Normally on the first day of school, social studies teacher Ken Williams would be in his classroom at the Academy @ Shawnee in Louisville’s West End. But Tuesday he was at a table in his living room, introducing himself to his high school U.S. history students through his webcam, and laying out expectations: be prepared, be on time, keep your webcam on, be polite and appropriate.
A laptop, a tablet and his cell phone were all laid out on the table, along with a container of freshly sharpened pencils, a new stack of sticky notes and a bottle of hand sanitizer. His son, W.E.B. DuBois Academy eighth-grader Jabari Sweeney was behind him at his own desk, participating in a live math class. A banner was tacked up in the corner of the living room: “Welcome Back to School”.
Tuesday was the first day of school for Jefferson County Public Schools (JCPS), but it was a first day unlike any other.
Because of the pandemic, all 98,000 students in the state’s largest district are learning remotely. The district has given out tens of thousands of devices in order to make this happen: around 50,000 Chromebooks, and 12,000 Wi-Fi Hotspots.
Williams’ first class of the day was a section of U.S. history. Only about 10 students showed up out of 33, which was disheartening for Williams. He was worried the fall would turn out like nontraditional instruction (NTI), or remote learning, in the spring.
“I was very pessimistic coming out of the spring NTI session into the fall,” Williams said.
In the spring, Williams had trouble keeping students engaged. After about week four, participation was really low. The students at the Academy @ Shawnee are from some of the poorest parts of the city, and many of his seniors had to work to support their parents, who had been laid off. Shawnee’s student body is also more than half Black, a demographic that has been hit disproportionately by the coronavirus. Some students were living with grandparents who passed away from COVID-19.
“They’ve been through it already. They have,” he said.
But for Tuesday’s second section at 11 a.m., 27 students showed up, out of 35: a big win for Williams. The main problem for this class was that some students were having trouble signing on and navigating the platforms, especially one student using his smartphone.
“Where the sticky notes at?” the student asked with audible frustration. He was trying to find the “sticky note” function for Google’s Jam Board.
The Jam Board is kind of like a virtual whiteboard that everyone can see. Students can respond to short prompts on “sticky notes'”and post them to the Jam Board to share answers with the class.
Williams shifted from laptop to tablet to cell phone, texting, emailing, messaging, re-sending links and troubleshooting. His phone and device sounded a chorus of dings and alerts. Finally he got everyone in after about five minutes. In a second activity, Williams asked them to share their thoughts on 2020 as a historic moment.
“What are people going to say about 2020 in future years?” Williams asked through the webcam. “What history has been made over the past eight or so months?”
There was some silliness. Someone shared a screenshot of a classmate frozen in an unflattering position. Williams rolled with it. He’s silly in his classroom too, he said.
But there were also some really thoughtful answers. One student said she sees connections between 2020 and the flu of 1918, and the cultural tumult of the 1960s. Others were just really honest.
“2020 was a bad year,” someone wrote.
Then one student started playing a particularly sexual Cardi B song, and singing along with the lyrics. Williams didn’t say anything. His strategy is not to call attention to it. He muted her, and kept teaching. But she unmuted herself. He muted her again. They went back and forth like this for about 10 minutes, until other students got frustrated.
“How old are you?!” one student finally asked, irritated.
The music stopped. Later, Williams discovered the student wasn’t even on the roster for his class. He had no idea how she got into the session.
After the Cardi B battle, class was pretty smooth sailing. Williams presented a lesson about how to identify reliable sources in research, along with an activity that students seemed to enjoy. It was kind of like a group quiz.
At the end of class Williams gave out homework, and announced that class was over. But a handful of students lingered in the session and chatted a little. It seemed like they didn’t know what to do. But it also kind of seemed like they didn’t want to leave.
Finally there was just one square left in the video chat. Williams checked in.
“Ms. McDaniel, you good?” he asked.
“Yeah,” she said.
“Class is over. You can go ahead and leave,” he said.
“I know,” she said. And her square disappeared.
The class left Williams feeling encouraged.
“Honestly it went a lot better than I was thinking,” he said.
Williams doesn’t feel super comfortable with the technology yet.
“I’m not a Google person,” he said.
But the online activities really seemed to work. His hope is that he can keep students’ attention and get his seniors to graduation feeling empowered and resilient.
“And for this to be just another — take it with pride — feather in their cap of their resilience,” he said.