Superintendent Dr. Nathan Schilling addresses virtual instruction, curriculum, and tech support
By Jennifer Yos
LANSING, Ill. (August 26, 2020) – Lansing School District 158’s August 18 board meeting included the reading of ten separate letters sent by individual teachers and parents who expressed back-to-school concerns and frustrations, among which included Memorial Junior High’s new e-learning schedule, the elementary ELA (English Language Arts) and Math curricula, and teachers’ needs for additional tech support.
In two separate broadcasts to parents on the District 158’s Facebook page—the first on Thursday, Aug. 20, and the second on Monday, Aug. 24—Superintendent Dr. Nathan Schilling addressed parental questions and concerns regarding Memorial Junior High’s e-learning schedule and the integrity of the elementary schools’ curricula.
Live virtual instruction at Memorial
Many Memorial Junior High parents were under the impression that their children would receive four days of live virtual teaching with teachers, as opposed to two days of live virtual teaching alternating with two days of electronic assignments. The e-learning plan on District 158’s website makes no reference to an alternating schedule. The plan says, “Each E-Learning Day will provide 300 minutes of certified staff availability to students, three hours of direct engagement, and two hours of live virtual teaching and/or related services.”
In his Aug. 20 broadcast to Memorial parents, Schilling explained that the administrative team and board of education’s rationale for preferring the alternating schedule was based on the belief that “lower class sizes are best to insure student engagement and differentiation of learning in a virtual environment.” As such, a consensus was reached to have half of the students receive live virtual teaching on Tuesday/Thursday, and the remaining half receive live virtual teaching on Wednesday/Friday. The alternating days are for completing electronic assignments through Microsoft Teams. Monday is a “Staff available” day where teachers and staff will communicate with students and parents in a non-live setting.
In order to be fair and to get parent input on this decision, however, in his Aug. 20 broadcast Schilling invited parents to fill out a survey stating their preference: live virtual teaching for four days vs. live virtual teaching for two days and electronic assignments for two days. He indicated the district’s openness to being “fluid” before making a final scheduling decision.
In his Aug. 24 broadcast, Schilling reported the results of the survey: 238/400 or 58% of parents indicated they prefer the alternating e-learning schedule, with live e-learning occurring on only two days per week.
Schilling acknowledged that this schedule may not work for every family: “…We do realize that this may not be ideal for some of our families. So as we begin this process, please do not hesitate to give feedback to Dr. Ross and our Memorial Junior High School administrators on how this is working for your student and for your family. As I had mentioned previously, we do need to be flexible and we do value your input and will use it to make any adjustments necessary as we continue with this process during this unprecedented situation.”
Elementary ELA curriculum
In his Aug. 24 broadcast, Schilling also provided an update on the elementary school’s ELA (English Language Arts) curriculum: “The school district is aware that some concerns have been raised about whether this curriculum is research-based. I would like to reassure all of our parents and families that it most certainly is.” He explained that the ELA curriculum maps were developed in 2017 through a committee led by Oak Glen Principal Michael Earnshaw, supervised by Executive Director of Curriculum and Assessment Mrs. Bragg, and coached and supported by the South Cook Intermediate Service Center, which is the Regional Office of Education that supervises the school district.
Showing a slide of a Grade 4 Language Arts Curriculum Map for a particular unit, Schilling pointed out elements of the map that are research-based: the common core state standards, Depth of Knowledge (DOK’s), Fry’s vocab. words, and IEW (Institute of Excellence in Writing). He reassured parents that what they have in place is not only research-based, but is grounded in data related to state assessments, and is current, having been developed within the last few years.
Teacher tech support
In a telephone interview with The Lansing Journal, Schilling discussed some of the teachers’ concerns that had been expressed in letters to the board. One concern was the need for additional technical support. Teachers were frustrated to learn upon entering their classrooms in the weeks before school started that their laptops and phones were not yet hooked up. At least one teacher expressed a need for training with a new Promethean board, an electronic, interactive type of whiteboard.
Currently the district has one technology director and one assistant who travel across the district for five buildings. Schilling explained that in the past, they were always able to get everything completed during the summer for the start of the school year. This year, however, the two tech specialists were on-call to assist with virtual summer school for three weeks in July, they facilitated a number of half-day trainings for teachers prior to the school year, and they were also prepping and cataloging 1,350 computers to be donated to school families in need. “The board did have a good, critical conversation about [the need for additional IT support]. … We as a district have posted to hire another technology assistant,” Schilling said.
Curriculum and COVID collide
In response to the teachers who expressed concerns that the 2017 curriculum is not designed for e-learning, in the same phone interview with The Lansing Journal, Schilling explained that the district is currently doing a pilot program for a new ELA curriculum, which has more online resources and tools embedded in it than the current ELA curriculum. The current curriculum uses a ten-year-old text and the company no longer supports the online modules or components for it. So the teachers who have opted into the pilot program have the convenience of ready online resources and tools, but also the challenge of learning a new textbook; whereas the teachers using the current curriculum know the established textbook, but must find, research, and develop additional online resource components that support their instruction.
In his broadcast to parents, he addressed the challenge of the teachers: “It becomes the responsibility of the classroom teacher to use their own pedagogical skill, academic freedom, creativity, and knowledge base to construct engaging, meaningful, differentiated online activities within the virtual environment that we are starting this school year.”