We proved to ourselves it was possible—we can teach remotely. And now we can see there are more creative ways to do things. [There’s] a lot of potential here and maybe out of this chaos can come some shalom.

This is one of those hard lessons none of us wanted to learn. How do you effectively teach your students at home and from a distance. But still meet state requirements, besides more-important-than-ever Bible lessons, and the arts? Plus keep encouraging them, loving them from afar, educating parents on how to fill in gaps as needed, and keeping them all—and ourselves—motivated?

But we were able to do it this spring, thanks be to God, and thanks to some really committed quick-thinking teachers and administrators, with a whole lot of parental support. We did it thinking we would be done after three weeks this spring. Yet here we are, perched on the start of a new school year, and wondering how much in person teaching we’ll even get to do this school year. Yet desperately desiring to see kids back in our classrooms again.

But throughout this summer, as we prepped for both at-home, and at-school learning this fall, we realized that we discovered a lot this spring. Some technical things, like what works best for teaching first graders how to read when they’re not right next to you sounding out a new word, and some big life things.

We knew this first item on our list already, but probably didn’t realize it as much as we do now: We really love kids. And prefer them in person. We’re in this business because we love kids and we like to be around them, and we really like seeing them in person, learning and growing and loving the Lord.

“The social connections between students and between students and teachers is a vital aspect to the fullness of the educational experience,” admitted Todd Smeenge ’83, HCMS social studies teacher. “These interactions are not something that is close to repeatable in an online world. Though this wasn’t surprising to me, the time apart magnified the reality.”

A lot of HC teachers learned to take relationships outside of the school walls and home Zooms, sometimes dropping off books out of car trunks onto front porches, to push students to read at the next level. Sometimes just standing outside kids’ houses to wave at them and reassure them that yes, we really did still care about the schoolwork they were doing. That’s what Pine Ridge third grade teacher Chris DeZwaan ’88 did after she had one mom say that her son argued, ‘I don’t know why I have to do this, because Mrs. DeZwaan isn’t going to see this anyway.” So she drove over to his house, waved at him from the front lawn, just to reassure him, “See! I know where you live! I’m checking up on your school work. I’m still real, still alive—not just on a screen!” she laughed. “And I know you, and I love you!”

And we learned a bit about how to build deeper communities through Zoom, like HCHS chemistry teacher Dale Eizenga did with his “Eating with Eizenga” lunch groups every Friday at noon, since he realized students were missing hall chats, or the hang-out time at the beginning of class periods: “The conversations you don’t necessarily plan—just do. All of that needed to take on more intentionality,” he said. So every Friday noon he’d point his computer camera at him cooking lunch on the stove and talk to students on Zoom—however many showed up, sometimes four, sometimes closer to 15—about what they were eating for lunch, what hobbies they were picking up, tell them about the two walks he was taking every day. One time a student even showed them all a magic trick he’d just learned. “It was really cool! And I have no idea how he did it!” he said.

Some HC teachers were unexpectedly able to forge even deeper relationships with students than what may have been possible in the classroom: “I just came away with really close relationships because I got to talk to them one kid at a time, sometimes for an hour-and-a-half [on Zoom]. It was really cool,” said Rose Park 4th grade teacher Danielle Snoeyink ’11. “That was a beautiful provision that I could connect one-on-one with each student and not just five minutes in the lunchroom, because of where I am in life.”

Secondly, we realized that the technological background that we have as an Apple Distinguished School made this pivot to learning from home a whole lot easier than it may have been otherwise. We used that as a starting point, and grew even more technologically.

You may wonder, as many of us did, how on earth do you teach kids to read through at-home learning? Karen VanMeeteren, first grade teacher at South Side, found it was possible to teach reading through the program SeeSaw that her kids had already been familiar with before March 13, the day we all had to start quarantining at home. She used lots of repetition, and books that students were already somewhat familiar with, and could definitely see growth.

