Since school halted back in mid-March, I will say that I’ve gotten used to the virtual world of work. I finished out the year with three classes of high school seniors in that way, and I’ve recently completed two months of work for my state department of education in the same vein.

I must admit: working from home has its advantages. The times I turned in for sleep and arose varied greatly – and often were more pleasing to my own natural circadian rhythm. I enjoyed going to bed at midnight (or later) and sleeping until around 10 a.m. Guess what? I still got much work completed, and I’m not convinced that we have to adhere to an outmoded agrarian schedule in order to make it happen. I did rise and get ready each day as if I were going to a physical location, sans the business professional clothing. After all, I had Zoom or Webex or Microsoft Teams virtual meetings to which I had to attend at least every other day, sometimes on a daily basis. It has been relaxing not to have to plan my attire for each day, another advantage of remote work.

With the discussion of the return to the classroom comes interesting perceptions about teaching and virtual work. For those who have no training or experience in education, technologically-enhanced instruction, or virtual meeting platforms, the process isn’t as easy as being in-person, but in the midst of a pandemic, when social distancing may be impossible in confined spaces, it is certainly the best stopgap.

In March, some of my seniors, who were finishing their senior projects of constructing a physical product, learning a skill or art, job-shadowing, or volunteering, got their project experience cut short. Most had finished their actual product or were on the brink of doing so. My administrators and I opted to have them write the senior project speech they would have delivered to 80 community judges later in April had school continued normally.

They utilized Google Docs (i.e., an online version of Microsoft Word) built into a Google Classroom assignment in order to draft and revise their speeches. When they had completed enough of a draft completed for me to assess, I made comments and returned the draft to them electronically. They revised and resubmitted until the speech met satisfactory completion requirements.

Many of my seniors worked diligently on their speeches, some even finishing early, prior to May 1, submitting three or four revised drafts. In addition to school e-mail, we used another useful app – Remind – in order to communicate efficiently. I was stressed at times along the way, especially when students weren’t responsive on occasion or hadn’t completed necessary work, but, in the end, all of them met the requirements, with differing levels of success, as is to be expected.

After the work of my primary instructional job was completed May 15, I had a couple of weeks until June 1, when I began working for the Tennessee Department of Education in a two-month long project. After a rigorous, competitive virtual application process of approximately 155 applicants, I was selected as one of five Tennessee Summer Education Leader Fellows. It was advertised as a paid, eight-week opportunity for fellows to “leverage their classroom experience and passion for education to impact change at the state level,” according to the fellowship application description.

More specifically, as I was informed, my role would involve working with the Tennessee Department of Education’s (TDOE) English Language Arts (ELA) division to help clarify state ELA standards and devise even better implementation practices for ELA educators across the state. The ELA Coordinator had composed a set of standards guides for grades 6-12 with interpretation of the standards, necessary glossary terms, sample classroom tasks, and ways in which questions might be asked on TNReady end-of-course testing in order to assess the standards.

I was tasked with reviewing and adding comments to the guides – but primarily with writing sample classroom tasks for each standard at each grade level, with grades 9-10 and 11-12 banded together and grades 6, 7, and 8 on separate guides, as is their standard format. For educators who know that daily classroom planning for teaching is not easy, consider writing outlines of sets of activities for reading informational texts, reading literary texts, speaking/listening tasks, writing tasks, and language tasks for each grade level for each set of standards. I felt especially challenged by the time I reached 6th grade, since it’s not the range of students with whom I normally work. I did, however, complete the task in the assigned two months, as my two project supervisors and I adhered to fairly strict deadlines, meeting virtually two to three times a week—in addition to other professional development meetings involved in my two-month fellowship.

The morning of Friday, June 24, I gave my ten-minute Prezi-based presentation virtually via Webex, along with my cohort of four other fellows. I was nervous. However, I feel as if I have grown in the process. I had hoped to emerge from the two-month Tennessee Education Leaders Summer Fellowship not only as a more polished, more equipped classroom educator myself, but also to help, even in some small way, to elucidate some of our standards-based ELA instruction in Tennessee.

I feel as if I have accomplished those goals, which makes this project feel like a success to me. What I have offered in that short time may not yet be refined and will likely need some revision and redirection, but hopefully I added some classroom expertise and worthy content to the project. My ultimate hope remains that, based on any work that any of us do, we will elicit higher learning outcomes from our students.

Daily Corinthian columnist Stacy Jones teaches English at McNairy Central High School and UT-Martin. She worked as a Tennessee Education Leaders Fellow this summer for the Tennessee Department of Education in Nashville. She enjoys being a downtown Corinth resident.

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