FARGO — Lucas Steier is typically teaching fifth grade at Centennial Elementary about this time, but like most of us, his day-to-day schedule looks nothing like it did a year ago.
In fact, he’s taken on a new role, both at home as a teacher’s assistant and within the school system as a content creator for Virtual Academy, a 100% remote learning option for students K-12 in the Fargo Public Schools system. The program, available for the semester or whole year, includes unscheduled instruction as well as three to six courses provided via EduCal, the schools’ real-time district learning management system.
This story gives readers a firsthand look at the program, covering a day-to-day snapshot, challenges, etc., through the experience of Steier, who is also a parent navigating remote learning with his own children.
Tell us about your role as a content creator.
I thought I was going to be a fifth grade teacher at Centennial, which I had been for the last 13 years. Then I was asked to be a content creator for science and social studies for fourth and fifth grade to support those subjects for all students and teachers in the Fargo Public Schools. Basically I’m a YouTuber for science and social studies.
I’ve served for FPS as a science course captain for fifth grade in previous years, and I have also worked as a task force member for science content when developing curriculum for the district. So I’ve worked in this realm previously, but Virtual Academy has never existed.
How is the flow of content structured?
There are three of us content creators, each taking a different grade level band—one for K1, another for grades two and three, and myself who supports fourth and fifth grade. We only cover science and social studies while the teachers create the English, language arts, and math content.
Once we develop the content we upload it to Google drive, and the teachers push it out to students on whatever platform they’re using such as Google Classroom or Seesaw.
How is this format working?
My favorite part of my job has always been teaching the kids. The hardest part of this is I don't get that immediate feedback on how they’re learning. I have, however, been very happy to hear a lot of positive feedback from our colleagues . . . One teacher said, “It’s the only thing we have helping us win. It’s the only constant we have that helps to support learning.”
It's a lot of figuring out how this whole thing needs to work while everything around us is changing. It’s annoying and impressive in the same breath. Annoying because it was the middle of August and we started to build a school that never existed before, and impressive because it was the middle of August and we started to build a school that never existed before.
And how about your role at home?
I have two kids—a son who is in third grade and my daughter is a sixth grader. They both chose Virtual Academy this year so I am now a teacher's assistant at home as well.
How did your family come to the decision?
Consistency was one of the key elements in making the decision to do full distance learning, especially for my daughter. She wanted to know that there was consistency and there wouldn’t be any frequent changes. She needed that clarity moving forward. My son knew he could do this, but when I asked him, “Could you do it forever?” His reply was, “No, but this year because it’s safe.”
The approach as a family to making the distance learning decision is unique. For us, we really needed feedback and input from our kids to know what they wanted to do. We talked a lot as a family about what would work best for them and they all settled on virtual. They really do feel like they made the right decision, too. They’re learning well in their classes.
My son’s classroom teacher is a teacher from his homeschool and he gets to be in class with his best friend, but it’s totally virtual and he’s excited about it. My daughter has also made new friends with middle school cohorts. It’s still school of course so they don't always love it, but they really are happy with what’s happening where they are and learning.
What has been most successful in getting buy-in from your children?
Our kids had buy-in from the beginning because it was a decision they helped make. We also allowed them to own their workspace and have a say in what they wanted it to look like. My wife and I built their desks and they were in charge of designing their learning area. We made sure the area was optimized for their ease of use and as clutterless as possible. We bought them wireless mice and we went to Dakota Boys Ranch to find them each an old computer monitor so they can have their Zoom meetings on one and work on another.
What was really unique for me this year was normally I got my classroom ready and then students came to me. This year I helped kids get the classroom ready for the teacher to come to them.
What has helped your kids be most successful with this learning model?
The most important piece of the puzzle we’ve found is letting their school be their school. By that I mean letting our kids be at school and not jumping in to fix the problem. This really depends on the age, but it has really helped my son and daughter take more ownership of their school.
I think constant communication with our whole family also plays a part in this. Discussing what’s going on, what you’re working on and being able to look inside their online planners and see where I can support them with their work.
Will your kids be participating in Virtual Academy next school semester?
We don’t have to make that decision yet, but it feels that is a decision they will make. It was interesting talking with my daughter and she talked with her friends and one of them really was frustrated that her parents didn't even ask her. And that happens as they’re getting to be this middle school age. They just want to know they have a voice.
Anything else parents should know?
The one thing I really do want to say and commend is the Virtual Academy teachers and how much they’ve gone out of their way to make this all possible in such a short amount of time. I can’t thank them enough.
There was one day in my daughter’s middle school, one of the teachers spent the entire day getting each kid connected. My daughter was not one of those kids that day and she was frustrated she didn’t get to go to class, but I asked her ,,“What did you learn about your teacher today?” She said, “I learned he’s really helpful, and he takes time to help others.”
It’s so hard to have these heavy decisions to be made so quickly and then these teachers are figuring it out, doing it, and doing it well. It’s cool to see how much Virtual Academy has evolved in the last month and to know that there’s new pieces falling into place that will make the experience even more fluid for the students.