Mr. Eizenga already had a significant library of videos he had created of him teaching various chemistry techniques that he used before for differential learning—helping meet students at whatever learning level they were at—that he was able to use and add to for distance learning. Though when teaching chemistry labs, “It’s not as good as in person— you’re not in there weighing, wearing goggles. You can watch a lot of baseball, but it doesn’t mean you can play baseball,” he added.

Forest School was ready to tackle the unique challenges of an outdoor program even in a remote environment, and parents stepped up amazingly to support learning, often including the whole family in their child’s outdoor learning experiences. First grade Forest School teacher Emily VanVliet created a Family Scavenger Hunt for students and their families to do a variety of outside tasks like climb a tree, draw a picture in the mud, take a prayer walk. They used an app, Goose Chase, that allowed them to keep track of how far their classmates were in the scavenger hunt, “creating a huge competition, with pizza on the line for the winners,” said Emily.

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Everybody had an awareness for where others [were] at. A lot of walls were broken down with communication between parents and teachers. And we coordinated our efforts even more across the bridge—we relied on each other more.

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But we also learned a bit about the limits of technology, and sometimes students just needed a physical textbook in their hands—maybe for math, or for middle school social studies, when they just had to practice reading textbook language, explained HCMS teacher Bob Kool. And sometimes parents just needed worksheets, because students needed to accomplish something concrete, see and feel the physical, find the vocab words in a text without the distractions of the advertisements rolling through their screens. So we learned to mix in some paper and pen with the technology.

Thirdly, we learned how much more important motivation was than ever before, and we figured out creative ways for motivating kids. Spanish Immersion kindergarten teacher Hilary Klipp Lopez started out emailing all her students an emoji whenever they finished their assignments, but realized kids weren’t really interested in it. But when she started handing out letters after each assignment, and the kids had to put them together to spell a secret word they could share at the end of the week Zoom party, then they were suddenly interested. Or Forest School kindergarten teacher Ron Harig offered YouTube video rewards of himself, their teacher aide Jennifer Allen, or their principal Miska Rynsburger ’92 doing something crazy that the students could select, they all finished all their schoolwork. So Mr. Harig had to jump in the HC pond—in March! And Mrs. Allen had to eat crickets, while Mrs. Rynsburger got to climb to the top of a Forest School tree.

We didn’t try those things at the secondary levels, but Merideth Beukelman ’09, an HCMS science teacher did hand deliver Jolly Ranchers to students’ doors for completing assignments. HCHS English teacher Elle Nieuwsma ’12 made personal videos periodically to help students understand homework and encourage them to complete the assignments. That was a huge motivator for some kids, just seeing how much she cared.

Due to state mandates of attendance not being taken and GPAs not allowed to drop lower than pre-quarantine levels, we had our high school hands tied just a bit. However, we did realize that taking attendance, and grades really do matter to HC students, and we are hopeful that if at-home learning is necessary once again, we will be able to motivate students with GPAs and attendance, just like in normal school. Plus we realized how motivating extracurricular activities and sports are for so many HCS students—we pray we can keep as many of those in play this fall, even if we do have to move learning to home.

Fourth, we saw how consistency, schedules, and creating a norm for students was even more important than in the classroom—teachers found this over and over again, and at every level. “There were definitely things I learned that I will do again and other things I won’t do again,” Todd Smeenge added. “For example, I learned the importance of routine for most students. Having a set time for assignments to be posted, for ‘open office’ times, or for online zoom meetings was helpful for keeping students on track.”

Fifth, we learned anew the value of vulnerability, both the intentional and unwanted varieties. Maybe kids even tuned in better when we were teaching in our PJs, with us yelling at our dogs in the background? And it was so helpful to have parents be honest about how they and their kids were doing, especially in the bad days. “Parents were able to communicate freely with teachers, and vice versa,” said Danielle Snoeyink. “I had so many parents just be honest, saying ‘It was a bad day today. We just didn’t get it.’” Or when Dale Eizenga finally tracked down some of the students he was supposed to be checking in with on a regular basis, but had not heard from in weeks, and the student just broke down, admitting how difficult it was that the spring sports season was cancelled, and his favorite thing to do was unavailable to him.

