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South Jordan Journal

Welby teacher chooses optimism as winter approaches during pandemic school year

Nov 24, 2020 03:14PM ● By Julie Slama

Welby teacher Carolyn Smith’s third grade students, wearing masks, follow signage through the school from which way to walk or enter the building to where to stand on dots to keep socially distanced from the spread of COVID-19. (Aaron Ichimura/Welby Elementary)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

Note: This is part two in a series following an elementary school teacher as she navigates teaching in a pandemic world. 

In mid-November, 13 weeks since the first day of school, after the bright sunny weather turned to bleak cold winds and a surprise snowstorm covered the Salt Lake Valley, Welby Elementary teacher Carolyn Smith had already broken into her stash of disposable masks for schoolchildren who had forgotten theirs and had reminded them to keep out their “zombie arms” and stand on the dots, both designed to keep them socially distanced.

Cold and flu season were approaching; students were transitioning from playing outdoors to using a portable for indoor recess as the gym was being used for lunch, and they couldn’t sit next to their friends at lunchtime as they were spaced far apart while eating unmasked.

Smith, as hundreds of others in the valley, was teaching in-person during the deadly COVID-19 pandemic.

Even with positive test numbers skyrocketing—nearly 4,000 cases on Nov. 12—was Smith happy with her decision to risk her own health to teach third graders?

“Very, very,” she said. “I love kids. And I love to be with my kids. There is an energy that happens when they’re all with you, they’re excited about what you’re doing, and when those ‘a-ha’ moments happen.”

She also likes the personal relationships she builds with her pupils.

Recently one of her students told her he was learning piano so on the day of his lesson, Smith asked if he was excited. The day after, he told her he was learning to play “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” She asked him to send her a video so she could hear him.

“So, he sent me a video of him playing ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” and his mom sent me an email saying, ‘Thank you so much for validating him as a person,’” she said. “My point is that you don’t hear those little comments online. [Teaching in-person] you can just be a part of those little things.” 

As of press deadline, Welby reported fewer than six positive cases of COVID-19. With only a couple of Smith’s students having been quarantined for exposure to people outside the classroom, she just welcomes them with a “we’re happy to have you back.”

However, as all of South Jordan secondary schools went online Nov. 12 until at least the end of the month, would she have wanted to return in-person if she taught those grades?

“I still think I’d prefer in-person, but I have a very elementary personality,” she said.

That’s apparent as she continues to try to connect with her students, bringing a sense of normalcy through creative ways. Even with Gov. Gary Herbert’s Nov. 9 mandate restricted after-school activities for two weeks, Welby and several other schools already curtailed its extracurriculars this fall with no robotics, orchestra, choir, band—“the extracurricular things that broaden their educational experience.”

Smith made sure to have a fun class day on Halloween, a day that many schoolchildren love and some, may have been fearful wouldn’t happen this year.

“Halloween turned out to be great,” she said. “There were strict rules; the kids could wear their costumes; but if they were going to wear it, it needed to be able to be something they could wear all day because specifically they were told that teachers couldn’t help kids on and off with costumes.”

Smith made it a day to celebrate and learn.

“On the way, my husband told me to make it a fun day and be a fun teacher—and they all had a blast as we did some educational Halloween activities, all day,” she said.

Those activities included graphing costumes and their favorite candy, Halloween Kahoot math word problems and creating a catapult from popsicle sticks, rubber bands and spoons and using candy pumpkins to shoot across their desks.

“I said, ‘this is science,’ and one my kids said, ‘no, this is engineering,’” she said, then she asked how he knew that; he replied, “’because I’m going to be an engineer when I grow up,’ and I thought, ‘bless your heart.’ That was one of their favorite things. I just gave them the pieces and they had to discover how to create a catapult. They were having fun; they were learning.”

The school PTA also did a “fun thing” by having teachers, who volunteered, kiss a 500-pound pig as a result of students surpassing the school online fundraiser goal.

Smith gave her a kiss, with bright purple lipstick, on the shoulder so students could see it as it was livestreamed to classrooms and made available to online students.

“Our PTA rocked it,” she said. “It was absolutely hilarious, and they loved it; they ate it up. That was a real fun activity they made in spite of the circumstances. And they not only did it well, but the kids were excited about it.”

She also was looking at her annual Thanksgiving feast, where students dressed up as pilgrims and Native Americans sit at a long table sharing food items they bring in and how it may have to look a little different this year.

“We’ll just do it a different way,” she said. “They could sit in their seats dressed up and have the Thanksgiving dinner and they’d get a kick out of that. Anything different, they get a kick out of anything. Even today, instead of sitting at their chairs, they sat on their desk for an activity that tends to be a little boring. But that made it exciting and so much fun. So just tweaking things just a little, but still social distancing and being appropriate, makes it fun.”

Not only is she thinking about her classroom holiday plans but also what her daily curriculum will be like weeks ahead in case a substitute is needed, or if case numbers rise and the school is to transition to online learning, her lessons will be ready.

“In that case, if we go online, I can make that work,” she said, adding that she took a Canvas class over the summer to help her prepare for that possibility. “It’s hard for me. It’s more complicated than my Google classroom was last spring. I have my Canvas set up and my kids are used to being on it, from day one.”

She also has her students knowing how to access their books online.

“I want them to be able to be independent of me,” she said in case teaching turns virtual. “My class and myself are much more prepared than I was in the spring.”

While Smith says, “I’m not a tech person,” she learned and held a back-to-school Zoom meeting, which she said she did “so they could see me.” She also was preparing for her first Zoom parent-teacher conferences.

“I think it’s going to be a lot more accessible,” she said. “They can access it from their phone or wherever. I think it’s going to be great.” 

Besides learning technology, Smith has appreciated more teacher support from her aides, since she has missed having parent volunteers in the classroom; collaboration of her third-grade team; her school professional development Friday mornings; and from her peers across the Jordan School District, who have shared successes in their classrooms during the pandemic. 

“We talk about we’re gearing up for this and what’s going well and what are your challenges,” she said. “It really has been beneficial and helpful to get perspectives from different teachers in other schools. Flexibility is a huge part of teaching, and this year, it’s especially been an important part of our teaching culture. We just have to be flexible as things come up, even as the rules change. There are teachers with anxiety and are up at night or you can do your best and take it one step at a time and make the best of it.”

What Smith is taking advantage of, during this year’s four-day school week, is Fridays when school isn’t in-session in its regular form.

“I love—and this surprises me—Fridays with kids [I invite] to school for three hours,” she said. “I did not anticipate liking it. I thought three hours would be a long time with small groups or a couple kids. And I was so very wrong.”

Smith first started with Zoom meetings, but then, knowing she was more comfortable in-person, she invited students, at first, for an hour, but then extended it to three hours so she could have more time to help them in-depth.

“Half of my class masters things, especially multiplication, and half of my class, struggles,” Smith said. “So, I can have some of them come in and not only can I really hit hard the concepts that they need, I can go over papers that they’ve needed to make corrections on, and I can really have them practice multiplication. I can have them play Kahoot. My class really loves Kahoot, and they’re having so much fun, they don’t realize they’re learning. And they’re the winners when they come in; on Fridays, they have a chance to shine and these kids are begging to come back. Teachers have all different levels come. Some of them do expanding activities with the gifted and talented, but I haven’t gotten there yet. I have surprised myself by loving it as much as I have. That is the silver lining.”