After reading about how English teacher Nathan Thompson combined an online lesson, his personal history, and a little bit of baking into a remediation literature class, we knew we had to talk to him. Then, everything changed. Nathan’s school closed mid-March, and like others, it may not open again this academic year. So we discussed his charter school’s response, his advice for others thrown into teaching during a school closure, and his holistic approach to teaching. As educators come together in this new way of educating, we hope you can commiserate with and learn from this inspirational Pennsylvania teacher.
[Where Learning Clicks] Before you were teaching during a school closure, how did you incorporate technology in your classroom?
[Nathan Thompson] I started teaching eighth grade in standard public education in 2006. Since then, I’ve obtained a master’s in journalism, and about three years ago, I was offered a position at New Day Charter School. One of the things that drew me to that position was the ability to build my own curriculum, and I have the opportunity to run a journalism program, focus on photography, and maintain my position as one of four master journalism educators in Pennsylvania.
As a charter school, we were in a unique position even before the school closures because our students used a hybrid learning model and obtained half of their learning online, and the other half in person. Fridays, all students work remotely, so the issue of Internet access and device availability was addressed before the school closed. About half of our students are on IEPs, many of whom weren’t able to get what they needed in the standard school system. This is my 14th year teaching, and I do an odd combination of things to get them what they need because they are students for whom the standard way doesn’t work.
[WLC] What are some of the ways you use technology to address the specific needs of the students who need more than what a traditional school can offer?
[Nathan] I’m a Lord of the Rings geek, so I brought in Classcraft. It gets mixed reviews, and has a different impact with different kids, but a lot of it is variety. I merge Edgenuity material and use Shmoop to preview it in class before I send them the Edgenuity videos. They can earn money and bonuses in Classcraft for submitting guided notes and other assignments that don’t count for credit in the class.
[WLC] Let’s talk about what’s happening right now. How has your school responded to the state- and country-wide closures?
[Nathan] We were fortunate because most of our work was already online. I came from a standard public school where they were avoiding going to Canvas because there was no incentive to switch to digital. The administration was asking teachers to put their lessons online in their free time, and understandably, it wasn’t well-received. When I came on board at New Day, the principal had just bought a lot of technology, and the directive was to do everything possible online. So, we had already created instructional videos for students on how to do certain things like submit projects. The students were already used to submitting their work and then sending their scores to me directly, so with the initial closure on March 13th, we were standing by, and told students they could make up any missing assignments from the third marking period.
As things have continued to unfold, the staff has been meeting to figure out how we can successfully continue teaching during a school closure. The volume of content won’t be the same, but I think our approach accepts the reality that we can’t give you 40 hours, and neither can the students. The goal is to do one lesson a week for each class and assign about an hour of work additionally. Each teacher has one day a week where they log in, take attendance, and do an assignment. We’re probably going to do more videos with Edgenuity because it’s going to be hard to get people to show up for live lessons. Many of my students are in the same boat we are, watching younger siblings or working, so it’s going to be hard to convince them to miss a shift with hazard pay to attend a live lesson. With Edgenuity, I can give them the video and have them do the quiz at a time that’s convenient for them.
[WLC] Major issues come up when things move online, one of which is equity, and another is academic integrity. How is your school tackling these issues?
[Nathan] When they enroll, our students sign a contract stating that they have Internet access and device access, which has relieved some of the pressure faced by other schools and districts trying to maintain effective teaching during a school closure. The median income of Huntingdon County is below average, so this is something we’re aware of, but most of our work was already online. One of the challenges has been meeting accommodations, and the administrators did a lot of work to make sure everything was in place. We’re probably ready to over-accommodate when we launch our full program next week.
A teacher at my last school once asked if our lessons are Google-proof, and I think that’s where a lot of traditional teaching practices will need to change when they go online. I try to do more creative assignments that demonstrate a depth of knowledge. There’s a former teacher out of Texas, Mary Ellen Ledbetter, who had the idea of making vocabulary words into people. So students understand personification while also learning the meaning of the word. It’s no longer reasonable to expect students to memorize the definition of a list of vocabulary words because that’s not a job-related skill. But if you build in flexibility and anticipate issues like cheating, it makes it harder and less likely to happen.
[WLC] What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with online learning and teaching during a school closure?
[Nathan] The hardest thing for me is getting the kids to read the passages. That’s why I try to take a holistic approach, including some historical context and personal details, if possible. Like in the lesson on Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos’ book How Sugar Changed the World, I was able to incorporate my family’s experience to help kids understand the human cost that came with sugar. When you get that engagement, which is one of the big things with our kids, it’s everything. As we find ourselves in an online environment, that’s a challenge. Classwork should be connected with the other courses, so I will continue to find a way to help students to connect to the material, while understanding we are all dealing with distractions and doing the best we can under the circumstances.