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Fourth grade faces fill my screen, like virtual stained-glass windows | COMMENTARY

In an empty classroom, Katherine Hendrix, a third-grade teacher, instructs students virtually, using a large screen, Wednesday, September 23, 2020.
In an empty classroom, Katherine Hendrix, a third-grade teacher, instructs students virtually, using a large screen, Wednesday, September 23, 2020. (JILL TOYOSHIBA/The Kansas City Star/TNS)

It is 8:55 a.m. on a rainy Monday and the intermittent BLEEPs begin as soon as I click “JOIN NOW.” I am huddled in a remote corner of my house, and Ryder, the family dog, is curled at my feet waiting for the familiar voices. One by one, I greet my fourth graders as they pop into our virtual classroom. Some students peek in and immediately turn off their cameras, others are eager to announce themselves, “Hi, Mrs. Rosenberry, can I share something?” Ryder perks up when he hears the banter, and by 9:02 a.m., an array of 16 students, a teacher and a paraeducator are neatly tiled across my computer screen.

And like a stained-glass window, each digital frame possesses a pattern that must be viewed from just the right angle to fully grasp its magnificence. But teachers are perspective seekers — we naturally search for the specks of beauty in each student. When their lights shine, our collective class sparkles. Even in a virtual world.

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The symmetrical rectangles are organized alphabetically by first name making it easy to identify that Sara is absent. We start our morning meeting with the school’s Ranger Pledge, and the tiny windows in front of me begin to animate. Unmuted, our voices are wildly out of sync. I am tempted to skip the dissonance, but it is true: Students thrive on routine. They will remind me, “Mrs. Rosenberry, you forgot the Ranger Pledge!” Next, we greet each other in languages that reflect the cultural diversity of our class: hola, czesc, shalom, konnichiwa, namaste, hello. As each student takes a turn to speak, I notice the details of our masterpiece.

Carlos is in the back seat of his family’s van on the way to a doctor’s appointment. “I hurt my foot,” he tells us. In another tile, Bria is horizontally nestled in a fluffy blanket. “I’m tired, Mrs. Rosenberry, I played soccer all weekend,” she shares. Bria agrees to sit upright at a table when math instruction begins in 10 minutes. Jonathan’s camera is off. He will turn it on when I ask, but that is a battle I save for instruction time. On the right side of my screen, Theresa’s toddler sister is snug against her leg. Meanwhile in the CHATBOX, Luke is revealing his weekend video-gaming success, forcing me to temporarily disable this mode of communication for a few minutes until it is time for us to share our news. There are 12 more students, each tile with its unique design.

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Like a traditional classroom, my students’ success during remote learning depends on my ability to create a productive learning environment, and I admit, most days it feels impossible. But the one lesson I have lived over and over throughout my life, is that profound growth occurs when faced with seemingly impossible situations, like that summer when I was terrified to jump off the high dive. With a line of peers waiting to climb up the ladder, leaping into the water was my only option because high-dive status is a motivator when you are 10. It took weeks to feel comfortable hiking that ladder, but each day it got easier. I am much older now, and, as a teacher, student success is my motivator; I have no choice but to adapt to new technology and continually seek meaningful ways of connecting with students. Collaboration with colleagues is essential, not only for professional development but to meet my own need for connection.

After our morning meeting, the day will continue with math instruction, followed by language arts and then science in the afternoon as we begin week 13 of the school year. Day by day, the students and I have become more skilled and comfortable in our virtual classroom. We are in a rhythm now, and sometimes I forget that distance learning is a temporary arrangement.

The miniature windows provide me a glimpse into my students’ lives. This intimacy helped me know my students sooner and more deeply than in a physical building. And just like when we are in a concrete classroom, we have moments when our colored glass is cracked, ready to shatter into a thousand pieces. Most of the time though, at just the right angle, we sparkle. My hope is that one day I will meet my students in person, but for now I will continue polishing our magnificent stained-glass window.

Dottie Rosenberry is a fourth grade teacher at Deep Run Elementary in the Howard County Public School System. Her email is dottierosenberry@gmail.com. Editor’s note: The names of the children in this piece have been changed.

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