SALT LAKE CITY — Leigh Ann Jennings saw that her fourth grade class at Uintah Elementary School was having a bit of a hard time adjusting to their new normal.
The coronavirus pandemic had turned days that had once been filled with hours of learning and interacting into days that were suddenly long and slow. In a class group email, messages began popping up from students saying they were bored and wondering if anyone wanted to talk.
“I thought, well, if they're trying to contact each other through an email group, then maybe we should set up some kind of a way to interact,” Jennings said.
She was already hosting a morning class on Zoom for lessons, but she implemented an afternoon session too. This one wasn’t for teaching; it was for fun. The class plays games, they share talents with each other and they show off pets. In short, they get to be kids just being with other kids. It’s helped fill a void that the school closures left.
It’s those types of actions that have made Jennings a beloved teacher at the Salt Lake City school for 28 years now.
“We love Ms. Jennings even more now than when school was in session at Uintah elementary!” one parent wrote to KSL.com. “... It's been wonderful for my son to stay connected to his peers and teacher during this difficult time. Ms. Jennings placed signs in all of her students’ yards letting them know how important they are.”
Jennings understands wanting to be together. It’s what she misses the most, too. She misses the face-to-face connection with her students, learning about and from them, and seeing the "aha!" moments when a concept fully sinks in.
“I get a lot out of being able to be with them in the classroom and interact with them,” she said. “I learn from them as much as they learned from me, so I think that's probably the hardest part.”
It's been wonderful for my son to stay connected to his peers and teacher during this difficult time. Ms. Jennings placed signs in all of her students’ yards letting them know how important they are.
As for the teaching, she wasn’t about to let a pandemic stop her from doing that.
Each weekday at 10 a.m., Jennings is greeted with smiling faces on her computer. She hoped that by keeping regularly scheduled lessons then her students would be able to continue to learn even if the schools weren’t open. The Zoom meetings allow her to answer questions and to share her screen like it’s a whiteboard as she teaches.
The Zoom meetings got off to a bit of a rocky start with everyone wanting to give tours of their homes or introduce their pets to the class, but they soon became just an extension of the classroom.
That was her goal. She didn’t want parents to feel like they suddenly needed to be a teacher. That was still her job, after all.
“My hope was through all this that the parents didn't get stuck teaching the kids a lot,” she said. “I'm the teacher and I wanted the kids to rely on me more if they had questions. I even individually met one-on-one on Zoom with a few kids that had questions that were too afraid to ask when everybody in the group was there. So it’s worked out pretty well.”
It’s helped that Jennings had already implemented a lot of technology into her class this year. Students were communicating in email groups and were doing assignments on Canvas, a web-based learning platform, before the pandemic hit. That made the transition a little easier.
Well, it did for the kids — that wasn’t necessarily the case for the parents.
“It's been a fun learning curve and of course, but I think the parents have had the hardest time,” Jennings said with a laugh. “The kids have adapted just fine. It's interesting because I'll give an instruction and the parents say, ‘Well, where do they find it? What do they do?’ I'm like, ‘Just ask the kids.’ So it ended up being not as much of a challenge as I thought it was going to be.”
The real challenge, though, came from the kids being separated from each other — which is why at 2 p.m., they hop on a computer again to do, well, anything. There have been times where students have played guitar or piano, they’ve played games of Pictionary or Charades, and sometimes they just visit and catch up.
Those afternoon meetings have helped the class, and Jennings admits they’ve helped her, too.