‘We’re writing the book as we’re living it’; From elementary to university, educators pivot in unique situation

At a location that provides meals for students in Iron County, circa March 2020 | Photo courtesy of Shannon Dulaney, St. George News

FEATURE — When Stephen Armstrong, professor of English at Dixie State University, first heard that the college was transitioning to remote instruction he said it was “like a new life” and mirrored how he felt 22 years ago when he first started teaching in a college classroom.

Before this pandemic, Armstrong said he had a set structure he followed when it came to teaching.

“But now it’s like I have octopus tentacles stretched to get everything done while still making sure high standards are maintained.”

As the father of a 6-year-old daughter who is also home now due to statewide closures, Armstrong said he first considered home teaching and college teaching as mutually exclusive endeavors – that it would be impossible to do both.

“It’s a mad, mad hustle to make sure that my child stays engaged with handwriting technique or addition and subtraction, and then switch over and write an evaluative statement of some poem that a student has submitted, and then read a 500-word proposal from a graduate student.”

Dixie State Professor Stephen Armstrong, location unspecified, circa March 2020 | Photo courtesy of Stephen Armstrong’s Facebook page, St. George News

But once the county started sending home packets for his daughter’s schoolwork, he’s slowly adapting to the new rhythm – but not without sacrifice.

Due to the recent changes in his life, Armstrong said he had to decline a book deal from the Chicago Review Press to cowrite a memoir with a rock n’ roll musician.

Nevertheless, he’s finding a way to utilize this time to still write alongside his students and fortify his crafts.

“I believe I have to write with my students in order to be the best possible writing instructor. I’m not just a writing instructor; I’m a working writer,” he said. “And now as I prepare these lectures – some of them take a thousand words – that’s content for a how-to-write book.”

But for Armstrong, who teaches four writing classes at the university, he said something is definitely missing: the joy he experiences in the classroom.

“No different than a musician on stage or a stand-up comic – that’s where I do my work.”

The Encampment Mall, with the Holland Commons Building in the background, is the largest green space on the campus of Dixie State University, St. George, Utah, Nov. 21, 2019 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Conversely, this has also been a type of mid-career metamorphosis for Armstrong compelling him to work muscles he’s been developing – the ability to teach online – but in a hyper-intense way.

“Why it’s shocking is it came suddenly,” he said. “It wasn’t a gradual evolution. Now I’m an online instructor.”

Armstrong said he hasn’t had one complaint from students and credits this to the resiliency and strength of the Dixie State community.

As for the students, Armstrong said, many of them chose certain classes in order to be a part of the oral/ verbal exchange.

“It helps to be social. It helps to make friends. It helps to bond,” he said. “We’re doing our best to keep this going. It’s not like we’re saving the university or anything, but we believe in the concept of higher education, and we’re doing everything we can to keep it going.”

‘That’s why they got into education’

Cedar High School teacher Jonathan Chidester working on remote teaching instruction, Cedar City, Utah, circa March 2020 | Photo courtesy of Shannon Dulaney, St. George News

For Iron County School District schools, which began remote instruction March 20, other than troubleshooting a few glitches in the technology due to the surge of users on the system, things have been going well, Superintendent Shannon Dulaney told St. George News.

Families across the county have been showing appreciation on social media and phone calls, she said.

“Very rarely do I get one where families are concerned. They’re just grateful for what’s being provided.”

The key to success for the district has been through the collaborative effort and resiliency of not just the teachers, administrators and support staff but also the families, Dulaney said.

Before Gov. Gary Herbert announced the extension of remote instruction to May 1, Dulaney said the district was already preparing in the case of this outcome.

“I think we were all hoping that it would be done after this week,” she said.

Child doing remote work, Cedar City, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of Shannon Dulaney, St. George News

The teachers are meeting with students virtually, but it’s not the same, she said, and the teachers are missing the students.

“That’s why they got into education was to be with kids and to teach,” Dulaney said. “Not having them there in front of them – it’s hard.”

