A house now filled with the sounds of teachers making recorded videos or talking to a class of 20 on Zoom, the pings and rings of text messages, emails and Seesaw and Google Classroom notifications arriving, students’ voices as they show off their completed assignments, the attempted tune of happy birthday, and children scrambling into videos are what is now “real life,” according to local parents and teachers Meagan and Keith Ferris of Wadena.

These teacher, student and parent interactions come as part of the distance learning requirements from Gov. Tim Walz along with schools’ creative combinations of educational instruction online and through packets. The goals: daily interactions and providing education, according to Verndale first-grade teacher Meagan Ferris and Wadena-Deer Creek second-grade teacher Keith Ferris. Both teach classes of about 20 in addition to their three children at home who are 9, 7 and 5 years old.

As teachers and parents, Meagan and Keith know the need for flexibility to adjust and develop a routine. The routine aspect started with bringing home buckets to organize their daughters’ assignments as well as setting up special work spaces for each of them. Throughout the day, Keith and Meagan help their daughters at TV trays set up in their closets, at the kitchen table, in the basement or in front of the fireplace.

“I’m here all day to make this as easy on them (parents) as possible so I don’t want them feeling overwhelmed because … the kids see that, they can sense that and I try to make it as smooth a process as we can,” Keith said.

With packet and Seesaw learning options, Meagan hopes to keep the process flexible. Packets are delivered every Thursday and she posts four videos daily. Seesaw is an online platform where teachers can connect with students and parents and students can submit assignments with video, text, photo and shape capabilities. Meagan regularly has flexibility in her classroom, now including options on completing the packets or Seesaw assignments or both. Though as a structured and organized person, going with the flow has been challenging, according to Meagan.

“We have finally gotten into a routine,” Meagan said.

Meagan teaches a lesson on money with a display of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. She posts four videos daily, including a hello and check in, a story, math lesson and phonics lesson.
Photo courtesy of Keith Ferris
Meagan teaches a lesson on money with a display of pennies, nickels, dimes and quarters. She posts four videos daily, including a hello and check in, a story, math lesson and phonics lesson. Photo courtesy of Keith Ferris

Even celebrating birthdays are flexible, with a recent birthday in Meagan’s class including eight to 10 students singing on Zoom. There's even been a drive by honk, and a birthday crown, book, stickers, and bracelet in homework packets for the five upcoming birthdays.

“Those special times have been really hard. I feel bad for the kids that they’re missing that, so just trying to make some of those things extra special any way we can,” Meagan said.

As distance learning lessons become routine, students are missing their friends and teachers are missing their students. Keith said he went into teaching to work with kids, and he hopes to say goodbye to his class even if it’s in the fall. Meagan, too, immediately missed her students, even asking for a video the last day of school before the closures on March 17.

“I had a really hard time on … that last day,” Meagan said. “I really, really miss this class.”

Keith said he is also missing the social-emotional talks he would include throughout the day. He tries to add them before math lessons or during Zoom meetings. One of his mottos in the classroom and now in homes is, “Work before play” along with lessons on respecting others and how to get along in different situations.

He uses Seesaw and packet assignments while rethinking priorities since he can’t cover all the subjects and he doesn’t want to overwhelm parents or students. Some parents also reward their students for completing certain tasks by having a Zoom time with Keith.

“As a teacher that’s very difficult because everything’s very important, we want them to have all the subjects, everything that we do everyday in class but that’s very unrealistic for parents to have to do that,” Keith said.

Keith finds a spot to work on lessons for distance learning and responding to students' comments and questions. His goal is to not overwhelm students or parents with the assignments.
Photo courtesy of Keith Ferris
Keith finds a spot to work on lessons for distance learning and responding to students' comments and questions. His goal is to not overwhelm students or parents with the assignments. Photo courtesy of Keith Ferris

In the first week of distance learning, Keith awaited students’ responses by staring at his computer screen but now he knows their schedules. With his videos posted early in the morning, approximately one-third of the students complete their assignments by 9 a.m. with some in the afternoon and a majority from 4:30-7:30 p.m.

“I’ve had a lot of parents say that, ‘I’m not a teacher’ they’re very anxious about this so trying to get that instruction as best we can in a short amount of time,” Keith said. “We don’t want to overwhelm parents and overwhelm the kids during this because we know it’s not ideal learning but we still want them to grow and get some content during this time.”

With students’ learning in mind, Keith said family comes first, with time together as a success even if assignments weren’t completed that day, as long as parents are communicating with teachers. Taking breaks are part of the normal school day, too, because if students are frustrated learning won’t happen, as Keith said. For their own daughters, Keith and Meagan have ways to keep them engaged depending on the day though they are having fun playing together.

The lessons are for teachers as well, from routines on online platforms to creating manageable assignments.

“It’s definitely going to make us better teachers, more … child-centered coming into our teaching style next year I think is going to be completely changed after all of this,” Meagan said.