Class is in session: Notre Dame teachers use digital tools to deliver distance education to students

Courtesy of The Catholic Sun

By Katherine Long | Editor

So far, Notre Dame Jr./Sr. High School physics teacher Dwight “Buzz” Putnam is giving online instruction top marks.

Putnam has been teaching physics for 36 years — he retired from the Whitesboro Central School District after 34 years and is now in his second year at ND — but this is his first time providing distance education via online platforms.

Finding effective ways to continue teaching while school is closed amid the coronavirus pandemic is “making us adapt to certain things we’re not used to doing,” Putnam said. And it’s bringing some pleasantly surprising results from his students: “I think they pay attention better watching me on the computer!” he laughed during a recent interview.

Notre Dame Schools announced March 13 both the elementary and high school would close through April 14 as a proactive step to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. By March 17, all 22 diocesan Catholic schools were closed as counties declared states of emergency and school districts announced closures.

Notre Dame’s faculty “developed and has distributed academic lessons that will be completed remotely by each student as well as providing supplemental clarification and explanation of the same throughout the day,” the schools’ announcement said. Putnam commended ND Executive Principal Roy Kane for his foresight in directing teachers to prepare lessons well in advance of the closure announcement.

Teachers determine how their lessons will be delivered, explained Kari Puleo, Director of Advancement at ND. “Some coursework lends itself nicely to Google classroom (math) and some have provided projects (art/music),” she said, and each teacher instructed students on how lessons would be delivered. All of the students at the high school have school-issued Chromebooks; hardcopy work also went home with students on March 13.

Putnam set up a Google Classroom for his 36 students, who began distance learning on Monday. The digital workspace, which Putnam had worked with before, allows him to share notes and assignments with students, and students to participate in discussions and take quizzes and tests online. But using video and audio components proved a bit difficult — some students couldn’t see the video or hear the audio, he said.

Putnam’s son, Tim, pointed him to Zoom, an online video conferencing platform. On Tuesday morning, Putnam held his first class via Zoom.

“I can see them all [the students], I can bring up all the notes and they can see me talking, and I can even write on the screen just like I would normally in class,” he said.

And Friday morning’s virtual class did feel remarkably similar to an in-person science class: Students filtered in, their names and faces appearing in squares on the screen. They greeted their teacher while they waited for class to start. Students called out answers as they worked on a problem involving a series circuit, watching as Putnam drew the components of the circuit on a digital whiteboard.

Putnam said the transition to remote instruction has been easy so far since his class notes, quizzes, and tests are all electronic files already, and the students seem to be adapting to their virtual classroom with no trouble.

“My class hasn’t changed all that much by using this process, so it’s really kind of cool actually,” he said.

Putnam’s ND colleague Richard Hensel also reports his students “have been great about working remotely.”

Hensel, who has taught at ND for four years, instructs 125 students across his English 9, 11, and 11 Honors classes and a senior theology mini-course titled “Finding God in the Culture.” And “while the coronavirus is in no way a convenience, of all the times something like this could have happened, my classes were actually very well prepared,” he said in an email to the Sun.

Hensel himself was well prepared too — though this is his first time teaching remotely, he is quite “familiar with online learning, as much of [my] graduate course work at Le Moyne College was either done remotely via the Canvas platform, or was geared towards the practices of teaching through the use of technology,” he said.

His students’ Chromebooks have been “a huge blessing, and I have used these platforms, such as Google Classroom, throughout the entire year for different assignments, so they were already well-familiar with the process,” Hensel said.

A variety of digital platforms are being employed in Hensel’s courses: His English 9 students are creating comic books based on their mythology unit, “which is all done using their Chromebooks with the website storyboardthat.com, which I subscribe to for a class account. Students were able to continue working with their groups remotely using that platform as well as Google Docs and Google Classroom to share their creations, write reflections on the process, and have a discussion board-based conversation.”

His juniors “were just beginning their research paper projects in class, which is a joint project with the History Department…. so I was able to create screencasts for them, where I shared the guides that I had produced for them, and simply walked them through using screencasting software as if we were in class still. They have been submitting their projects piece by piece and I have been able to offer them feedback using Google Classroom”

And in “Finding God in Culture,” students are exploring “finding God in the arts,” Hensel said.

“For my last remote lesson, I actually created a video where I give my students a tour of my home parish, St. Anthony & St. Agnes in Utica, and show them some of the very interesting and historically significant pieces of art around the church and what they meant for the Italian immigrants who built the church,” he explained. The students were “really interested,” he noted, and the virtual field trip led to good conversations in the Google Classroom.

“Overall, the experience has been positive given the circumstances,” Hensel said, “but I cannot say that I don’t miss getting to see my students everyday or my colleagues for that matter, because we truly are a family at the end of the day.”