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Middle school teachers face challenges, find solutions

'Early challenges are leading to sustained success'

October 20th, 2020 9:38 AM

From left, Forest Park Middle School teachers Malinali Rodriguez, Rebecca Cairdullo, Patricia Allocco and Christopher Dockum | Photo provided

By Maria Maxham

"March was a brave new world," said Rebecca Ciardullo, 8th grade ELA teacher at the Forest Park Middle School (FPMS). She was referring to the sudden switch to remote learning when COVID-19 shut everything, including schools, down. "None of us knew what we were doing at all," she said. "We were kind of building the planes we were flying in."

Ciardullo said a big difference between the spring and teaching now, in the fall, revolves around the intention of interaction with the students.

"I think the key word in the spring was 'engagement,' just keeping the kids engaged, keeping them checking in and trying to keep some semblance of normalcy in this world gone mad," Ciardullo said. "That completely changed over the summer. We're now back to our regular, our normal charge, which is education, not just engagement."

And this year, things are going much better, according to Ciardullo and fellow FPMS teachers Patricia Allocco (6th grade social studies teacher), Malinali Rodriguez (7th grade science teacher), and Christopher Dockum (middle school vocal teacher), who spoke with the Review during a Zoom session last week.

Ciardullo said that over the summer, the staff at FPMS spent huge amounts of time trying different platforms, experimenting with various systems, brainstorming and communicating with one another.

"I think there were probably more emails that went back and forth among staff this summer than there have been in any other summer, including contract negotiation summers, in my whole 24 years here," Ciardullo said. "And we really worked together to help each other find the best methods to teach our kids. And it showed when we came back to school in the fall."

Allocco agreed, and added that she and the rest of the staff are really proud of the kids. And their parents.

"The sixth grade team is all on the same page and trying to make things as easy as possible for the kids and for their parents, who are doing part of our job at home," Allocco said. "As much as we're doing, a lot is falling on the parents. And we're all proud of the kids. They have risen. They're amazing. They're doing the work. They're showing up."

Dockum, who's in his second year in the district, also said that the spring was difficult. He wasn't sure what the best way to reach the students was, especially teaching music.

"I certainly struggled in the spring, figuring out what should I do. What can I do? What can students do?" He figured out a way but said it didn't feel right. "I didn't feel like I was reaching the right level of success, that students weren't being set up the way I wanted them to be."

In some ways, said Dockum, those few months last school year where things didn't work allowed him to become a stronger teacher this year.

"The difficulty we faced allowed us to really build from that and create a success," Dockum said. "The early challenges are leading to sustained success."

For Dockum, an additional challenge revolves around teaching music, which used to involve having students play instruments in class.

"I realized, well, I can't just give an instrument to every student, but what are we going to do instead?" Dockum said.

He began asking students what they wanted to learn as well as researching different online programs he could use to help teach music to the kids. Online piano programs, lyric writing, and some music production have made up this year's curriculum. Recently, in celebration of Hispanic Heritage Month, the students made commercials about Hispanic music.

"I feel like I am really stretching my teaching muscles to figure out how, if I can't physically give a student an instrument, I can still teach creatively," said Dockum. "And in some ways that has helped me improve as a teacher."

For Rodriguez, the challenge this school year was upped because it's her first year teaching at FPMS. But she said the students have made her experience as good as it possibly could be.

"I think that the kids have been great. And they have made it so easy on me," said Rodriguez. She added that the other teachers have been an amazing support system for her, helping her through every step and providing details on what to expect and what works best with the students.

For Rodriguez, like Dockum, hands-on projects are an important part of her class. As a science teacher, she struggled with how to instruct students in lessons that might have involved equipment like a microscope or other tools they didn't have at home.

"It's been a challenge trying to figure out how to complete the curriculum, how to have it be hands on at home," said Rodriguez. But like Dockum, she said it's all about being creative. When they were working on the digestive system, she had them chew on a cracker or piece of bread for a long time, until it released the sugar. When studying the respiratory system, she had them jump in place, then feel the differences in their body to understand physically the lessons they were learning.

And maybe, said Dockum, this type of teaching can actually improve educational techniques.

"We talk a lot as teachers about making our education relevant to students' real lives and especially in this 21st century world. Right now, having the students do things in their homes, we're taking what you can find in your daily life and applying it to what we're doing in the classroom. That really hits the target," Dockum said.

Allocco said she ties the idea of real life into social studies too. When students complain about social distancing or express frustration or fear with the world as it is now, she sympathizes but reminds them of the significance of this time.

"I remind them they are living through history right now. I tell them this is what their children will be studying about. They're writing a journal, and someday that will be a primary source," Allocco said.

Another difficulty has been social emotional learning, the teachers said. The school's social workers are amazing. And time for breakout group activities, where the students can have casual conversations with each other, is provided. Still, the teachers worry about the students.

"If there's a more complicated reality here, it's knowing that the students are being thrust into this very complicated situation, this complicated world, and thinking that we are on the other side of a computer screen, we are doing our best to help them but it's very different than being face to face," said Dockum. "For me, it's a big challenge to find that personal connection over a computer; it just feels so remote, it feels so impersonal."

To make sure kids aren't too stressed, Ciardullo said she's worked hard to figure out what the essential things are that the kids need to know and focus on those.

"I don't want to overwhelm them, but I need to teach them," Ciardullo said.

Allocco said she gives students time in class to do work, and she wants to reduce the amount of screen time necessary to complete assignments. One way she's doing this is through providing written assignments, like the election workbook the kids are completing now. It's in hard copy. No screens necessary.

Simply being in an empty classroom is difficult too. Allocco said she cried on the first day of school.

"The energy just wasn't what it should be for the first day of school," she said. "It was a sad day. A very difficult day."

It was also a shock to leave last year, for what they thought would be maybe a few weeks, but not return. There were students they saw for the final time, not knowing it would be the last time they met.

Last April, teachers were allowed to come back for an hour to pick up materials they'd left behind.

"I walked in and the notes were still on the board because we had just done the poetry slam," Ciardullo said. "There were still books on the tables and papers under the desks. It was like a scene out of Chernobyl. It was like Pompei. It was like a moment frozen in time."

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