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GFHS teacher reflects on challenges of and lessons from remote learning

Posted at 7:34 PM, Jun 14, 2020
and last updated 2020-06-15 10:21:00-04

Teaching is difficult. Teaching remotely is even more difficult. Teaching art classes remotely?

“Oh goodness, there’s all kinds of challenges,” said Great Falls High School Art Department chair Cortni Harant with a laugh. “I think the hardest thing is rethinking how you are approaching curriculum and getting students to rethink. They’re used to sitting in a classroom, they’re used to more direct contact, and for giving them that tutelage to be able to learn how to be a little more self-motivating.”

Montana Governor Steve Bullock directed all Montana K-12 public schools to close on March 16 due to the growing concern around the Coronavirus pandemic. In the few days between then and the start of remote learning, students were able to come to the building strategically and retrieve books and other materials that they night need for remote learning. For art students, the opportunity to retrieve those materials was of the utmost importance.

Because art is so hands-on, students would need their sketchbooks, drawing utensils, and other important materials if they were to continue those art classes online. Even with the necessary items at home, there were still several challenges that both the students and the teachers would face over the next few months.

“I did a couple of different surveys throughout the process, just to check in with my students,” said Harant. ”I think that that was one of the things that, as soon as they figured out that they needed to find their own routine and ritual, it might not start until 10 A.M., but as long as they had kind of a routine for how they approached their academics, they were much more successful.”

For some parents, their kids being out of physical school and relegated to working from home posed a challenge. Essential workers still had to go to work, and while high school students might be able to function on their own at home, any younger siblings cold require more attention from their older family members, which could take time from students that they would otherwise need to do schoolwork.

One thing that did help teachers like Harant was the fact that the pandemic struck late in the semester, as opposed to the beginning.

“We were very lucky, if you will, in terms of when this happened, and we had to go to remote learning; we already had three quarters behind us,” Harant explained. “We already had those relationships built with students, we already had content that we could scaffold on, so when I was responding to a student, saying ‘remember when,’ you know, and I could build off of that. I think that, if we are in remote learning when we come back in the fall, that’s to be determined, the district has said that they’re going to announce that mid-July, it will be a little more difficult.”

If the district does decide to begin the Fall 2020 semester remotely, then many teachers wouldn’t have a preestablished connection with most of their students. As Harant puts it, that could make things more difficult because the first couple weeks of in-person instruction each semester are paramount to building a working student-teacher relationship.

One thing that Harant said really helped the art department was an app called Flipgrid, which is a platform that helps teachers, students and parents with remote learning, especially with feedback.

“I actually found an app called Flipgrid in the two days of preparation I had that allowed me to still have basically daily dialogue with my students,” she said. “So, they would post this little short video, show their artwork, talk about their process, and then I would respond to it.”

In an art class, Harant explained, teachers often walk around the room or studio and can give real-time feedback to their students as needed. When your students aren’t physically present, giving immediate feedback becomes a bit of a challenge.

Another thing that Harant noticed was the amount of parent contact. She says she thinks she had more interactions with parents in the last quarter of the 2019-2020 school year than she had had in her previous 25 years of teaching.

“Now, is that probably positive? Certainly, but it was really a team effort,” she said. “We always talk about the triad of education; teacher, student, guardian/parent, but I think that that triad became even stronger in this remote earning environment because parents were relying on us. I think it was very serendipitous.”

We’ll continue to provide updates on the status of GFPS Fall Semester decision as they release more details, but, as Harant notes above, she doesn’t expect a decision on that semester to be made until at least mid-July.