The myth of lost learning: A Harper Woods teacher reflects on the pros and cons of virtual teaching

Whatever the debate is during the challenges of COVID-19, Cristina Agnello finds herself paraphrasing the adage: You can’t unlock new doors with old keys.

“Why are we even pretending to hold on to that old normalcy of school?” she said. “Why not try what works best through the mediums we have now?”

The veteran social studies teacher — Agnello is in her 14th year, the last two at Harper Woods High School — says she “front-loaded” her repertory this summer learning digital platforms.

These teaching tools “really hone in and force the kids to engage, force them to participate, force them to think and give some feedback,” she said.

For example, Pear Deck allows her to observe her students in a slideshow and answer their questions, providing real-time digital feedback.

“I can engage them that way, whereas if they were sitting in my classroom, only three of the kids would be at that level with me and everybody else would be somewhere along the spectrum of disengaged,” she said.

Other software allows her to see her students’ screens, helping her keep them on task.

“I can see if they’re on YouTube,” she said. “If I see a kid go dormant, I’ll kind of poke their computer and it locks their screen.”

Agnello’s students began the year following a bell schedule with six 62-minute classes five days a week.

Harper Woods High School revised the virtual schedule in November and now she teaches three 90-minute classes a day Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday mornings. Wednesdays and afternoons are asynchronous and include scheduled student support meetings.

Agnello welcomed the schedule change, as each student receives at least three hours of mandated instruction with time built in for additional support.

“What we found happening was our students and teachers were drowning,” she said. “On the teacher end, we couldn’t complete all the compliance things we needed to do — all the tracking and phone calls. On the student end, they were wall-to-wall busy and couldn’t get things done. So we backed off and switched to a softer schedule.”

District-wide, Harper Woods has been 100 percent virtual this year and plans to remain virtual through March, Agnello said, phasing a return to face-to-face instruction by grade in April pending community spread and other factors.

Agnello is in no rush to return to an in-person classroom, however.

“I take the pandemic very seriously,” she said. “It’s affected a lot of people around me. So I am interested to see the type of metrics that my district has used. So far my district has been very, very responsible and communicative and has exercised an abundance of caution, so I’m grateful for that.”

A Grosse Pointe Farms resident, Agnello participates in several Grosse Pointe Public School System community Facebook forums and is familiar with ongoing debates about synchronous vs. asynchronous instruction, the appropriate amount of screen time, face-to-face vs. remote instruction and the pros and cons of live-streaming classes.
Agnello converted her basement into a classroom for virtual teaching.

She is no proponent of the latter.

“We have technology at our fingertips, so why go back?” she said. “Who needs their kids listening to somebody talking in front of a screen for an hour? That’s crazy.

“Parents are trying to reenact their version of what they think education was when they were in school,” she continued. “That’s not what it was like last January before the pandemic hit and it’s certainly not what it is this January.”

Agnello describes live-streaming from the teacher end as “horrifying on every single level. It’s super cumbersome and clunky and you’re doing double duty; you’re teaching online and you’re teaching in-person so it’s double the class load.

“From the student end, why bother?” she added. “They’re not missing anything from not being in a 'real' class. They’re not going to get anything having a streamed class session they couldn’t get from this format as well, other than the peer-to-peer connection, but that’s not happening in the classroom either. Everybody’s masked and in little boxes.”

The digital platforms Agnello employs for her virtual classes “work 10 times better than attempting to give a live lecture,” she said. “If I even attempted to give a lecture, it would be the same three kids who would respond to the questions and write stuff down. Everybody else would be off in La La Land.”

At the same time, she recognizes that the Harper Woods and Grosse Pointe school districts face different challenges. To her knowledge, for example, Harper Woods has not lost students to private schools or other districts due to the pandemic. At least her class rosters are roughly the same size this year as last, she points out.

Moreover, Harper Woods is a Schools of Choice district, with students enrolled from Detroit, Eastpointe and St. Clair Shores in addition to Harper Woods.

