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Forming Educators from a Distance

Tuesday, June 30, 2020 by Kenna Arana

Forming Educators from a Distance

At the beginning of 2020, who would have foreseen that this would become the year of Zoom calls? Our day-to-day lives have been transformed by the need to social distance, and we’ve all had to find new ways to connect with one another. By now, we’ve become accustomed to seeing only as much of people as can fit into a rectangle, and “Zoom fatigue” is setting in. We’re eager to know what life will look like in a few months, and as educators, we’re especially eager to know what it will look like to reopen schools and classrooms.

ACE Teaching Fellows faces similar questions and is addressing an even larger one: How can we prepare a new cohort of teachers to encounter the unique challenges of teaching and living in community when everything looks radically different than it ever has before? Answering this question has required, almost ironically, that the ACE community draw closer together–while maintaining six feet of social distance, of course.

"“During my ACE experience, my professors and fellow ACE teachers were always ready to help at the drop of a hat." - Josh Dempsey

Dr. Kati Macaluso (ACE 12, Plaquemine), the director of ACE Advocates and a faculty member for ACE Teaching Fellows, and Dr. Brian Collier, the director of the American Indian Catholic Schools Network and a supervisor in the M.Ed. program, looked to the ACE community as a starting point. While virtual classrooms were still in session this spring, Dr. Macaluso and Dr. Collier enlisted the help of ACE graduates across the country to welcome our newest teachers to observe their virtual classrooms. Graduates like Josh Dempsey (ACE 23, San Jose) wasted no time in offering their support.

“During my ACE experience, my professors and fellow ACE teachers were always ready to help at the drop of a hat,” says Dempsey, who now teaches middle school social studies and religion at St. John the Baptist in Milpitas, California. He also serves as the assistant principal and has just entered the Mary Ann Remick Leadership Program. “That type of selflessness in the ACE community always stuck with me.”

For Dempsey and other ACE graduates, the desire to help combined with the new challenges faced by teachers prompted them to welcome the members of ACE 27 into their virtual classrooms with wide open arms. Marisa Macdonald (ACE 15, Kansas City) didn’t hesitate to compile as many resources as she could for the ACE teachers observing her second-grade classroom.

Macdonald, a second-grade teacher at St. Joseph Catholic School in Libertyville, Illinois, invited the ACE 27 teachers she was working with to join her class Zoom calls and created a Google folder with helpful resources. She also shared examples of lesson plans that showed what the teaching would have looked like if she were actually in the classroom with her students. For Macdonald, this was simply part of being a teacher. She advised the new ACE teachers that “the most important thing to remember as a beginning teacher is that there are so many other people that you can and should reach out to.”

"The most important thing to remember as a beginning teacher is that there are so many other people that you can and should reach out to.” - Marisa Macdonald

Kristin Cullinan, a member of ACE 27 who will be teaching second grade in the newest ACE community in Detroit, said she has benefited from Macdonald’s advice. “I’ve been taking a list of questions as I observe, and I’ve been able to debrief with Marisa to ask her my questions,” Cullinan says.

One of the primary questions on Cullinan’s mind: “How can I keep second graders engaged in the lesson?”

In Macdonald’s virtual classroom, Cullinan was able to observe the strategies that Macdonald used to engage her students. They included read-alouds and–a particular favorite of her students–inviting a mystery reader such as a parent to join the class each week. Not only was this helpful for engaging students, it also served as a way to build classroom community.

Continuing to build classroom community is something that Macdonald, Dempsey, and Maggie Ellis (ACE 23, New York) all expressed as a challenge of the virtual classroom environment. For Ellis, a fifth-grade teacher at Annunciation Catholic School in Denver, Colorado, this challenge spurred her to get even more creative.

“What can we do with video chat? What can we do if we don’t have sound on because students have noisy backgrounds?” Ellis has asked herself. For each class Zoom call, Ellis would join the call early, then mute her sound and turn off her video to give students the space to be with each other. “When we check out at the end of the week, students will say, ‘I liked school this week because I got to see my friends,’” Ellis says.

"The lab forces us to think about how we’ll implement the lessons we’re planning. It’s a helpful transition from the virtual observations. - Kristin Cullinan

“Allison O’Connor (ACE 23, Austin) started a huge Google doc with lots of Zoom games and shared it with a bunch of teachers and we’ve all been adding to the list,” Ellis says. “This has forced me to collaborate in a different way.”

Now that the summer is underway, ACE teachers like Cullinan are getting a chance to put into practice the things they observed in virtual classrooms. Macdonald is also Cullinan’s mentor teacher for the summer, which has given Cullinan a chance to follow up on questions she’s since thought of. Additionally, Cullinan and the other elementary teachers in ACE 27 have a chance to take on the role of teacher in their teaching lab that meets three times a week.

“In the teaching lab, we get to practice different things,” Cullinan says. “I’ll practice doing a read-aloud and my fellow ACE teachers will pretend to be second graders who are learning about making predictions. The lab forces us to think about how we’ll implement the lessons we’re planning. It’s a helpful transition from the virtual observations.”

Besides gaining the perspective of the students they’ll soon teach, ACE teachers are getting practice as students in a virtual setting themselves. Through her own experience of virtual learning this summer, Cullinan has learned that while “it’s hard to be on Zoom for hours on end, small breakout rooms have been helpful for community-building and learning.” Because of this, Cullinan says she’ll use small-group instruction for her students, whether her class meets in person or online.

As schools continue to figure out what the start of the year will look like, ACE 27 is learning from the experience of teachers like Ellis, Dempsey, and Macdonald. They can keep Macdonald’s words in mind: “Sometimes things won’t go as planned and you just have to go with the flow. Be prepared, but be prepared that those plans might change. Be willing to try and learn new things.”


Learn more about ACE Teaching Fellows at ace.nd.edu/teach

About the Author

Kenna Arana

Kenna Arana