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Dedicated to Teachers

From China to Nebraska: One Teacher's Journey During COVID-19

An animated teacher with earbuds in looks at the camera. She has a poster board behind here with the text "Prompt" next to the question "How are you feeling about going back to school?" Additional text ("angry," "nervous," "excited," "bored," "happy," "scared") with the heading of "Feelings" is on the board as well.


During this month of Teacher Appreciation, we want to highlight some of the amazing work that teachers have been doing during these challenging times. Today we’ll focus on Jamie Nelsen, a second-grade teacher at Shekou International School in Shen Zhen (a city in China that borders Hong Kong). She has been teaching in China for the past six years and has been teaching internationally for even longer.

When Jamie decided to visit Tokyo during the Chinese New Year holiday, she never imagined that it would be months before she’d be able to return to her home and her classroom. She had packed just a carry-on bag. Towards the end of her vacation, on January 26th, she heard that the Hong Kong borders were starting to shut down in an effort to halt the progression of “novel coronavirus.” Her school then notified the staff that they were extending the New Year's break in light of the growing concerns around coronavirus. Jamie flew to Phuket, Thailand while she waited for school to resume. While in Thailand she received an update from her school—in person classes would not resume for about a month. At that point Jamie decided to fly to her family home in Nebraska, to wait out the growing crisis and start teaching remotely. Since February, she has been altering her sleep schedule to better align with Hong Kong standard time so she can lead live Zoom sessions and confer with her young readers and writers in real time.

We’ve been keeping in touch with Jamie to see how her experience with teaching reading and writing workshop remotely has been going and how it has changed as the pandemic has progressed. She has written some journal entries throughout her experience and we’d like to share two of them with you now.

March 19th: Seven Weeks In

January 26, 2020—that was the night that I received confirmation that our school would be closed for “novel coronavirus.” Everything has been changing so quickly; even the name of this disease has changed twice since I have started teaching remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic. I, like many people, had no idea what this would look like or how I would be able to teach my students who are mostly English language learners.

In the early days, I was in Thailand in a hotel whose internet was spotty at best, filming video lessons on my phone and uploading them. Sometimes each ten-minute video would take an hour or more to upload. Since I have arrived in the United States, though, I have been using a tripod, and I’ve discovered that it is so much easier to not have to hold the camera in selfie mode while you are trying to teach! That first week in Thailand, though, I felt like crying every day. Was I doing enough? Were my students okay? How could I help them more? It was my hardest week of teaching since my first week in a classroom. 

In Thailand I was working long hours, with parents messaging me anywhere from 6:30 am until well after midnight every night. Since I have started remote teaching in Nebraska, though, my hours have changed—I have learned to set boundaries for myself, students, families, and even administration. I will answer questions from my parents and students (most of whom are still in China) during our school hours. That means from 7:00 pm - 2:00 am in Nebraska (8:00 am - 3:00 pm in China). I also have some students who are in other countries that I try to accommodate and give real time feedback to when it is possible.  

So what does my typical “School Day” look like?  

  • 11:30 am Nebraska (12:30 am in China) ­– Wake up and have my “morning” coffee. 
  • 12:30 pm (1:30 am in China) – Review student work that was submitted after I went to sleep. This is where I gather information about my teaching day. What concepts do I need to re-teach? Who do I need to plan a 1:1 lesson for?  
  • 1:00-2:00 pm (2:00-4:00 am in China) – Give feedback on assignments and eat lunch. 
  • 3:00-5:00 pm (4:00-6:00 am in China) – Lesson filming, editing, uploading. 
  • 5:00 pm (6:00 am in China) – Send messages to parents on Seesaw and our class message group about what their children will be learning today. This email usually has an uplifting message for parents about how great they are doing teaching their kids. (Even though some of them are doing the work for them...)
  • 5:30-6:30 pm (6:30-7:30 am in China) – Siesta! The learning materials are ready to go, but it will be another long night, better take a short nap! 
  • 6:30 pm (7:30 am in China) – Wake up (again!). Have my “China Morning” coffee. 
  • 7:00 pm (8:00 am in China) – Time for School. Change the name in our class group chat to “2B: Online.” Eat Dinner! 
  • 8:00 pm (9:00am in China) – Whole Class Zoom. At the end of the lesson, I will let the students stay and chat, walking away from the computer so that I can still hear what is being said, but they have time together “without” a teacher. They haven’t seen each other for a long time. This space also allows them to lower their affective filter and ask each other questions more openly.  
  • 8:40pm (9:40 am in China) – Typically Zoom is over by now and I can go take a short break while the Zoom recording downloads. 
  • 9:00pm (10:00 am in China) – Start video conferencing with students. These may be planned that I have arranged ahead of time or start from a question asked on an assignment that may need further clarification. This will happen on and off until midnight. During this time, I am also commenting on all of the work that students send in. My second graders do better with audio comments, and they are easy for me to leave. I will also upload the Zoom lesson at this point for students who could not attend, editing it into 10-minute clips. 
  • 12:00 am (1:00 pm in China) – This is when my teacher face comes off. I am still available for questions and voice chat, but with makeup off and into my pajamas!  
  • 12:00 -2:00 am (1:00- 3:00pm in China) – Finish commenting on all of the submitted work. When I go to sleep, all of the work that was submitted has been commented on. Students will continue to do work for the rest of the night, so there will be plenty for me to check in the morning! 
  • 2:00 am (3:00pm in China) – My wonderful teaching assistant will change the name of our group chat to “2B: Offline.” I usually make my last voice comments from bed. 
  • 2:02 am – Lights out!  

