Hopkins Educators Learn to Teach from a Distance

When Allegra Smisek, assistant director of Innovation, Design and Learning (IDL), learned on March 15 that the governor planned to close all schools in Minnesota for two weeks to allow teachers to plan for a potential longer closure, her only point of reference was a snow day. Canceling school for even one day came with challenges, and a closure of this magnitude had never been done. 

For the next eight days, she co-led and co-wrote the handbook for Distance Learning in Hopkins, working alongside teachers, media specialists, administrators, digital coaches, and several other staff. Closing in-person school for an indefinite period of time is something no one wanted, but Hopkins was determined to make Distance Learning the best it could be for students and families. 

“We wanted families to know that wherever they were at — it was okay,” said Ann Ertl, assistant director of IDL. “We wanted them to give themselves patience and grace and to know that if something was not working for them, we could help.” 

With the governor’s recent announcement that buildings will remain closed for the rest of the school year, Hopkins, as well as other school districts in Minnesota, is coming to terms with the reality that they are in this for the long run. The collective shock has worn off and teachers, students, and families have begun to settle into a routine that would have seemed unfathomable even three months ago. 

Maintaining connections 

Teachers are rising to the challenge and thinking outside the box to create engaging learning experiences for their students from a distance. Second-grade teacher James Ikhaml meticulously documented his maple syrup-making process, turning it into a virtual science and math lesson. Then there is preschool teacher Rob Mullen, who created his own virtual classroom, which his students access on YouTube. 

While it’s not possible to fully recreate in-person learning experiences, maintaining connections is a priority for teachers. Moira Scholz, a special education teacher at Hopkins High School, is intentional about personally connecting with students. She offers to virtually meet whenever they have a question. Having a face-to-face connection makes things just a little more normal for everyone. 

“As much as I think the kids need us, I think we need them even more,” she said. “We all have a common goal, which is student success and making sure the kids are okay.” 

Students also want to connect with their classmates. To create these conditions, Vanessa Walters, a fifth-grade teacher at Gatewood, allows students time to interact with each other before starting her virtual class time. 

“They are just happy to see each other, and they are happy to see me,” she said. “I want to be flexible and give them time to be kids with each other. They are restless and they miss school.” 

Keep it simple 

Distance Learning is really learning during a crisis. With only a quarter of the school year left, teachers are critically reviewing all of their content and prioritizing what they teach by what will be most essential to the success of their students. 

The junior high program leaned heavily into its International Baccalaureate (IB) model and folded three subjects into one interdisciplinary unit. Not only were teachers able to streamline their curriculum, they were able to create a deeper learning experience for students. 

“This helped us reimagine education, and we want to keep this going,” said Ben Dickens, a social studies teacher at North Junior High. “We want to continue to collaborate at this level when we return to an in-person format.” 

First-grade XinXing teacher QQ Tisdell is most focused on making sure her students maintain their Chinese language learning and that her lesson plans are easy for parents to navigate. She spent most of her Distance Learning preparation helping families become comfortable in their new role as teacher partners. She met with each parent virtually to walk them through the learning she set up for their children. 

“I am always there for families,” she said. “They can email me and I will reply in five minutes, they can text and I will respond right away. It’s how I let them know it’s okay, I am here for every problem they have.” 

What can we learn from this? 

Although Distance Learning is a major shift from the traditional way school is delivered, it does present a unique learning opportunity for innovation. Some students are engaging with school more in this format and would prefer a hybrid model if it were available. As part of Vision 2031, the Hopkins community expressed a desire to explore flexible start times. Distance Learning is providing a model for that, now that we know education can be presented in a variety of formats. 

Teachers are seeing technology through new eyes and making connections that were not obvious before. Colleagues across buildings and content areas realize that collaboration is as easy as opening their computers. 

“Distance Learning recentered us,” said Nina Bauernfeind, a math teacher at Hopkins High School. “It became very clear that this is not about our content or what we have been doing for years and years — this is about the kids. We can’t focus on anything else other than getting the kids to be successful.”