Podcast: Virtual Learning During COVID-19 with Sharon Biava

Photo: Sharon in her at-home teaching space.

Join us on the podcast for a new episode of our Teachers in America series. Our guest today is Sharon Biava, a 4th grade math teacher at Silver Lakes Elementary in Miramar, Florida. We caught up with her this summer, just before the start of the new school year, to find out how she had coped with the switch to virtual learning when COVID-19 shut down schools in March 2020. Follow Sharon on Twitter @SharonBiava.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Lish Mitchell: Welcome to HMH Learning Moments, a production of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. I'm Lish Mitchell, and I work at HMH. Today's installment is the second of a two-part Teachers in America episode hosted by HMH’s Director of Content and Programming, Noelle Morris.

When we last met with Sharon Biava, we observed her teaching an HMH GO MATH lesson to her fourth graders at Silver Lakes Elementary in Miramar, Florida. Soon after our discussion, school closures took place and virtual learning became the norm for classrooms across the country. In August, before the start of the new school year, we caught up with Sharon to find out what had changed since our last conversation, and how she has adapted to using digital tools to teach remotely during the quarantine.

Now, here's Sharon and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: Sharon Biava—she teaches in South Florida. We met in February before a lot happened with school building closures and social distancing. And I got a chance to see her phenomenal instructional practices on the spot, having students engaged in math. Let's have an updated conversation on how it's been since.

And so, Sharon, welcome back to the show. When we talked in February, you had twin young men who were going to be graduating from college. So how have things been since February? What's new? What's exciting?

Sharon Biava: Well I have to say, since February, it's been quite a whirlwind. Both of my children graduated from college.

However, due to the circumstances of COVID-19, they graduated virtually. I began online teaching from my home, which I never thought that I would ever be doing. It's been very interesting and quite a learning experience for me. I've had to learn a lot very quickly, on the fly, and try to navigate a whole new world, which is just something that I sit back now that school is over and think, Wow. You know, I'm pretty proud of myself. I can't believe I did that.

When school closures took place in Florida, Sharon transitioned to teaching remotely from home.

Noelle: Can you tell us a little bit about how those initial lessons went as you transitioned to virtual?

Sharon: Well, honestly, initially it was quite the learning curve. Before we actually started online teaching, we did have our spring break—so we closed our schools and the following week was spring break for us.

I took the opportunity to utilize that time and develop a test subject group with my students. Not all of them—I have 25 students, so I picked five or six that were responsible, and we started practicing with things. I had students teaching me that there were whiteboards, and that I could share my screen, and all of these things that truly, I was just navigating, trying to get them the link, get them on, and speak to them.

We sort of learned together—but at that time, I'm telling you, they were teaching me things, and I was like, Wow. Okay, thank goodness I've got them.

As time went on, I’d have to say, when you asked me about what is my greatest achievement digitally as a teacher? I would have to say that after the first three days—because it was new, once we started back to school from spring break—every single one of my 25 students were on every single day. They came to class every single day.

And I know from speaking to colleagues, that was not necessarily the case, but these kids showed up every day. And to me, I'm just so proud of that.

Noelle: I’d be proud of that too. What did you do that allowed your students and your parents and the guardians that are helping get students on? What do you attribute that to?

Sharon: Well, I think initially when I was doing my research with my test group, I started thinking that I needed to develop some norms, just like I would do if I were in a brick and mortar classroom.

And so I came up with a list of digital classroom rules, so to speak, for our class. And as time went on, after having students with their cameras on, munching down on cereal or chips and not really being aware that we could all see them, we tweaked that a little and made it where when you're eating, if you're going to eat during class time, your camera had to be off and your mic had to be off so we could not see or hear you.

I think that really helped. And then I sent a lot of information to the parents in the beginning. The parents joined us maybe the first three or four days. The parents were there to assist their students to get on and to make sure everything was okay.

And then after that, we sort of just were on our own and we took it away and that was it. The links were posted. The kids got themselves on. I'm not sure if their parents were waking them up to come on or not, but they were there and they were ready for the day.

And when we would sign off, they were so disappointed. You could tell, they just really wanted to maintain that contact with their classmates and their teacher.

Noelle: Aww. So Sharon, how did you start class? Was there a routine that you always did where everyone saw each other and recognized each other?

Sharon: Yes, every morning I did a roll call where I wanted to at least see and hear every student. Some were a little reluctant because some had just woken up, their hair was all messy, they were still in their pajamas.

But I thought it was important that I at least hear their voice, see them, and let everyone else see them. Then we spent some time in the little chat text boxes, where everyone could comment to each other and talk about different things. And I typically gave them about five minutes to interact with each other that way before I started.

And then one of the norms was once I began, all chatting needed to stop, unless it was relevant to whatever it was that I was teaching or discussing—then they were allowed to make a comment. Or I would stop if I were reading a story and maybe ask a question and then they could comment or chat, using their microphones as well.

Sharon's virtual classroom setup.

Noelle: I'm really curious about this. What was your timing of this class? And did you have to strategically plan moments for engagement, or did you see students self-regulating and keeping themselves engaged from the time you started your virtual class until you ended it?