When I look at my schedule this way, it is easy to be overwhelmed by how much work there is to do in any given day. There are some ways that I’ve been able to lessen some of the work, though. On nights that do not have a lot of questions or Zoom lessons, I am able to film lessons for the next day. This also works better when we are not introducing new content. A few weeks ago, my students were finishing a unit and had a large summative assessment project that they were working on. That week I could do all of my lessons during “teaching hours!” 

This is just the tip of the iceberg in what I could share. This experience has pushed me as an educator. I now understand how a flipped classroom would look and will probably bring elements of it into my face-to-face teaching in the future. If I can record my lessons ahead of time, how much more time will I have to work with students in small groups or 1:1? How can this make me a better teacher? Am I going to be better able to meet my student’s needs? 

April 23rd, Twelve Weeks In

Never would I have IMAGINED still being here when this first started in January. I had thought that this was going to be a two-week thing—that we were going back to school in February. Here in Nebraska I’ve been living out of the single bag I had packed for Phuket. It snowed last week about 8 inches, so I went out and bought a winter coat. I played in the snow, creating videos for my students. 

Although the borders are still closed, preventing me from returning to my home or my classroom, our school will begin the reopening process within the next few weeks. I still have the same questions I had five weeks ago. Is what I am doing enough? How will my students receive this lesson? But now I have even more questions: What will my students return to in our classroom? How will I be able to continue to teach them from home when they are at school? How can I create those meaningful connections in my lessons when they are in the classroom and have to remain a meter apart from each other all day?

Today I finished a fantastic two-day workshop with Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, titled “Writing through a Pandemic.” I learned about writing as healing, and the different forms that this may take. This concept resonated with me because over the past few weeks, I have been discussing a similar topic with my teaching team, saying to them, let’s not spend the last 8 weeks of school focusing on a new type of writing—let’s write letters and messages of hope, of schools re-opening, things that we have done that we'd be happy to share with kids, and messages to first responders around the world. Let’s share what going back to school is like! Let’s encourage people!

Stop… Think… Reflect… We are all processing this whole pandemic in different ways, and we are all at different stages of this process. I am at a new stage in this process, a difference stage than I was in five weeks ago. Today I listened to a beautiful talk by Arlène Casimir-Siar, who shared with us the stages of healing.

I am at the healing stage, moving toward love. I know this because I am working on helping myself. This workshop helped me reconnect with an important part of myself. I have always been a person who loves to learn, who wants to be in a course or professional development. To learn is what I do. I’ve been in the process of pursuing my second Master’s degree, but over the past 11 weeks, my Master's has been put on hold. Paused. Stopped. Yesterday, though, that changed. Yesterday, I started learning again. I started healing. This weekend I am sharing some of my passions as a presenter at a virtual conference on technology. Next week I am back in workshops as a learner. The things I love are coming back. I am healing, I am moving forward. 

My students are moving back to our classroom on May 11. Without me. Since the borders are closed and I cannot return to my home in China, my students will experience “a hybrid” model of teaching. I will still do the same things I do now. I will Zoom with them in the morning. I will record all of their lessons for them to watch and have learning engagements for them to work on.

When the borders do open, I will return. I probably won’t make it for the end of this school year. I have realized that this is okay. I did not get to say goodbye to my students. When I return, I plan to do a yearbook signing day to invite my students back to school. We’ll reconnect and share our experiences and I’ll ask for their feedback and help in setting up my new classroom. We’ll do all this to create the sense of closure that our class wouldn’t otherwise have this year. 

What are your next steps? How are you doing? What do you love? How are you healing?

In the time since Jamie wrote her second reflection, she has been continuing to teach remotely, facing the new challenges of synchronous and asynchronous teaching from Nebraska. We will continue to keep in touch with her to hear about how her experience progresses.  

Teachers make the difference every single day. Follow the hashtag #TeachersMakeTheDifference online and share your inspiring stories about teachers. If you have a personal story about teaching and learning during these changing times that you'd like to share with us, please write to Ashley.Puffer@heinemann.com.


Topics: Units of Study, Lucy Calkins, Units of Study for Teaching Reading, Units of Study for Teaching Writing, Distance Learning, Covid_19, Remote Learning, Phenomenal Teaching

Date Published: 05/19/20

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