When John Giza logs into Google Meet at 7:30 a.m. to start a day of classes, he sees his students struggling. He’s struggling, too. After New Haven closed its public schools in March 2020, students and teachers alike were forced to adapt to a new learning environment—one that looks different for everyone. After a full year, they’re just starting to think about what it will mean to return in April.
Giza is an English teacher at James Hillhouse High School, where he’s worked for the last ten years. He teaches AP Language and Composition, as well as a Southern Connecticut State University course for juniors, and pre-AP freshman English. The last is a system unique to Hillhouse that prepares students for AP classes. While the New Haven Board of Education recently announced that students would have the option of returning April 5, he has been teaching remotely for over a year.
The flip to remote learning meant he had to make some changes to his at-home office. “I had to make an investment in new technology,” he said over Google Meet. “My older computer would start wheezing after being on for a couple hours.”
Students may experience more technical difficulties than he does—but he can still tell who’s lying about a broken mic or malfunctioning camera, he said.
Before this year, Giza mostly used Google Classroom as storage space for class materials that students could access when they were absent, he said. Now, it’s become the main vehicle for lessons where assignments are posted, turned in, and handed back.
At the request of the school, he has also dedicated time to learning how to use several new programs to make lessons engaging. He’s now a pro at Bitmoji, digital avatars, and the interactive slideshow tool Pear Deck. In the slideshows he creates for lessons, he adds “easter eggs” that clue students in on information in the unit.
It was fun at first, he said—but now creating the slides has become tedious. Giza considers online school to be two degrees of separation. He talks to the computer, and the computer talks to the student, he said. It doesn’t feel as real. Students, who are now connecting to school through a screen, have said the same thing.
It lacks the unpredictability and spirit of in-person instruction, he added. Giza finds that the pressure of constantly being on camera causes him to become stiffer and more formal. During an in-person school day, a student may bring up a topic that prompts a class-wide discussion, unrelated to the lesson. Now, students feel less comfortable speaking up in class.
“As far as the workload, I find that I’m doing more work throughout the online experience than I would be on the in-class experience,” said Giza. He also finds that he’s been guilty of giving students more work to do online than he would in-person. Giza said online school makes him feel obligated to assign work every day, a trap he said other teachers have fallen into as well.
The grading process is tedious, he added. Google Classroom, the platform used to assign homework, is not linked to PowerSchool, the platform used to input grades.
“I am struggling as much as they are— I’m as buried and behind as they are,” he said. The same goes for any teacher you’d ask, he said.
Giza said he’s hopeful for the upcoming return to classrooms, as he can see the negative impact remote learning is having on his students. Students he had as freshmen who were exceptional have returned as juniors, and it’s like they’re different people, he said. Even with teachers now vaccinated, he plans to follow social distancing guidelines. Students have the option of returning in-person on April 5.
He’s eager to get back, he added: “I’ve been ready to go since day one.”
Julia Rosado is an alum of the Youth Arts Journalism Program. She is a sophomore at James Hillhouse High School.