116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Bridget Castelluccio spent a year teaching 33 fourth-graders remotely during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Castelluccio — known as Mrs. C by her students — said she volunteered to teach virtually because of her “extensive” background in technology.
For the past decade, Castelluccio has received several grants that allowed her to integrate more technology into her classroom.
"Technology is a personal passion, and I was always interested in how we can use technology to advance student learning by giving students voice and choice and drive their own learning,“ she said.
Before the pandemic, integrating technology into the classroom was mainly focused on middle and high school students, Castelluccio said. But she saw what it could offer elementary students, too.
“If you show younger students how technology can enhance and drive some of their learning and education, it would be so much more powerful by the time they got to middle and high school,” she said.
The students she taught virtually during the 2020-21 school year attend Kenwood Leadership Academy and Garfield Elementary School in Cedar Rapids.
She had the 33 students split between morning and afternoon classes.
Before teaching remotely last year, Castelluccio was a fourth-grade teacher at Kenwood.
“I had the experience of how to integrate technology in the classroom in-person, so I knew my tech abilities would lend itself to the remote learning environment,” Castelluccio said.
Learning to integrate technology into teaching was a huge “learning curve” when Castelluccio began this work almost a decade ago, she recalled.
One of the challenges of remote learning is making students feel like a part of a classroom while doing school work from home.
“I want all students to feel successful in their learning, and to set academic goals, reach them, reflect on them and be able to share that with their families,” she said.
During the school year, Castelluccio and the children planned a virtual New Year’s party to usher in 2021, and connected online over winter break.
“We’re making those connections virtually, but there’s a piece of all of us that wants to give each other a high five and play on the playground,” she said.
And virtual learning, she said, can never replace relationships built by in-person learning.
Not seeing her students in person was hard, she added. Toward the end of the school year, they planned some play dates at a playground.
“We talked a lot about the day we would get together and meet each other face to face,” Castelluccio said.
After a year of teaching through the pandemic, Castelluccio accepted a position as digital learning consultant at Grant Wood Area Education Agency.
“I was planning on going back to the classroom, but when there was an opening for a digital consultant, I thought I could take all the things I’ve learned with integrating technology into learning and take them beyond my classroom.
What tech adds to classrooms
Castelluccio is one of several consultants who offer technology and digital training to
teachers in school districts across Iowa.
This will become even more important now that school districts largely have moved to one-to-one technology — each student has an electronic device at school and possibly can take it home.
“That’s one thing that really changed due to the pandemic,” Castelluccio said. “School districts and teachers were at various levels of comfort and a lot of plans were thrown together.
“This year, there will be a lot of evaluation now that we have this technology in the classroom, and I do think we’ll be moving toward more personalized learning. Instead of paper and pencil tests, it’s, ‘Let’s create a project, a video, a PowerPoint,’ and dive in deeper.”
Virtual field trips, virtual libraries and virtual speakers are all vital additions to the classroom.
Castelluccio said her students last year were able to read books they never would have had access without a virtual library.
Learning also may become more self-paced.
In math, for example, Castelluccio would walk through the lesson with students and provide them a video to watch that continues to explain the lesson.
Some students are ready to jump right in and practice, while others first want to watch the video a few more times.
“Instead of always being teacher-led and teacher-driven, students will find ways that work for them and how they learn,” she said.
“One of the big movements in education is students having ownership of their learning,” Castelluccio said. “Technology allows for that to happen and gives students more choice.”
Also, she said, fourth-grade students who are maybe at a first-grade reading level now have programs available that read webpages to them so “they can still learn, process and write a research paper on their own.”
Castelluccio also gives students the option of using speech to text programs. She has found that students who struggle with writing produce more colorful stories and narratives this way.
“Their stories were richer and more detailed because they weren’t bogged down by the typing or handwriting process,” she said.
Yes, Castelluccio admitted, the handwriting of virtual learners “lagged” during the pandemic. But she believes what they were able to learn because of technology could be far more valuable in their future world.
“I do wonder about that writing piece, but with those stories they also created a whole book, typed it, added images and drawings. … Being a remote teacher has opened my eyes to rethinking what’s really important.” Castelluccio said.
