Katherine Hendrix sits alone in her third grade classroom at J.A. Rogers Elementary School, speaking to a TV filled with her students’ faces.
“Good morning; you’re up early today,” she tells one boy as more boxes outlining students’ faces appear on the 65-inch-screen. She asks if he’s tired. A girl a few squares over eats yogurt.
Hendrix, 34, asks if one student found his iPad yet. He said no. He’s borrowing his brother’s Chromebook, but he can’t figure out how to access his homework. He gets his 9-year-old brother, who tells Hendrix he knows how to use the laptop, but then immediately struggles.
“What the heck?” he said. “I’m on the Google page thingy.”
Family members bustle in and out of the back of some frames. Another teacher’s voice echoes from a sibling’s computer in the background.
Three weeks into the new remote school year, Hendrix’s classroom and others in the Kansas City area still encounter regular hiccups with technology as students navigate their education on laptops, tablets and video chats with their teacher.
But Hendrix, who’s taught at the east Kansas City school for eight years, feels more prepared than when school buildings were closed in the spring in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus. This is thanks to additional training from the district over the summer and more resources allocated to her students.
Little by little, each day inside her virtual elementary school gets easier. Like this one, a Wednesday when Hendrix not only taught reading, math and science but also how to cope with the changes forced on them by the pandemic.
Hendrix is learning how to keep track of 17 students on her computer for about four hours each day while understanding their attention spans are often shorter than that. And she’s appreciating the little moments.
“They are resilient and they are flexible and the kids are patient and so I admire them, I truly do,” Hendrix said.
10:05 a.m.: Patience
The vocabulary word of the day in Hendrix’s class is patient.
“We’ve had to be very patient during this virtual learning, right?” Hendrix asks the kids. “So sometimes when things don’t work, we’ve been understanding and we have to wait.”
Hendrix has a calm, confident voice. She sits with two laptops in front of her, occasionally leaning back in her rocking chair to look up at her students on the big screen.
She asks them to raise their hands, as several students at once try asking her questions.
Five minutes after class started at 9 a.m., a student interrupted to ask if she can use the bathroom. Hendrix reminded her she can type RR into the classroom chat instead.
Then shortly before lunch, one girl typed “I em hungry” into the chat box. Hendrix reminded students for the first of many times that the chat box is not a place for that kind of chat.
She considers patience a virtue among teachers.
But now, instead of navigating the daily challenges of a classroom, she’s handling a near-constant string of new scenarios. Kids waiting in virtual lines for help with their devices. Students forgetting how to access their online workbook. An adult shouting in the background of a student’s call.
Teachers enrolled in professional development courses over the summer to help ease the learning curve for distance education. Kansas City Public Schools distributed hot spots to about 70% of J.A. Rogers’ 428 students.
The administration prepared for the new semester by making paper packets and instructional videos on how to use the school-issued technology.
But week one still came with a barrage of small technical issues, said J.A. Rogers Principal Adriane Blankinship-Johnson.
Many younger students who weren’t used to having a username and password struggled to log onto their computers, so the school mailed parents QR codes to make logins easier, Blankinship-Johnson said. Some iPads still contained previous student’s information. Parents tried logging on with their Google account instead of their kids’. Keyboards had to be paired using Bluetooth with the iPads.
Now in class, Hendrix frequently mutes students who turn their mics on in the middle of her lesson. One student shushes another who tries interrupting the lesson.
It’s difficult for 8-year-olds to sit in front of a computer all day, Hendrix acknowledges.
The student who borrowed his brother’s Chromebook hadn’t completed any of the day’s assignments yet. Hendrix knew his parents weren’t home to help.
“But at least he made it,” she said of his attendance.
11 a.m.: Memories
Hendrix holds up a picture book that she reads aloud, slowly panning the pages across her laptop camera for the kids to see.
It’s a story about memories.
The day prior, she assigned them to write about their favorite memories from school.
Some talked about field trips, others about playing together at recess.
“They want to write about their old normal,” she said.
Hendrix’s classroom is filled with class photos from the past. The memories she’s collecting this year are different.
A framed photo of this year’s class sits on a desk in the middle of the room. It’s a photo of a video call, the students’ faces smiling from a grid of boxes.
