One Educator’s Experience with Virtual Teaching
By Catherine Cluett Pactol
Teachers, along with parents and students, have had to work through a lot more challenges than anyone bargained for this year. School closures due to the COVID-19 pandemic have meant learning has had to take place virtually — and for Molokai Middle School immersion teacher ‘Iolani Kuoha, it’s been an experience that’s required her to “get creative.”
She converted her garage into a virtual classroom and for several hours each day, she uses the video chat program Zoom to engage her students — and their families. She shares language and cultural lessons, guest speakers, lei making, ukulele lessons, cooking classes, career readiness, learning contests, and even physical education. She’s called in friends, family, cultural practitioners and even a writer from Aotearoa to join her Zoom classroom.
“I’m utilizing whatever resources I can,” laughed Kuoha. “I didn’t want to lose the momentum [for the students]…. My resources and knowledge have grown within 30 days trying to be creative.”
She and other teachers have been instructing virtually since March 30. Teachers have taken on different approaches — some with much less interaction, said Kuoha. Along with being an educator, she’s mother to two high schoolers and an elementary student, so she’s seen the experience from multiple perspectives.
She said the parents of her 10 seventh and eighth grade students have been appreciative and engaged.
“I’m always communicating with parents, for me communication is really important, I’m always texting them,” she said. “I’m trying to make it easy for them because I’m also one of them.”
She said she can sometimes “feel the tension from the parents on Zoom,” especially those that have other kids as well. She acknowledges it can be challenging, and “I don’t want to make it more frustrating.”
But online learning has also lead to many laughs.
“I had to get over this whole thing of seeing myself on the video,” she said, sharing that when she first started teaching virtually, she wore a baseball cap but quickly realized she should make more effort.
“It’s like performing in front of everyone, a lot of the parents are watching me too,” she laughed. “Then all of a sudden the younger siblings of my students would join them…. The whole family would stand up in front of the camera and do piko [morning protocol and chant] with us, it’s so cool.”
When the virtual journey began, she held a Zoom orientation for her students and parents to teach them how to use the app. But it’s still lead to some challenges.
“I would be talking and finally the kids would tell me, ‘Kumu you’re on mute!’ We would all start laughing,” she said. “I’m trying to put together a blooper video of me teaching.”
Along with the Zoom classroom, Kuoha has worked to ensure her students have access to the physical tools they need each week. She makes bags with art supplies, ukuleles or whatever they will need to participate in the planned activities that week and delivers them to all her students.
She has also worked to make learning resources available online for her students, which sometimes involves converting materials into digital formats and uploading them onto sharing platforms. She admits she has been “working harder virtually” than in her regular classroom.
As much effort as she’s putting in, she asks her students to be “maukaukau, ready for school.”
“I had to tell them this is school, they have to be sitting at a desk,” she explained. She said at the beginning, some would be lying on the couch or in their pajamas. She asks them to wear their school uniform shirt for class.
“I didn’t want to lose them in their lessons,” she said. “You really gotta keep the kids’ attention. I think that is the hardest part. Give me a thumbs up or raise your hand, just to make sure you’re still there.”
Along with virtual classes, some statewide school events were also held virtually this spring, including the Hawaii History Day fair and awards ceremony on May 1. A program of the Hawaii Council for the Humanities, History Day is a year-long history education program that Kuoha has been leading her students to participate in for over a decade. It supplements the teaching and learning of history, promoting a theme-based, research-centered model for history education, and students present their projects in an exhibit, performance, paper, website or other medium.
During this year’s virtual History Day, three of her students’ team entries qualified for the state level, along with four teams from Kaunakakai School. Kuoha was also named Junior (middle school) Teacher of the Year.
“She has consistently used History Day model in the classroom for the past 10 years,” said Mitch Yamasaki, Chair for the Hawaii Council for the Humanities. “‘Iolani works hard to make sure her students learn important research skills and can often be found teaching classes in the MHS library, researching and developing library skills. She is famous for conducting history day even workshops for students and parents that often run late into the night.”
It’s not the first time Kuoha has been honored for her work as a teacher. In 2014, she was named Hawaii Association of Middle Schools Educator of the Year.
While some students — and even teachers — have struggled with virtual learning this spring because they don’t have internet at home, Kuoha said she’s been fortunate because only one of her students didn’t have internet access. But that student lived close to Kuoha’s daughter so “we invited her to use the internet there.”
She said some have also taken advantage of Spectrum’s offer of free temporary internet services for students during the COVID-19 pandemic. But she’s worried about what next year will bring.
“To tell you the honest truth, I think we’re going to have to do it [virtual learning] this coming school year,” she said. She’s looking into grants and internet technologies that would help those without internet on a longer term basis.