Educators are embracing the benefits — and demand — for virtual learning after the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Cedar Rapids Community School District is opening its Cedar Rapids Virtual Academy to all students this year. Previously, it was only available to middle school and high school students.
The district expects 200 to 400 students to be enrolled in the virtual academy this coming school year.
The Iowa City and Linn-Mar school districts are establishing their own virtual learning academies for the first time.
Nathan Wear, Linn-Mar associate superintendent and chief academic officer, said the pandemic accelerated the development and use of online learning.
“We’ve all had our challenges with COVID-19, but we, as educators, really try to look for some of the silver linings,” Wear said.
Linn-Mar has partnered with Edmentum Online Learning Program to offer online learning to any K-12 student in the district.
About 50 students enrolled in Linn-Mar’s virtual academy this year.
In five to 10 years, Wear said, he could foresee the district creating its own online learning platform and curriculum instead of partnering with a vendor such as Edmentum.
A lot of families have found virtual learning works well for them, Wear said.
“Some of our kids struggle with anxiety or mental health, and online learning provides them the opportunity to remain engaged in school,” he said.
It also gives students and families flexibility.
“Learning doesn’t need to happen just from 8:15 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. Online learning is showing us kids learn at their own pace.”
Even so, children aren’t going to be left by themselves to learn, Wear said.
There are “safeguards” in place so students are held accountable for learning, and steps that can be taken if a child needs to be moved back to an in-person learning environment.
“We still have a heavy component of direct instruction,” Wear said.
Students enrolled in the virtual academy also can choose to be involved in classes like music, art and athletics in-person.
Overall, Wear believes the flexibility to work from home is going to look differently when these students graduate and start seeking jobs.
“Traditionally, schools have been hesitant to change,” Wear said. “The pandemic forced us to think differently. We always knew we wanted to give families and students more choices, but we weren’t sure how or what that would look like.
“As soon as we started responding to the pandemic, we saw our options and were doing school completely different.“
In addition, Linn-Mar leaders didn’t want students to fail a class because of the pandemic. Any student with a failing grade was given an “incomplete” in the class and the chance to improve their grade.
While Wear is unsure if the district is continuing this model for the coming school year, he said learning will be prioritized over just getting good grades.
Central City Community School District adopted a similar approach last year for students who were struggling, with Academic Intervention Days.
For a couple of days toward the end of each quarter, students struggling in classes were required to attend school and get focused help. Students with C’s and above got to take two days off school.
Jason McLaughlin, Central City middle and high school principal, said he plans to continue that intervention this year.
“We had our eyes open to what we can do to help those kids who are struggling more,” McLaughlin said.
At the start of the pandemic when schools closed in March 2020, McLaughlin said he went through a range of emotions.
“At one point in November (2020), my shine was fading, and I questioned if I wanted to be in schools,” McLaughlin said.
“I loved education before the pandemic, and I questioned that this year, but when I came out of Christmas break, I felt renewed and that I was where I’m supposed to be.”
“I have never felt better about being a principal,” McLaughlin continued. “I love helping kids and teachers, and if the pandemic wouldn’t have hit, I wouldn’t have had that moment of realization.”
A year of ‘stretching’
Sara Karbeling, a physics teacher at Liberty High School in North Liberty, helped rewrite the online physics curriculum during the summer of 2020.
It was during the pandemic, and the Iowa City Community School District was preparing for virtual learning and a hybrid of virtual and in-person learning.
Reflecting on her year of virtual instruction, Karbeling said she “stretched” herself as an educator in ways she never had before.
“I think that goes for students as well,” she said. “There are skills they’ve had to learn that a lot of them would not otherwise learn until they were in college or a career.”
Those skills included time management, how to advocate for themselves and how to schedule an appointment with a teacher when they had questions. Those are skills, she said, they’ll use the rest of their lives.
And Karbeling will continue to use a lot of the online learning content she helped build during the 2020-21 school year during in-person learning.
She sees value in students learning at their own pace, and using online instruction, frees her to answer student questions during class time.
“Even once we’re all in-person, so much of the work we did was foundational," Karbeling said.
“We really had to identify what our standards were going to be, and I think we get to build on those even more.”
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