While May 1 falls near the end of the school year, Dulaney said that the plan is to bring the students back into the schools if possible.

“We will be planning between now and then what that will look like.”

In speaking about the toll this is taking on high school seniors, Dulaney got choked up.

“We understand how challenging and painful this has been for them. We want to do what’s best for them, and we want to help them and celebrate with them in any way we can. And so that’s where our minds are and that’s where our hearts are right now.”

‘How are we going to take care of them?’

For Stephanie Player, who teaches second and third grade at the Montessori charter school Gateway Preparatory Academy in Enoch, online instruction actually started March 17, just four days after President Donald Trump declared COVID-19 to be a national emergency. She told St. George News that after hearing that schools would be shifting to distance learning after their three-day weekend, everyone scrambled to come up with a strategy.

“We got together as a team really fast and tried to figure out what we could do, especially with these younger kids because they’ve never been online for longer than maybe an hour in class,” she said.

The process of trying to figure out how best to implement remote instruction was an emotional ride.

“There were questions about programming and how to send that home and what that would look like. … And then we started freaking out about – will they have things to eat – because we feed them all day,” she said. “How are we going to take care of them?”

Right now, the aim is in finding a balance between implementing new methods of teaching while taking care not to overload parents or students, she said.

“We’re just taking it one step at a time because it’s really overwhelming for these students and for the parents to try to figure out how to get all of these things – with all of their kids – online at certain times. The idea is to ease into things.”

As far as staying connected and offering reassurance to the students, Player said video conferencing has been highly advantageous and a way to reassure students that school isn’t going to be over forever, and she tries to stay available.

“It’s almost like a constant turn around. I now have two devices in front of me: my computer and my phone.”

While it has been difficult, Player said the students’ response has been reaffirming.

“To know – oh they still do like me – they didn’t want to be at school for a while and now they all want to go back to school.”

‘Our faculty just rolled up their sleeves and got to work’

Tuacahn High School students’ production of Urinetown The Musical, Ivins, Utah, circa 2019 | Photo courtesy of Drew Williams, St. George News

For the faculty and teachers at Tuacahn High School for the Arts, the timing of this closure has been a heartbreaker for many, principal Drew Williams told St. George News.

“April – for an arts school – this is our ‘Friday Night Lights.’ This is our moment where we can show the community and show each other and come together and say, ‘Look at the hard work we have done.’”

Having to make the conference call about canceling the musical, Williams said he did not realize how effected he would be.

Just hearing their voices, I had to go on mute and kind of gather myself,” he said.

However, the faculty is still working to come up with creative ways to share the students’ work.

One of the primary influences that informed how they would move forward in remote instruction, Williams said, was in focusing on the core values of Tuacahn – creation and collaboration – and how to shift these ideas into the virtual world.

Tuacahn High School Performing Arts Company, New York City, Feb. 2020 | Photo courtesy of Drew Williams, St. George News

“I think because those have been core values over the last three years, our faculty just rolled up their sleeves and got to work,” he said. “I think we’re lucky. We’re a small school, and so we’re able to pivot fast.”

Williams said the primary challenge for their school “wasn’t about instruction, wasn’t about content, delivery and technology. It was how do we support kids during this process? How can we be there for them? We don’t have that answer, but we’re doing the best that we can.”

The high school seniors in particular have had to navigate a crazy world, in which school has provided some consistency, he said. Now much of that consistency has been taken away. In a post on social media, he said one of Tuacahn’s high school seniors wrote: “we were born the year of 9/11, and we are graduating the year of coronavirus.”

This time has exposed the deep intertwining of teaching and learning. Williams said:

The biggest take away we’ll learn from this is that we have to not only be teachers, but we have to be learners in this process. And we’re going to fail and fail and fail and get up every single time and try again, and sometimes that means we have to do that with our students and our community and be vulnerable and authentic through that process.

This unprecedented time has been a forcing function for all educators, he said. “Not one of my classes prepared me for a pandemic,” Williams said. “We’re writing the book as we’re living it.”

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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