Teaching online proved to be challenging, and yet, as I found myself navigating the situation, I believe I began to grow as an educator. I knew that I had to keep first graders engaged and so I had to be direct, to the point, and yet still focus on the personal connection I had with my dear students.

But we also found that vulnerability refreshing in our colleagues, as Danielle Snoeyink described: “Everybody had an awareness for where others [were] at. A lot of walls were broken down with communication between parents and teachers. And we coordinated our efforts even more across the bridge—we relied on each other more.”

And finally, we are learning to be more creative, conscientious and deliberate, perhaps even better teachers, and more forward thinking, pushed to a higher level.

Dr. Bultman, our interim superintendent this spring recognized the amazing switch that teachers pulled literally overnight: “We proved to ourselves it was possible—we can teach remotely,” he rejoiced. “And now we can see there are more creative ways to do things. Now we want to let our teachers function more in their best interest area, and really let them shine. [There’s] a lot of potential here and maybe out of this chaos can come some shalom.”

Teaching from home allowed teachers to create their teaching videos from unusual spots: Danielle Snoeyink taught line plots from her bathtub in flippers and a scuba mask, using the square tiles as her graph paper. Or she read aloud The Wolves of Willoughby Chase from the front lawn of the Felt Manor to set the tone. South Side second grade teacher Sheri Hunderman ’00 taught the Bible lesson of Peter’s denial from the top of her chicken coop with a rooster crowing, and HCHS Bible teacher Keith Blystra ’00 enlisted the help of his young daughters. His colleague, Bryant Russ, coordinated a class Zoom with the main actor of The Chosen, the first-ever-multi-season TV show about the life and times of Jesus, that his Bible students were watching and critiquing throughout the semester.

“I got to share a different side of myself through my videos each day. My entire family shared jokes for the ‘Friday Funnies’ and my own children could help ‘teach’ a lesson,” Sheri said. “These are unique and fun experiences that would have never otherwise happened and parts of my life that I otherwise could never have shared in the classroom setting.”

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I know that these were uncharted waters, and at times, it felt as though we might just drown, but God has been faithful to help us navigate the seas—on the calm days and also in the midst of rough waters. I trust He will do this again as we find ourselves doing education differently in this upcoming season.

Rose Park first grade teacher Sheila Dokter created a new persona, Annie Fuego, for encouraging and teaching her students science experiments on YouTube, filmed with her husband and fellow educator. “Teaching online proved to be challenging, and yet, as I found myself navigating the situation, I believe I began to grow as an educator,” Sheila admitted. “Teaching, primarily through video, caused me to pause and truly reflect on my delivery of the content I was trying to engage my students with. I knew that I had to keep first graders engaged and so I had to be direct, to the point, and yet still focus on the personal connection I had with my dear students.”

But please don’t get the idea that it was all easy. We skipped a lot of the really hard parts in this article—how many tears there were repeatedly, on the parts of students certainly, but also teachers and parents. How hard it was to keep some students’ attention on Zoom meetings with pets and siblings and other technology in the background, how sometimes teachers or students had to Zoom outside in March, since that was the only other quiet place available in their house. How some of our high school students checked out and didn’t do homework or show up for Zooms since by state decree, their GPA could not go down from this distant learning.

We didn’t ask for it, but if we need to teach from home at some point again this school year, we know that we can do it, and do it even better.

“I know that these were uncharted waters, and at times, it felt as though we might just drown, but God has been faithful to help us navigate the seas—on the calm days and also in the midst of rough waters,” Sheila Dokter offered. “I trust He will do this again as we find ourselves doing education differently in this upcoming season. I am choosing to keep my eyes above the waves and to trust fully in the one who holds me secure. My prayer is that our community will continue to trust with me.”

So just maybe, with God’s grace we can come out of this pandemic better than we were before. With more empathy, more deliberateness, more creativity, more gratitude, more humility and recognition of our need for our Savior. Taking nothing, but especially not each other, or our confidence in Christ, for granted.