRASD superintendent and SRU trustee.

"It's a nice, mutually beneficial arrangement for our student workers and the teachers," said Beth LaGamba, assistant professor of elementary education and early childhood, who served as the project's faculty consultant. "Our students were potentially missing an income and it's a really difficult time for teachers trying to convert to remote instruction. This is such a great opportunity for our students to still earn an income and make a difference during this really critical moment in the history of education."

Haley Boyle, a sophomore early childhood/special education major from Cranberry Township, would normally be working at the information desk in the Smith Student Center but instead she was working remotely to help SRASD teachers like Kristen Davis deliver content for her second-grade class. Boyle created PowerPoint slides for a math lesson and recorded herself on video reading aloud from a book and stopping to add questions and prompts for when the students access the content through Google Classroom, a learning management system SRASD uses to deliver remote education.

"I get to have real-life experience working with a teacher in the field, which I haven't had the opportunity to have yet because I'm a sophomore," Boyle said. "It's been a learning experience for the students and me as well."

Student preparing a video

   Katie Lewis prepares presentations
   for her kindergarten class by recording
   video that her students access online.

"As teachers, we were expected to do all this work to prepare our students for distance learning in a short amount of time," said Ashley Graham, a special education learning support teacher at SRASD. "The SRU education majors were able to help me get work prepared for our packets (that we send home to our students) and create lessons that align with our standards and curriculum. They also created some fun activities for the students that we were able to post to Google Classroom to keep the kids entertained, like scavenger hunts and literacy Bingo."

SRU student teachers, however, provided the most intensive support for students and their cooperating teachers.

Katie Lewis, a senior early childhood/special education major from Export, worked with 41 students in two kindergarten classes from Pivik Elementary School in the Plum Borough School District. Her first eight weeks were in the classroom before she switched to remote teaching in mid-March. As she adapted to remote teaching, Lewis recorded 10-minute video lessons for her students that incorporated hands-on activities. She taught from a whiteboard at her home and instructed the students to go to their kitchens to get pieces of cereal and use them to complete addition and subtraction problems.

"At first, I felt like I was the host of the children's television show 'Blue's Clues,' because I was just talking to the camera on my computer," Lewis said. "But after a while I had parents emailing me saying how much the kids loved it. That's another nice thing about this experience, is it has allowed me to have more communication with parents that I wouldn't have had if I were in the classroom."

Lewis had her students comment about the weather each morning and take photos related to assignments, but she did not have live correspondence with students because they aren't old enough to type responses or be part of a synchronous video class.

"Learning to teach a group of 5- and 6-year-olds online was challenging and definitely not how I envisioned my student teaching semester ending," Lewis said. "However, I have learned so many valuable things through this virtual learning experience that I will take with me as a future educator."

Student teacher at home

   Sophia Joanow completed her
   student-teaching requirement
   at her home.

"There are not enough wonderful things to say about Katie and her experience in our kindergarten classroom," said Nicole Pifer, Lewis' cooperative teacher. "She lit up the room as she taught and her creativity truly made our classroom such a fun and hands-on place for our students to learn and grow. Katie has gone above and beyond in the transition to digital learning for our classroom. It is like the students are still sitting right in front of her as she sings, dances, reads and teaches through her learning videos. While her student-teaching journey may have been different from so many before her, she leaves undoubtedly prepared to face the everchanging world of education."

Typically, early childhood/special education majors switch mid-semester between a fixed grade level and special education to meet their student-teaching requirements. Because of logistical concerns at Plum and the Pennsylvania Department of Education waiving all classroom student-teaching requirements for certifications this year, Lewis continued with her kindergarten class for the entire 16 weeks.

Even though PDE waived the student-teaching requirement, which is 12 weeks, SRU maintained its 16-week standards for graduation, but loosened the classroom expectation and advised student teachers to support their cooperating teachers remotely.

Some students were able to switch placements after eight weeks. Sophia Joanow, a senior early childhood/special education major from Hermitage, was a student teacher in Amy Walko's first-grade class at Mohawk Elementary School in Bessemer for the first eight weeks before transitioning online to complete her special education requirement with Jamie Grego, who provides learning support for 18 students in grades 4-6 at Mohawk.

Student teacher at home

   Hayley Boyle recorded herself
   reading stories for second-graders
   in the Slippery Rock Area School District.

Joanow was able to meet with students through videoconference as Mohawk is able to provide each of its students Google Chromebooks that they took home.

"Student teaching is looking a little different than I had originally envisioned, but distance education has been a valuable learning experience," Joanow said. "In order to give our students the best education we can, my cooperating teacher and I have been posting online assignments, participating in online trainings and hosting Google Hangout learning sessions for our students throughout the week. Although I am not in school with my students, getting to know them virtually has not only been fun but it has been so heartwarming to see how excited they are to continue learning."

Joanow has already accepted a teaching position in Chicago Public Schools starting in the fall, and she acknowledges that she could continue teaching online in her new job. However, she said both the remote student-teaching of this semester and her collective experience at SRU have prepared her for what's next.

"Our professors have always told us that education is not linear and that you have to be able to adapt and modify," Joanow said. "You can plan a 10-minute lesson and in the first 30 seconds it could be flipped upside down. Even though my world was turned upside down and this semester was a challenge because of the pandemic, I was prepared for the unexpected. I was able to bob and weave with whatever was thrown at us because that's what our professors emphasized."

For more information about SRU's College of Education and its academic programs, click here.

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