Modern Life

The way we work now: Teaching from a distance

A look at how teachers and students are rising to the challenge of distance learning.

By Garage staff — June 1, 2020

Modern Life

The way we work now: Teaching from a distance

A look at how teachers and students are rising to the challenge of distance learning.

By Garage staff — June 1, 2020

On a Friday in mid-March, Jana Maiuri listened as her 6th-grade students engaged in a spirited discussion of the George Orwell classic Animal Farm. They had been preparing for this final student-led seminar all week, and while Maiuri was thrilled to hear their thoughtful questions and well-informed answers, inside, her mind was racing. She had just gotten word that school buildings would be closing for the foreseeable future in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We kind of knew it was coming — it had been in the air all week,” says Maiuri, who teaches 6th-grade English and drama at Edna Brewer Middle School, one of the 116 district and charter schools in the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD), which is attended by nearly 50,000 students. “All of a sudden, there were so many details to figure out. Who needs books? Who needs a laptop? How is this all going to work?”

Across OUSD and communities around the world, teachers and administrators were having similar discussions, making plans for how to support, educate, and stay connected to students without the established routines and in-person interactions that define elementary and secondary education.

“The classroom is a kind of sacred space for teachers and students,” says Stephen Wright, a computer science teacher at OUSD’s Oakland Technical High School. “It’s where we set expectations and build relationships with students that are so fundamental to the learning process. Now, we’re all trying to figure out — how do we do that remotely?”

The computer becomes the classroom

In the weeks that followed, Maiuri and her students worked through the ins and outs of distance learning together. They helped each other troubleshoot microphone and webcam issues, learned to use the chat function in Zoom meetings, figured out how to upload and download different file formats, and got to know each other in new ways, from their living rooms, bedrooms, and dining tables.

“This pandemic has put them into a situation where they all have to be independent learners, managing their own schedules, working with new technology, and all while dealing with their own stresses at home,” Maiuri says. “It’s a huge learning curve for them on top of their classwork, and they’ve been incredibly resilient.”

The Way We Work Now: Teaching from a Distance | Episode 1

Nearly 2 billion students around the world have been affected by school closures, but with the help of creative and dedicated educators like Jana Maiuri of the Oakland (California) Unified School District, they’re finding ways to continue learning at a distance, connect to each other through technology, and discover how to grow and thrive in ways that will shape education long after the COVID-19 pandemic crisis has passed. The student poems featured in this video were inspired by "Raised by Women" by Kelly Norman Ellis.

At the same time, teachers like Maiuri and Wright have been on their own learning curve, finding ways to tailor their teaching styles to a digital environment and discovering new possibilities along the way.

“A lot of teachers are realizing what digital education can be,” Maiuri says. “You can send video responses to students, or create mind maps collaboratively. You can scrawl together on a digital whiteboard and share information or talk to each other in more personalized, immediate ways. It’s opening up a lot of different ways to engage, even after we go back.”

Keeping students engaged — long-distance and long-term

At the district level, administrators have been focused on making sure teachers, students, and their families have what they need to make distance learning successful, from laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots to food and diapers.

“It’s been a huge effort to make sure families not only have what kids need to learn, but that their basic needs are being met so they can learn,” says Curtiss Sarikey, chief of staff for the superintendent of OUSD.

To help get the necessary technology to teachers and students, Sarikey reached out to corporate partners including HP.

“The Oakland community is right in our own headquarters’ backyard, so this was a natural place for us to step up,” says Michele Malejki, HP’s global head of sustainability and social impact programs. “They said they needed monitors, printers, and paper to create learning materials to supplement online learning and send to kids without digital access. We said, ‘Of course,’ and also, ‘Let’s take it a step further.’”

HP donated 2,400 monitor displays for teachers to use in their homes, along with 500 printers and paper — part of a commitment from HP and the HP Foundation to donate $8 million in products and grants to support learning in communities impacted by COVID-19. HP also launched a paper-based distance learning initiative in Oakland, Turn to Learn, to deliver printed educational content to younger students and students without access to technology for online learning.

“These will help now and also during the summer, so kids can stay engaged and keep learning,” Sarikey says.

Looking ahead to the next chapter

As educators and administrators across the country discuss plans to reopen schools in the fall, the only thing that’s certain is that classes will look very different, with fewer students in classes, social distancing measures, and for many, a combination of distance and in-person learning. 

Whatever school may look like next year, Maiuri says the experience students are having now will have a lasting impact on not only how they learn, but how they navigate an uncertain future together.  

Over the past three months of distance learning, she’s seen new bonds forming, and participation from kids who might have been reluctant to speak up in a typical classroom setting. They’re using technology to express themselves and connect with each other in new ways. And, they’re rising to the challenge of learning independently and supporting each other from afar.

“Kids are learning a lot of resilience right now, and they’re also going through a lot of trauma — we all are,” she says. “They’re learning things now, about themselves and how to work through challenges, that will be in their toolbox for the rest of their lives.”


Explore more from the series: The Way We Work Now