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Canvas-trained teachers impressed with learning platform

Count Lisa North as a believer in Canvas.

The second-grade teacher at Jefferson Elementary loves the online platform’s flexibility, its range and its ease of use. Eventually, she believes, her students will be able to hop around their virtual classroom comfortably, much like they do in their real classroom, pointing and clicking and learning. And when they get stuck, she said, they’ll simply raise their virtual hand.

If a concept just isn’t clicking, they may be ushered into a private room. There, North can do what she does best and clarify a complicated subject in a one-on-one Zoom meeting. Describing the possibilities of Canvas and her own training recently, North sounded confident that the online tool, which will be used by dozens of school districts in Oregon this fall — Medford, Ashland and Eagle Point among them — will be a major improvement over last spring’s remote learning, while also expressing some trepidation.

The possibilities are exciting, she said, but it may take some time for teachers and students to adjust to this new normal when school begins Tuesday.

“So this is where the simplicity and grace is going to really come in,” North said. “Right now teachers are trying to keep things simple so that we can just get to teaching and learning. We really ask for grace from parents and students. We’re going to give them grace, because they have to learn it also. And it will take a while. We’re going to make mistakes, we’re going to mess up, we’re going to fumble, but we’re going to make it work so that students can learn. And it might be clunky at first, but I think it’s going to end up being a really powerful tool for all of us.”

North, like other teachers throughout the Rogue Valley, has been poking and prodding her way through Canvas since July, getting to know the platform’s functionality, as well as its strengths and weaknesses, because besides her filling her usual role as an elementary school teacher North also expects to serve as tech support throughout the day.

After having learned Canvas front to back, Medford School District teachers are busy building their virtual classrooms and will soon be inviting students into live Zoom lectures, all of which will be recorded for later viewing. At least half of the school day — that’s from 8 a.m. to 2:45 p.m. for elementary students — will be “teacher facilitated learning,” otherwise known as “synchronous” learning. If grappling with a completely new teaching method while still handling the rigors of the job that persist regardless of venue seems like a heavy lift, North said that’s because it is.

“It’s stressful,” she said. “It’s a very steep learning curve. ... Any time you switch to something so big there’s a lot to learn. So right now, there’s a lot of overwhelmed teachers as we’re trying to figure it out. What we know about teachers, though, is that they will get it figured out. And it may not be as fancy as the capabilities of Canvas allow at first, but as we learn we’re going to keep adding to it.”

Even before Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced July 28 the COVID-19 metrics that essentially eliminated the possibility of on-site learning in Jackson County public schools — at least initially — local teachers were busy preparing for that eventuality. In Ashland, that meant training a select group of superusers in early July who could then pass along their knowledge to colleagues.

Alex Roscher, an advance placement economics teacher at Ashland High School, was one of those superusers and helped create the district’s own in-house training program, a rigorous Canvas school that was broken down into 14 modules, each consisting of up to 16 units. Ashland teachers were cramming on such subjects as “Create a Quiz,” “Duplicating a Discussion,” and “Grading Scheme and Entering Grades.” Units ranged in complexity. “Adding a Rubric,” for instance, included three short videos that explained how to add rubrics to assignments, quizzes and graded discussions.

During the “scaffolded” training, Roscher said, teachers experienced Canvas from a student’s perspective, which was intentional.

“I think it’s a different experience to be a student in a virtual world than it is when you’re in a classroom,” she said. “In a classroom, teachers have this amazing opportunity to connect, to do all kinds of formative assessments in the real moment. So, as the (Canvas) student, they could experience what different types of lessons and professional development they were receiving, how that felt from a user’s experience, and so they could take that back to their classroom and say, ‘Now, when I develop my content, what am I going to do, what worked well, what did I enjoy?’ Then they could fine-tune their instruction.”

What that fine-tuned virtual instruction may look like will depend largely on the teacher and the grade level. How can one person working on a laptop miles away possibly hold the attention of a 7-year-old for even a few hours, let alone about seven hours a day, five days a week?

North approaches this topic like somebody who’s answered the question a hundred times, and maybe she has. Yes, that will require a unique set of skills, she said. But this fall, unlike last spring, Medford teachers have access to a tool in Canvas that will allow them to reclaim control of their classroom, albeit virtually.

“That’s the art of teaching,” North said. “It’s really going to be a different challenge. We have that same challenge when a kindergartner comes into the classroom, keeping them engaged, keeping them focused on learning and not wanting to play. It provides an extra challenge at home because there are distractions that aren’t normally in the classroom, so we’re going to be working real hard in the beginning, just like in-person learning, setting up expectations, setting up procedures.”

How exactly will that look? The district’s youngest students, she said, such as kindergartners, first-graders and second-graders, will have days broken up by more transitions than older students.

“It really won’t be a kid sitting in front of a computer for three hours and not moving out of their chair, because that wouldn’t work for me at 51 years old, it’s not going to work for a 5-year-old,” she said. “It’s going to be different, but that’s what we do — engage learners. So we’re going to try to be as creative as we can on a digital platform.

“It is a challenge for sure. We’re relearning, we’re rewriting everything we do so that it can be engaging in this kind of an environment. But we have amazing teachers in Medford, and they’re going to figure it out and it’s going to be good.”

The teachers who have not opted to work from home will be doing that from their classroom, often in front of a camera. The result will look nothing like last spring’s scramble to deliver content. In Ashland, said Roscher, the district quickly adopted a platform designed for businesses and communications. One of the advantages of Canvas, she said, is that it has a learning management system that “allows teachers to create, distribute and essentially manage their lessons all in one spot.”

In conjunction with Zoom, she added, teachers will be able to “architect” every piece of their school day, and depending on the creativity of the teacher each virtual classroom may also have its own unique flavor.

For students who are struggling, the district has built-in office hours so teachers can provide one-on-one help. If the transition isn’t seamless on day one, Roscher said, it’s not for lack of effort.

“It’s a learning process, and I know that teachers are working so hard,” she said. “I mean, they’re pulling ridiculously long days trying to get a handle on the technology and also how to increase that engagement, virtually.”

Regarding parental involvement, North said moms and dads may have to help Medford’s youngest students get their workspace set up for the day. What comes after that, she said, is mostly her job.

“And once the kids are there, they’re mine,” she said. “And I’ll lead them through, and I’ll help them through the lesson, I’ll help them with the tech questions. So the parents are there to provide a space, the parents are there to make sure that their student is on and present and doing their job. But I’m going to be doing all the teaching.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Medford school superintendent Bret Champion and computer technician Beth Milholland help a parent pick up Chromebooks at the parking lot of Spiegelberg Stadium Wednesday afternoon.{ }Andy Atkinson / Mail Tribune