Teaching from home

Boyd County director of bands in his home work space.

John Johnson is accustomed to teaching class in the spacious band room at Boyd County High School.

For now, he is making do with a wood-paneled makeshift office in his home off 13th Street in Ashland.

Like just about every other public school teacher in Kentucky, Johnson is conducting class remotely during the coronavirus pandemic.

Teaching at home has some minor advantages – Johnson can sleep half an hour longer in the morning, wear jeans to the office and help his own kids with their at-home schoolwork.

But teaching performance based courses – he has about 75 kids in concert band, 40 in jazz band and 15 in music appreciation – requires him to find one-on-one time with almost everyone, either through video performance clips or electronic messaging.

The end result is long work days that last into the evening. The workload and the awkwardness of virtual teaching are worth it to keep students and their families safe and healthy, and Johnson believes he can deliver them the education they signed up for.

Johnson is director of bands in the Boyd district. His wife Annie teaches music and art at Catlettsburg Elementary. They have two children, a sixth-grader at Boyd County High and a first-grader at Catlettsburg.

Their work-at-home day starts at about 7 a.m.. a little later than usual because they don't have travel time and don't have to drop off kids. Also Johnson can wear “a little more comfortable clothes” than he usually does. But that's where the easy part ends.

By 9 a.m., Johnson is at his desk in the room they call their “extra room.” His workspace is crammed between a shelf with some musical instruments on one side and a sewing machine on the other. He works with his laptop in front of him, headphones draped over his ears and cell phone within easy reach.

The 9 o'clock start time coincides with his usual class start time. “I try to keep it as normal as possible for the kids, and focus on their schedule,” he said.

The first thing he does is send out a Google Docs message to all students with links to the day's lessons, future assignments and previous assignments. That ensures everyone knows what's in front of them for the day.

Then he asks whether any students need assistance or an on-line lesson.

For the two performance-based courses, students record short video clips that he listens to and assesses. “For instance, I'll tell them to play this piece from this measure to this measure and submit their video,” he said. “That keeps me pretty busy.”

Busy may be an understatement because for his concert band class he could have as many as 75 students submit videos of up to five minutes each. “It can suck up some time pretty quickly,” he said.

The students send the videos on Flipgrid, a web-based video platform that is more private and secure than social media.

As students turn in assignments, he checks them and sends feedback as quickly as possible. If a student requests one-on-one instruction, he can hold a video conference in real time.

Johnson breaks for lunch and the routine continues through the afternoon.

It is a challenge to determine whether all his students are following the lessons. “I'm always questioning whether all the kids are receiving the information. Some respond and send in their assignments and some don't,” he said. Also, some students do not have access to the internet and for those he sends papers home.

Now that the district has fallen in line with Gov. Andy Beshear's recommendation to remain closed until at least April 20 – and maybe longer – Johnson is reminding students to keep on top of their assignments and not to put them off until the last minute.

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