Regina Hiney never imagined she’d be teaching her middle school students at Saint William of York Catholic School in Stafford, Virginia, from her kitchen table. Although a veteran teacher with 25 years of high school teaching experience, Regina, like so many teachers nationwide, found herself figuring out how to transform carefully planned lessons into an online learning experience with little time to prepare. 

“We didn’t know the schools were going to close until Governor Northam announced on March 13,” said Regina. “Even though we are a private Catholic school, all schools were mandated to follow his executive order. We had not used any snow days this year, so we used three days as teacher workdays so we could get our lessons online.”

Three days, however, wasn’t nearly enough time for the teachers to move weeks of lessons online. Regina found that some lessons were easier to shift to the virtual learning environment than others for her middle schoolers.

“My 6th graders were working on a unit on Greek Mythology. The first thing I did was look for things already available online before trying to reinvent the wheel,” Regina said. 

Regina and her fellow teachers at Saint William of York Catholic School used a variety of resources including Google Chrome Books, PowerPoint, Zoom, Screenomatic, and  “I love for its huge array of online games and accessibility to generate online crossword puzzles for vocabulary words and historical facts.”

One of her favorite virtual learning experiences and a pleasant surprise was moving her lesson on Shakespeare’s Hamlet to Zoom. “I have 22 8th grade students… I assigned various parts for the Zoom meeting just like I do in class. I switch it up so that not everyone gets the same part each day.  And we usually read one scene per class period, with bits of discussion in between. I interrupt a lot, but they are in middle school, so we’re just reading for comprehension and to get a ‘feel’ for the language and the joy of Shakespeare.”

She used student questions as a springboard for reading comprehension. “Students ask questions and I  post a Google Doc that has reading comprehension questions on what we just read. I also share links to YouTube. I will usually post a YouTube video on the scene (Mel Gibson’s movie or Zefferelli’s movie with Helen Bonham Carter as Ophelia) that they can watch, and I have links that I also post explaining what we just read. These are basically just reinforcements to our own readings and they don’t have to watch these—but they will help with answering the reading comprehension document.  These documents then become the basis for the test I will give at the end of our unit.”

The students seemed to enjoy the online experience.  “My students grew up using this technology. They were thrilled. They could use i-pads before they out of diapers!”

For the veteran teacher, however, teaching behind a screen is a challenge. “I think as teachers, our profession, by nature, is one where our success is often built upon the relationships we try to build with our students,” Regina reflected. “Many of us are dedicated to student achievement and that doesn’t just take place in the classroom. Teachers build those relationships by providing extra help after school or during lunch, by attending student sporting events or extra-curricular activities or even by sponsoring student clubs and organizations, and unfortunately, this is no longer happening.”  

Like most of us, Regina is finding a silver lining in this unprecedented era of social distancing. Her commute, normally a lengthy drive on Virginia’s bumper-to-bumper I-95 corridor, is now a walk to another room to log onto her computer, and the relaxed dress code, as she says, is fantastic. However, there’s still a sense of lost opportunities in her daily interactions with students.

“Those little things that teachers do that sometimes no one notices except perhaps that student (or perhaps not) do not happen when we are all in our homes and unable to interact in person,” she said. “When I was studying to be a teacher in college, an old nun always told us, ‘Always say one kind thing to your students every day; it may be the only kind thing they hear that day.'”

Regina’s Tips for Teachers New to Virtual Learning

  • Don’t be afraid to make mistakes.  
  • Don’t be afraid to let your students know that this is a new learning challenge for all of you. 
  • Don’t be afraid to let your students see you make mistakes.