Nina Casacalenda teaches students at Hopkins Hill Elementary School before classes were transitioned to remote learning. (Photo courtesy of Nina Casacalenda)

Nina Casacalenda teaches students at Hopkins Hill Elementary School before classes were transitioned to remote learning. Photo courtesy University of Rhode Island

KINGSTON — Joe Verrier is the kind of history teacher you’d want in class.

Student teaching at Pilgrim High School in Warwick since late January, Verrier has divided his class into opposing factions — Western Rome, Eastern Rome, Goths, Sasanians — for lessons about the fall of the Roman Empire and rise of the Byzantine Empire. For the Middle Ages, students became peasants, clergy, apothecaries, carpenters, and nobles to create a functioning village. One day, Verrier donned a Viking helmet and “raided the village.”

“Working with kids is fun,” says Verrier, of Coventry, who will graduate from the University of Rhode Island May 17 with a degree in history and secondary education. “Every day is different and the students often challenge you to be a better version of yourself and to constantly improve.”

Like veteran teachers in elementary, middle and high schools across the state, Verrier has had his teaching skills stretched this spring as classrooms transitioned to remote learning because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

And, like Verrier, many of those educators are URI teacher candidates, assisting their host teachers, or clinical educators, in the classroom. In school districts around the state, about 140 teacher candidates from URI have been contributing to remote learning efforts. Some are completing their initial certification for a Rhode Island teaching license while others are working on a final practicum in an area of specialization, such as bilingual/dual language or English as a second language.

With the switch to remote learning in March, the URI School of Education adjusted expectations for students completing early practicums to reduce the burden on their host districts. But for students completing teaching assignments or final practicums, cutting those placements short was not an option.

“All these students have been working between two and four years to earn certification in the state of Rhode Island. We weren’t going to cut their program short,” says Diana Marshall, director of the School’s Office of Teacher Education, which secures about 2,000 classroom placements a year for undergraduate and graduate education students. “We made sure we were doing everything in our power to ensure they were still able to earn those certifications they were working toward.”

In their placements, URI teacher candidates have been helping out in numerous ways, leading online classes, experimenting with new technology, helping their host teachers transition to online instruction.

“From our clinical educators and School of Education supervisors, we’ve heard that our teacher candidates who continue to work in their classrooms are amazing,” says Marshall. “They’re innovative, they’re creative. They’re coming up with lesson plans and strategies in ways that the host teachers hadn’t considered. They’re using technology in some really interesting ways.”

As Pilgrim High switched to remote learning, Verrier has drawn upon his own experiences with online college courses to design his lessons. He’s been careful to not overwhelm students with an unrealistic workload, providing a suggested schedule to complete the week’s assignments, and giving students an opportunity to provide feedback. He’s also tried to keep the fun atmosphere the class has created.

“It has been challenging, particularly making it so that my students could still feel as though this was their classroom,” he says. “After the governor announced her reading initiative, it gave me the idea to make an optional assignment each week where I would read about history to my students. I have been reading while with my pet goats and horses, which I thought would help students relax a bit and take their minds off the situation.”

Rachel Schilke, a senior, has been connecting with her virtual classroom of first-graders at The Wawaloam School in Exeter-West Greenwich from her family’s home in Westerly. Her mother is also a teacher.

“It’s been fun and challenging to both be home together teaching our students,” says Schilke, a human development and family studies major with a concentration in early childhood education.

Since March, Schilke has worked closely with her host teacher to plan for the transition, exploring resources to help support distance learning. She’s also used an online reading program to set up each student with books to match his or her reading level, while heading reading and math instruction through Google Zoom.

“It’s been a learning curve,” she says. “Having taught this way for a number of weeks, we’ve gotten into a routine and become much more comfortable with the way learning looks now. But not being able to see the students in person and have all the little conversations we had in the classroom has been difficult. This has been hard on the students too and yet there has been excellent participation in the virtual learning activities.”

Mackenzie Donnelly of Westerly, also a senior, has also experienced that with her fourth-graders at Ashaway Elementary School in Hopkinton as they deal with not being able to return to school. To reduce their stress, she’s recorded herself reading to them and posted it on their daily online schedule, so students can listen and unwind when they need to.

“I feel as if we are making the most positive experience out of such a negative time and that is what we need to take away from all of this,” she says.

Donnelly, who will graduate with a degree in elementary education, has been working with her students in all subject areas while also taking over math and writing instruction from her host teacher. Since the transition to online teaching, she also handles the morning meeting with students, along with vocabulary and reading groups to help out her host teacher.

“I know as overwhelmed as I am right now, she has to be about triple that,” says Donnelly. “This has been a huge learning experience. It has been stressful and exhausting as well. In comparison to a normal school day, I put in twice as much time lesson planning and prepping.”

For Nina Casacalenda ’20, one of the challenges has been teaching younger students – first-graders – who have little experience using computers for learning. She’s relied on constant communication with parents and helped them with video tutorials. “A lot of the credit goes to the parents who have dedicated a tremendous amount of time in helping their child succeed,” she says.

Casacalenda, who graduates May 17 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and certification in teaching English as a second language, has been an active partner in the classroom with her host teacher at Hopkins Hill Elementary School, in her hometown of Coventry. She’s taken on such duties as teaching math and vocabulary, conducting the morning meeting with students and, before the transition, leading students to lunch each day.

The closing semester in the classroom is the most important for teacher candidates, preparing them for taking on their own classroom one day, she says. With in-person teaching disrupted, it’s been difficult completing the expected three weeks of solo teaching along with other benchmarks that prepare teacher candidates.

She’s managed to get it done, but she has mixed feelings about her closing semester — a love for working with the kids and her host teacher, but a feeling she didn’t get the full experience of face-to-face teaching. But she says, “I value being able to teach in a way that no one has done before. Who gets to say they taught virtually for their student teaching other than the class of 2020?”

Before student teaching, senior Katie Maher, of Ashland, Mass., questioned whether she had the knowledge necessary to successfully run a classroom, even though she had done all the work to prepare. But her time at Westerly High School has been eye-opening.

During the semester, Maher, a double major in secondary education and English, has been working closely with students of three sections of 10th-grade honors English and two sections of film study for seniors. Teaming with her host teacher, the transition to online has gone smoothly. To start each class, Maher connects with students through Google Meet. Students then work independently, with Maher staying online in case they need help. The teachers have also organized smaller online sessions so students can share ideas.

“I definitely don’t feel as though I’ve lost out on my student teaching experience,” says Maher. “I miss my students and it’s difficult not being able to see them or gauge whether we’re providing them with enough support as easily as we usually could. But I know now that if I can teach through this experience and all of the obstacles, I can do anything.”

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