Alexandria, VA

While many teachers are grappling with reshaping their curriculums for the new digital era, some Alexandria teachers have been making the most of the new situation and pushing the schools to embrace new teaching methods.

Gabriel Elias, a history teacher at T.C. Williams High School, has made national headlines for his morning show broadcast to the T.C. community and was singled out for praise by Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos.

“I feel like if we take this as an opportunity to make ourselves better, we’ll come back stronger and more connected, ready for a new style of learning and a new style of connecting and engaging students,” Elias said.

For Elias, and for other teachers in Alexandria City Public Schools, the new situation brought about by the pandemic is a chance to push the education system into a more well-rounded system that focuses less on a teacher at a whiteboard. Elias teaches in the school’s International Academy, a “school within a school” aimed specifically at helping international students who may still be learning English

“For their part, students will be ready to be leaders in the classroom for the new generation of IA students. It doesn’t have to be this negative situation and it doesn’t have to be a negative situation,” he said.

Since the pandemic started, T.C. engineering teacher Jennifer Ushe has been running a program where she sets up Zoom meetings with professionals to talk about their careers with students. The participants offer advise and discuss their careers, while students ask questions in a chat box.

So far, Ushe said she’s had representatives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, chemical engineers, microbiologists, cybersecurity, choreographers and more. Of those, she said the choreographer was probably the biggest hit.

“People were like, ‘Oh my gosh, you know so and so!'” Ushe said. “It’s cool to see the kids responding.”

Even Ushe said she’s been learning a lot more about jobs, including some she knew nothing about. The biggest lesson each participant has passed on, Ushe said, was that being the smartest isn’t what’s most important — it’s working hard and building a network of colleagues.

Once they get back from spring break, Ushe said she has about two-and-a-half weeks worth of talks lined up.

“I think there’s some kids that struggle being home and school is an outlet for them,” Ushe said. “Some are very much self-starters and they want the information and want to do it. I think we see a full range.”

Like Ushe, Elias said consistency has been a big focus on providing virtual education for the students. Elias said he’s managed the Facebook page for the International Academy for three years and it’s become a community.

“It’s been different,” Elias said. “It’s new and exciting and different. It’s everything kind of thrown together at once.”

Elias said the pandemic has been difficult for many of his students, some of whom have lost work themselves or have parents who’ve lost work.

“There are many students work in the restaurant industry and they lost their jobs or their parents lost their jobs,” Elias said. “There’s been the issue of access, which we’ve spent a lot of time addressing and the school system has addressed, but communicating with a community that does not look first at the traditional methods of communication like email has been somewhat of a challenge.”

Elias’ show has also turned into a communications hub as well, helping to connect parents who are having technical or other difficulties reach out to the right school resources.

Teachers like Elias and Ushe have focused on finding new ways to engage with their students in ways that may continue even once the pandemic is over.

“There’s always been a movement in ACPS and T.C. towards blended learning: the idea that instruction shouldn’t be a teacher in front of a whiteboard but rather a teacher utilizing all of the resources available,” Elias said. “Kids can come in and see a Youtube video or do a live tour at Mount Vernon and participate in an activity in the class in collaborative groups — with the teacher works as a facilitator.”

Now, Elias said the pandemic has given teachers no choice but to embrace that.

“That’s exactly what’s happening,” he said. “The teacher going on and doing a Zoom class for two hours is not what the students want, it’s not particularly effective, and doesn’t utilize all the resources. This is a chance to take professional knowledge and experience and put it into practice. I think you’ll find most T.C. teachers hit the ground running.”

Photo courtesy ACPS

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