May 15, 2020

Distance Learning Diaries: Chinni Oji and Katie Brown

May is Teacher Appreciation Month, and one important way to appreciate educators is to shine a light on their work and elevate their voice. Distance learning has impacted every facet of schooling in Minnesota and these educators are working to rise to the occasion to solve both new and old challenges. This week, we get a firsthand look from Minnesota educators Chinni Oji and Katie Brown.

Chinni Oji, Equity Specialist, Edgewood Middle School

My role is to work with students who historically haven’t been equitably served by the education system, including students with individual education plans (IEPs), English Learner students, black and brown students, and students from low-income backgrounds. I’m there to help them in any way. The work I do with students can be academic or social-emotional. I’m a face at school that students who are having trouble might recognize as a go-to person. I get to interact with many kids everyday, providing support to around 25 students per day.

Prior to the pandemic, I would go to my office, get my coffee mug, consult my sheet of names, and then see those kids. With some students, I checked in frequently, seeing them at lunch or pulling them out of class. It’s changed dramatically. Instead of me saying, “I’m going to come see you at lunch,” it’s now me saying (through an email), “Hey, here’s a Google meet time. I need you to accept this invitation, and then you need to hop on this Google meeting with me, and then we can talk.”

If kids are getting overwhelmed with school work or life, they can just close the Chromebook and not open it back up. How do we engage them when they may need us most? Going to distance learning has helped some of our staff understand our kids better, even kids who are 12 and 13 who are struggling right now. We see now how important being at school is to them even though they didn’t always express that prior to the school closures. Our staff is starting to ask our kids “Is this working? Is class efficient for you? How can I help you?” After you start to ask those questions, the equity issues become clearer. 

Katie Brown, 8-12 Agriculture, Small Engine, Welding Teacher and Future Farmers of America Advisor, Minnewaska Area Schools

People who get into education know that it’s primarily because of the kids. There’s not enough people in this world who tell kids that they can do great things. I’m watching relationships that I had with students disintegrate because I can’t see them and am now struggling to connect with them. Some of my high school students are trying to balance work and school, supporting parents who were laid off.

I constantly try approaches to keep students engaged amid all this. For example, all of our Zoom meetings have themes for extra credit, which helps with attendance. The first week was “Bring your pet to Zoom.” The creativity and variation was great! I had a kid with 100 cows behind him! Pigs and goats show up, along with dogs, cats, birds, a chameleon. I think that encouraging kids to share part of their lives with me and each other has helped. 

One issue, unique to my role as an agriculture teacher, is the hands-on element to the learning. The shift in moving from in-person to distance learning is especially significant for kids who take shop, agriculture, and other career and technical education (CTE) classes. They take these classes to do hands-on work. During this time students don’t have access to the resources they would normally have in school for CTE classes. Policymakers should consider granting special permission for teachers to have CTE students come into the workshop if there are health and safety plans in place. My small engine class has eight kids in it where they could work in shifts, staying distant from each other.

We’re all facing struggles and anybody who says teachers don’t work hard, doesn’t get it. As a first year teacher, the pandemic has added even more challenges. At the same time, it really feels like we are all in this together. I appreciate the camaraderie between all of us.

“Whether you are a brand new or veteran teacher, we’re all facing obstacles, creating innovative approaches, and supporting one another.” – MN teacher Katie Brown