For fourth-grade teacher Matthew Velekei ’09, returning to the classroom this fall meant adapting to a “new normal” and the challenges that it brings, but it also served as a reminder of what is most important. “My kids’ happiness is my priority,” he says. “I feel like a lot of people are struggling with the unpredictability of what is to come. You have to take it day by day.” Velekei admits that can be difficult for a “Type A planner” like him, but it’s all he can do to plan just a day or two in advance.
When the school year ended abruptly in the spring, Velekei’s first challenge was to stay connected to his students and maintain the relationships he built up until then. Muddling through the internet outages and technical glitches of remote learning, the Nazareth Area School District eventually enacted pass/fail grading, and Velekei and his fellow teachers were very understanding of the added stress on families, he explains. “Parents are willing to work with you to make sure that their kids are getting the right kind of education.”
Nazareth began a 1:1 technology initiative at Velekei’s school last year, ensuring that every student has an iPad. It has made the transition to this year’s hybrid schedule easier, as Velekei strives to make learning more cohesive for his students.
Velekei sees half of his students in class two days a week (those with last names beginning in A through K on Tuesdays and Thursdays; L through Z on Wednesdays and Fridays), with students learning remotely the other days. The Schoology learning management system serves as a virtual hub for all of the videos, files, links, and websites, pushing Velekei—who has been teaching at Nazareth since he graduated from Moravian more than a decade ago—to a nearly paperless approach.
“Especially over the last six months, I feel like I’ve grown so much as an educator because it’s forced us to try some new things that we’re not used to. It’s easy to revert back to the paper and pencil, but this gets you out of your comfort zone and makes you enhance lessons to use the technology that the kids have,” Velekei says.
Mondays are reserved for planning and virtual office hours via Zoom. Recently, Velekei learned that many parents are struggling with how long to spend on certain assignments. “In school, if we don’t get done with something in a reasonable amount of time, we’ll pick it up tomorrow, whereas at home, many parents will spend much longer on an assignment to perfect their child’s learning.”
To maintain a connection with his students, Velekei records a daily morning message video so they get to see him at the start of a remote learning day. He uses it to greet them and go over the assignments of the day and his expectations. He has also created a Google end-of-day check-in form. All have been well received by students and parents, he explains. “I have different emoji faces for how their day went, and they’ll rate their day from one to five. There’s a spot to write in if they want to tell me what they liked, what they didn’t like, and if they need some extra help.”
When students are in school, Velekei tries to put a humorous spin on the daily diligence of social distancing. “We do a ‘zombie walk’ down the hallway, as I call it, so they put their hands out in front of them when we line up at the door.”
With desks spaced 6 feet apart, collaborative activities take on a different form, as students employ Google Docs and Google Slides to share ideas. Schoology allows a student to open a Google Doc or Slide and make a copy of it so “it’ll be collaborative, yet it will still be their own thing,” Velekei explains.
Creative collaboration extends virtually when students are learning from home, with discussion boards where students can post questions to each other and assignments specifically designed for collaboration outside of the classroom.
Even recess has been reinvented. The playground and shared equipment are off limits, so Velekei had each student bring in a recess bag filled with activities and games they can enjoy independently, like sidewalk chalk. They run relay races, and one group of students even invented an air tag game to play together. The students have had to be creative and flexible like Velekei. “Just like every school year, I want my kids to have the best and most memorable fourth-grade experience, so I’m doing whatever I can to make that possible for them,” he says.
Whether she’s teaching future educators as an adjunct professor at Moravian College or the AP students at Nazareth Area High School, Gina Rakos knows that what is required of her now more than ever is flexibility and a positive outlook.
“It’s not worth it for me to get upset over the challenges of teaching during the pandemic,” she says. “The students know when you’re upset, and it’s not good for my family either. So I am trying to go with the flow.” Resourcefulness, adaptability, and a healthy embrace of technology makes it possible to juggle her roles and helps her serve as a model for her students.
When Rakos’s daughter returned home from college in Vermont this spring, Rakos watched her endure 3-hour Zoom lectures and vowed that she would not be like the instructors on the other side of her daughter’s screen. She was relieved when Moravian announced that in-person learning would resume and rose to the challenge of adapting both her lessons for aspiring teachers at Moravian and the AP Biology and AP Environmental Science classes set within Nazareth’s hybrid schedule.
Rakos upped her technology game “really quickly,” teaching herself how to use “Screencast-O-Matic, where I would make videos of myself annotating over their notes,” she says. Whereas at Moravian Rakos could schedule personal Zoom meetings with students during quarantine to talk directly about readings and answer questions, Nazareth did not want classes to meet over Zoom. “So I would look for things on the Howard Hughes Medical Institute website for my kids,” she says. “We did Skype a Scientist, which was pretty interesting, and I made them write up how it related to the unit we did. I tried to use technology as much as possible.”
Rakos begins her week at Nazareth by planning lessons with colleagues on Mondays, fielding student questions from her “personal Zoom Room,” and recording the 15-minute videos she uploads for her students’ two remote-learning days. Students with last names beginning in A through K attend school on Tuesdays and Thursdays; L through Z attend on Wednesdays and Fridays. They use the Schoology learning management system and their Chromebooks, issued as part of the high school’s recent 1:1 technology initiative.
Rakos’s hope is that the combination of at-home, self-driven learning, reinforced by two days of in-class labs and activities, will prepare her high school students for how they will learn in a college setting.
When students are in class—seated at desks spaced 6 feet apart—Rakos, who has been teaching for 31 years, jokes that “it has never been so quiet.” For labs, Rakos sprays all surfaces with disinfectant, and students wear gloves and stand on opposite sides of the table. Still, social distancing every minute of the day is difficult to manage with 16 students.
At Moravian, Rakos makes sure that supplies are not shared, and groups can appoint one person to perform an experiment while the others observe, sharing notes via a Google Doc. Rakos also shares with her education majors in real time how she is adapting her high school curriculum, showing them what she is doing online.
Rakos, who is 53, points out that she “wasn’t born with computers,” and that changing with the times is inevitable for any educator. “I think we need to adapt,” she says. “I feel that if I’m not then I’m a hypocrite.”
The same approach goes for finding ways to maintain some semblance of student life outside the classroom. Rakos serves as coleader for a student club at Nazareth called Aevidum (meaning “I’ve got your back” in Latin) that brings awareness to mental health issues—a topic more apt than ever. In October, she joined students in a virtual 5K fundraiser in which participants could run, bike, swim, or walk, sharing a selfie and charting their route. “You just have to be flexible. Even when things are normal, you still have to be flexible. For me, I’m trying to put a positive spin on it,” she says.
Like everyone, Rakos looks forward to a return to normalcy for next school year. “If not, at least I’m ready.”
Meghan Decker Szvetecz is a freelance writer with a background in higher education communications and lifestyle editorial. Aside from writing for her alma mater, her clients have included Gwynedd Mercy University, Lehigh Valley Style magazine, Moravian Academy, and Northampton Community College.