This has “dramatically expanded the student base, which means more student dollars — which is a good thing,” Agnello said. “It means more program offerings, more support, all kinds of things. But because of that, we have a whole spectrum of socioeconomic statuses and living circumstances.”

While most of her students have their cameras off and microphones on mute during class, there are times when a student will unmute themselves and she will overhear voices in the background.

“If I ask, I’ll hear, ‘My mom has to work so I’m here with my three siblings trying to help them do their work online,’” Agnello said.

Sometimes students miss class to help with babysitting or running errands. Agnello tries to help students balance these demands while reinforcing the idea school is a priority.

“You try to be understanding, but at the same time you need the ‘face in the place’ to get the credits and the seat time,” she said.

“I’m sure it’s a different set of problems — no more, no less — than on the other end of the spectrum,” she added.

Another debate Agnello approaches from an educator's perspective is perceived learning loss.

“That phrase really irks me because it unintentionally minimizes what I’m doing,” she said. “I have literally never worked so hard in my teaching career.”

The other phrase that bothers her is “return to learn.”

“I’m thinking: have I been sitting here this whole time doing absolutely nothing? Because nothing is awfully hard.”

At the same time, she recognizes this terminology reflects legitimate fears and concerns. Teachers she engages with on chat groups agree learning loss is difficult to measure.

“The metrics are fundamentally flawed,” Agnello said. “So how do we measure learning loss? From my teacher side, I’m looking at anecdotal professional metrics, which are how fast I can progress through the curriculum and how students are doing based on content-based subject tests. And my kids are fine. My kids are doing exactly as they did last year.”

While she doesn’t dispute there are individual examples of learning loss, she said teachers will address these the way they do every year.

“You figure it out,” she said. “Every teacher does that because every teacher who’s in a public system knows in any given classroom you get kids with a wide range of ability levels in front of you. So you look at that kid who is in a 10th-grade Civics class but reading well below grade level expectations as determined by standardized testing and say, ‘Well, you started the year at a sixth-grade reading level and you ended the year reading at an eighth-grade reading level.’ That’s my win. Then you do the same thing all the way across the spectrum of ability levels in your classroom. It’s so individualized that there’s no way to say across the board every student is below where they should be. Because they’re not. There’s success relative to each student.

“Politicians and parents are thinking there’s learning loss there, but what just about any teacher is going to tell you is (the students) are probably where they should be,” she continued. “Is there socialization loss? Absolutely. Are there other social-emotional deficits happening? For sure. Is there some engagement loss and connection loss between the student and teacher? Definitely. But as far as academic and cognitive development, I’m not so sure that’s what’s going on.”

One of the biggest challenges Agnello faces in addressing lost learning is how much time is taken away from teaching and devoted to compliance.

“At the district level, my job has never been more top-heavy than it is this year,” she said. “Most years I would say a solid 60 percent of my workload is directly student-related and the other 40 is compliance, paperwork, forms. This year it’s totally inverted. It’s 30 percent student-centered and 70 percent paperwork, documentation, compliance, phone calls, emails. It’s just constant. We’ve got to account for every kid, every minute. If they’re not showing up, we’ve got to hunt them down so there’s phone calls, emails, everything.”

On the positive end, Agnello said for the most part her parents support their children’s academic success and the district’s decision to remain virtual.

She also discovered she enjoys the remote teaching environment and would sign up to continue teaching virtually given the option. Whether in-person or remote, she said there’s no going back to traditional teaching methods.

“I said to a colleague the other day, ‘Are you ever going to give a pencil-paper assignment again?’ I’m never going to. I’m never going to collect papers.

“I’m not stuck in the way we did things,” she added. “Even when I started teaching, we did things totally differently than now. I’m just going to keep on rolling forward. I’m not going to go back through old doors. Because I’ve got new keys!”

Mary Anne Brush publishes School Pointes, a newsletter about education in Grosse Pointe and Harper Woods. Photos courtesy Cristina Agnello.