When class takes its hour lunch break, several students often stick around. They ask what Hendrix is eating for lunch. They want to hang out with their teacher.
She’s recognizes that she’s sharing a significant moment in time with them — a history they will someday tell their own grandchildren about.
The art teacher takes over the class. Hendrix dismisses herself from the call, but can still see the kids on her screen. They hold up sketches of faceless people as she turns to one of her laptops to join a teachers meeting.
One teacher asks if the boy who Hendrix first greeted in the morning showed up. When Hendrix says yes, her colleague throws her hands in the air in excitement. They will reach out to the families of those who don’t show up.
The meeting is over quickly and Hendrix returns to her class, where one student’s face is now obscured by a ball of fur.
“Ms. Hendrix, my dog wants to learn also,” he says.
She says the dog is welcome to stay as long as he isn’t distracting.
Soon a different student hoists their own dog onto their lap. An impromptu show and tell.
“I feel like I’m getting to know my kids a lot quicker because I am being invited into their homes, I am getting to know their parents,” Hendrix said. “I am in their living rooms.”
1:04 p.m.: Facing fears
As students start popping back onto the screen from their lunch break, Hendrix tells them they have six minutes until class begins again.
“OK, I’m going to go watch a short movie then,” one boy says eagerly as Hendrix chuckles.
A couple minutes into afternoon classwork, a student frantically interrupts Hendrix to say his computer is almost dead. Hendrix gently reminds him to plug it in.
She plays a short video about personal narratives.
The narrator lists off several writing prompts, including playing kickball at recess, visiting grandparents for the holidays and watching fireworks at the park on the Fourth of July.
They were examples from another time, before the pandemic robbed the children of similar moments this year.
Hendrix assigns them to write a paragraph about facing their fears.
One girl asks Hendrix how to spell “stress” as the students take turns sharing their writing on Hendrix’s screen. She praises them, then offers feedback.
Many people pursue teaching because it’s so relationship-oriented. But this school year, the classroom can at times feel lonely and isolated, Hendrix said.
As it was for many teachers around the country, the decision to shutter classrooms for the remainder of the spring semester came as a shock for Hendrix. In March, she found herself learning to teach online from home with her 1- and 3-year-old daughters.
She spent the summer anxiously waiting to find out what would happen with her classes.
In late July, Kansas City Public Schools announced they would start school late, on Sept. 8, and virtually.
Blankinship-Johnson, the principal, said the decision felt like a weight was lifted off her shoulders.
At that point her concerns shifted away from students’ health and focused more on making up for the couple months of “traditional instruction” that students missed in the spring.
“We were already behind,” Blankinship-Johnson said. “We already lost precious, valuable time.”
At first Hendrix felt upset. Then she took a step back and made a list of the positives.
She, like many teachers, plays a pseudo-parent role in her students’ lives.
“When we do feel uncertainty or challenges and the unknown happening, there are strategies that we can get through it,” she said.
She reminds the 8-year-olds that it’s OK to feel a little scared right now. She reminds herself, too.
1:50 p.m.: Adaptability
The end of the day shows on some of the kids’ distracted faces. One student appears to be lying down on a pillow. Another eats candy while a third plays with a sibling.
In science class they discuss the difference between inherited traits and learned behaviors.
Hendrix praises their own learned behaviors, using their iPads and navigating Google Classroom and Google Meet.
In the traditional brick and mortar classroom, the teacher is in control.
But in this new virtual world, Hendrix said the students have to get up, get dressed and log in on their own.
“They are learning how to really take charge of their education,” she said. “They’re learning to really speak up for themselves. They’re learning to independently say ‘hey, I really need to do this for me.’”
During a “brain break” earlier in the day, two students called Hendrix immediately when the electricity in their house went out, worried their classwork would be interrupted.
Every family has her cell phone number. Sometimes she gets calls into the evening from parents and students, usually about troubleshooting their technology.
As class comes to an end, two other students stay back, asking for help on their math lesson.
“Ms. Hendrix, I’ll miss you,” a student says as she exits the virtual classroom. At 2:15, the classroom is again empty.
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