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Teacher Diaries: Katherine Cohen Volin

The daunting logistics of just keeping in touch, while also trying to motivate students who know their grade can't go down.

Katherine Cohen Volin with students participating in the Philadelphia Stories project.

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

These interviews with teachers were conducted in mid-May, before the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police and the ensuing protests.

Two months into online learning, Katherine Cohen Volin reached a conclusion: it is not much fun. She teaches English Language Arts to 75 seventh graders at Joseph Greenberg Elementary School.

Volin has always tried very hard to instill in students a love of learning for its own sake. This wasn’t always easy even in normal times, but she had more options: hands-on projects and lessons, field trips. Plus, she had all the visual cues to evaluate how students were feeling. Online, she says, all this is much harder, not to mention the difficulties with simply communicating expectations to students and their families.

Greenberg is in the Far Northeast, and its feeder area has a wealth of immigrant families — Palestinian, Dominican, Uzbek, Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean Russian, Georgian. And more. The largest single group, as much as 30% she guesses, is from one state in southern India, Kerala, where the people are Christian and the native language is a dialect called Malayalam.

“My class looks like a Disney classroom, what they want when they say diversity,” she said. Although most of her students are not English learners themselves, many of the parents do not speak fluent English.

With school out and her students in all different family situations, making sure everyone understands what’s expected of them has become all-consuming while her actual teaching has almost taken a back seat. She might get 100 emails a day, she said, some with questions that can be repetitive and easily answered on the District’s website or through simply watching the news, she said.

“Before, I’d spend all day teaching, then do lesson planning and grading,” she said. “Now I spend little time actually teaching, and more communicating through email. And grading. That’s the bulk of my day.”

In the mornings, she posts to Google Classroom, checks email and does lesson planning. On Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday mornings, she conducts a 45-minute lesson and is available 15 minutes afterward for questions — one class for all her students instead of three classes of 25. Since May 4, when the District began tracking attendance, about 50 students generally sign on to her classes.

On Fridays, she meets with each class individually for 20 minutes. “Putting all the classes together is a little difficult,” she said. “I feel I can’t connect with them as much.”

On Mondays, she virtually conducts her Young Heroes Outreach Program through the National Liberty Museum, through which students identify a social issue and try to do something about it. Among the actions has been a letter-writing campaign to local newspapers on topics including climate change, hate crimes, and gun violence. The rest of the time, she is logging their work, grading and giving feedback.

“It is very time consuming,” she said. “And after I log and grade and give feedback on everything, I have to go back and keep on checking, because they can turn in anything late.”

The few students who are English learners “are really struggling,” she said. She spoke of one boy who is using Google translate, but said “he’s been absent for a long time. When he feels this is too hard, he shuts down.” She is still trying to get him to complete an assignment from before the shutdown.

He uses email like text messages, “rapid fire, unclear questions.” And lots of times, she said, students and parents don’t sign their emails — the email is identified by the student ID, an 8-digit number — meaning that the teacher has to take the extra, time consuming step of figuring out who it is.

It is all very trying, but there are great moments. A highlight of the normal school year had been a trip to either the University of Pennsylvania Museum or the Art Museum while studying mythology. Volin despaired on losing that, but then a student suggested a virtual tour, which happened in mid-May. An Art Museum educator joined the class to talk about its famous Prometheus Bound painting by Paul Rubens.

There is some pressure to make these sessions interesting with teachers joking about how amazing their online classes will be.

“The science teacher has a STEM lesson with the Flyers and Gritty is coming,” she deadpanned.

While the virtual museum visit was a high point, there are all kinds of issues that crop up. Her students got used to sleeping late in the weeks when work wasn’t mandatory, and they complain that 10 a.m. is too early. But that’s her slot; other teachers have other times.

She worried about students who were generally diligent, but not keeping up now, doing her best to investigate whatever is going on in their lives. She worries most about student motivation, and thinks that the students’ overall reaction to what is expected of them during this bizarre period exposes a major problem in general, which has to do with the purpose of school and the reasons that students do work.

Although the guidance has been sometimes confusing, and perhaps ambiguous, the District has decreed that student grades can improve, but not get worse, during the shutdown.

“I totally see the need to say that the grades can’t go down, that students can’t fail,” she said. “Two of my students are
babysitting all day, my foster care student is going through a lot, some don’t have access to a computer, and it doesn’t seem like the parents want to get another computer. There are a lot of issues.”

At the same time, she said, “a lot of students are capable of doing the work, but they’ve been socialized for 12 years that the reason you do the work is for the grade. School is not a place where we instill in them very well that you do it because it is fun to learn. Now, you’re saying it doesn’t really count that much, your grades can’t go down, so what is their motivation?”

On the other hand, it could be worse. Volin said she heard about districts that decided simply to end the school year when the buildings were shut. She disagrees with that.

“Not being in school is very bad for students’ social-emotional well-being, but having nothing would be so much worse,”
she said. “I feel like at least they have some structure in their life, some responsibility, some sense of community and purpose. And they’re doing some reading and writing every day. That’s important.”

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