Originally published May 7, 2020 in the Bonner County Daily Bee.
By Aly De Angelus
Once upon a time Rebecca Palmer would be leading her 98 Clark Fork High School students across Elizabethan England.
Her students would marvel at the clothes they fancied and entertain themselves by imitating Shakespearean language during the reading of “Romeo and Juliet”. Though her classroom was abandoned for the safety of her students during the COVID-19 outbreak, her creativity and technological aptitude has managed to keep her students engaged, even when they spend most of their days curled up on their couch cuddling their pets.
“It’s hard being away from the kids,” Palmer said. “It’s hard not having interaction with students in the classroom, but I think we are all doing the best we can to maintain the safety for what we need to do.”
Palmer has spent 19 years in a classroom and she is the only English teacher for the entire Clark Fork High School, Grade 9-12. She describes her normal teaching style as interactive and personal.
“I like to have kids up moving and doing things, so trying to find innovative ways to do that online, where they can get some of that same ability of interacting with their peers and interacting with me has been a challenge,” Palmer said. “But I am kind of a techie anyway so I’ve spent a lot of time going through and trying things that students could do to be able to have that interaction and are able to do some of the fun things we do in class.”
When she’s not recording a lesson or making checklists for her students, she’s exploring new tools for technology. She says technology is her fun place.
One of her most used teaching tools is Actively Learn, where her students can annotate and insert questions when they watch her videos. She also uses Adobe Spark for creating powerpoints that transform audio and script into a movie, which allows the students to have more engagement than a traditional lecture-style lesson.
Palmer has been juggling multiple jobs as a student and staff educator. Her advanced knowledge of technology has enabled her to troubleshoot many issues that school staff has experienced during this pandemic. As the technology integration coach for Clark Fork High School she has put together tutorials for teachers on how to film Zoom videos, how to use Loom, how to make PDF documents interactive and more.
“I think often there are people thinking we sit at home all day, but I am working from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. every day and then usually beyond that,” Palmer said.
Aside from her role as a teacher, her goal is to put the emotional needs of her students before academic expectations. Palmer and other staff members put together a video compilation of Bill Withers “Lean On Me” so students could feel connected with their school environment.
“The kids social and emotional wellness is far more important to us right now and we just miss our kids, we really miss our kids,” Palmer said. “We don’t want to be home staring at a computer any more than they do, but it’s what we’ve got to do for now.”
Though the time apart from her students has been hard, she has managed to expand her relationship with the students. She said seeing her students at home gives her a whole new perspective on an individual’s life and personality.
“When kids get to show their pet that they’ve been talking about at school all the time or when you get to see their little brother or sister or when mom pops in to say ‘Hi,’ things like that are positive and fun,” Palmer said.
Palmer has previously dealt with remote learning as a Communications 101 (speech) instructor. Despite the familiarity, she said working in a rural area has created a new challenge — wifi connectivity.
“Not all of our kids have access to the internet and most of what they do have is satellite internet which is really spotty,” Palmer said. “Even though we are a one-to-one school and every student has a Chromebook that doesn’t mean they can necessarily connect to the internet.”
Clark Fork High School has increased their Wi-Fi connectivity so students who are able to drive can use the parking lot to complete school work. In addition the school follows a paper packet policy, handing out new lessons every two weeks just like the neighboring elementary schools do.
Palmer also uses an app called Remind for students who don’t have wifi but have a cell phone. This app enables them to receive text messages about assignments without having to exchange personal phone numbers.
During the COVID-19 pandemic Palmer has been able to keep in weekly contact with 92 out of 98 students. Her strategy is to send notes to parents at the end of the week if their child has not submitted assignments or reached out to her on the various platforms.
For teachers struggling to match educational needs, she has two pieces of advice. The first is to stay organized by hyperlinking everything in one file. This will help students not feel overwhelmed, she said.
The second tip is to get an education license to use online software for free. “Most educational sites that I have gone to have waived any subscription fees for the rest of the school year and most of them until September in order to help for the pandemic,” Palmer said. “If they are concerned about trying something because of the cost this is a great time to jump in and try something because it’s free.”
Some education subscriptions include Actively Learn and Goosechase, an app that creates scavenger hunts. “I am in the process of setting up a scavenger hunt that is obviously quarantine safe with just fun things that as a school we can do together to bring about that family atmosphere,” she said.
When Palmer is not working she tries to get up, eat and throw the ball outside for her dog to relax. She said there have been a few perks from staying at home.
“It’s been nice being forced to have the time to look at new tech tools,” Palmer said. “Normally during the school year it is so, so busy. I teach six different levels of English and speech and because we are a small school I am the English teacher for grades 8-12 and dual credit so being able to actually have time to explore those tools and get some new ideas will definitely influence me.”
“And getting to go to the bathroom whenever I want is a big positive,” she joked.