Sharon: I would have to say that I had to strategically plan. My students are fourth grade students. I have a mixed bag—some are gifted, some are students that need to work a little harder. I have ESE students, so it's a little bit of everything. And they even reported to me that sometimes it was very difficult for them to stay focused, because oftentimes there were things going on in other rooms in their houses.

Maybe their parents were working from home or they had a younger sibling or their dog was there or whatever their circumstances were. I tried to plan lessons to start off after our chat. I usually tried to find a fun video, something that had to do with what we were learning— whatever concept—if it was a scientific concept, I would try to find a video. Or even with math, something that had a cartoon where they would get engaged by that.

Chunking the lessons was super important as well, where I wasn't spending a lot of time in a row on content. I would have to break it up a little bit and break up the monotony. In a sense it almost reminded me of when I taught kindergarten, because when I taught kindergarten, you really did have to chunk your lessons and give time for stretching and moving and doing other things.

Because I think for them, just spending all of that time staring at a computer screen, listening to me, I didn't want to end up sounding like the Charlie Brown teacher. So I tried to mix it up a little bit for them.

Noelle: So Sharon, let's go back into some of the conversation that we had in February. You live near your school. Do you walk to school?

Sharon: I live probably not even a half mile from my school. I could walk to school, but it's extremely humid in South Florida, so I definitely don't want to do that. And it rains at the drop of a hat. This is my neighborhood school. My children went to school here.

I am very proud of my school, and it really is reflective of where I live. I'm an original owner in my subdivision. I've been in my home for 20 years longer than the school was built. The school is now I think on its 21st or 22nd year.

Noelle: Interesting. I do appreciate you putting into context that in South Florida, you would come in and students might be like, “What has happened? Your hair…” Everything is so humid that I know when I step out, it's like immediate sweat.

I want to talk, though, Sharon, going back and forth, passing the school during quarantine. What emotions did you experience from not being able to have your normal routine?

Sharon: I have to tell you: A lot of sorrow.

There were mornings that I would walk—I take a morning four-mile walk—and I would walk by some mornings and the bell would ring, and it would be the first bell at 7:20 in the morning. And then I would think, I'm supposed to be there—and the kids—and it's just there. It was very surreal. Very, very surreal, thinking, I spend most of my waking day—when we were in the building—there. I'm the kind of person that I'm there before I need to be there. I'm there much later than I need to be there. One of the advantages of living so close is that I can work a little bit later because I don't have to commute, and that way I really don't have to bring things home with me.

So when I would walk by that school there, and the parking lot there, and the sidewalks there, no sounds of children. Very, very, very sad, very sad.

Sharon says: I need to look at a way to connect with my new students. If we are not in a building—or if we are not all in a building at the same time together—how am I going to create a classroom and family environment that I have done successfully every year, where we truly become a community of learners and respecting one another?

Noelle: But tell us, Sharon, how have you supported your parents, your families? Reaching out and asking you for support, but also checking on you as a teacher and the school because you are a neighborhood school.

Sharon: I think what happened was, this school had to reach out to the parents in a multitude of languages—because we are a very diverse population here—to give parents information that normally, I wouldn't say they didn't need, but because their child was coming into the classroom every day, it was just something that was a routine they were used to.

And now once we were starting new routines, new information needed to be sent out to families. I have always done a newsletter. I'm a maniac with emails. To the point where, you know, sometimes I think the parents are tired of hearing from me. Our school and our principal did that as well for families, as I said, in different languages so that the parents were aware.

Sometimes the students would need to actually help their parents, let them know either by translating for them or even, I laugh, translating for them digitally, because again, as I said, how my students helped me when I was doing that trial phase. I think some of the students had to help their parents navigate the platform that we were using online. So their parents could check to make sure that they had actually even done their work because they were not accustomed to that.

It was kind of like you had people reaching out to make sure everyone knew what was going on. Even if I saw something on social media, for example, for Mother’s Day. I had seen something where the mayor had posted, they were giving away free food for Mother’s Day and flowers to families that needed them.

I shared that with my boss, who then sent it to one of the systems the school uses to reach out to the families, as well as posting it on social media—because we really did want to make sure that all of our families were taken care of. And still are.

Noelle: I know—the relationship with your principal and you, that I was able to get a chance to see in action, is just remarkable. You would definitely want to work for her. You see the commitment and the spirit.

What normal closure would you have had this year that you didn't, that you're having to process through so that you rebuild and get that momentum and joy to start next year, with a new group of fourth graders.

Sharon: I'll tell you, for me—especially because my students, I would say 19 of my 25 students were also my third graders, and I had looped with them to fourth grade—I missed having an end-of-the-year awards ceremony, where I was able to shake their hands and see them be celebrated for all of their successes that they had.

And while we did do a digital award ceremony via Zoom, for me, it still was not the same. We did do a drive-by where the students came to pick up their belongings if they wanted to, where we placed the items in the trunk of their car. So a lot of my students did come with their parents. I encourage them all to, if they could come with their parents, wear their class shirt—you know, we all had masks on.

And I saw them, but I really still feel like I didn't get to close down my classroom and end the year with those kids. And even though I ended with them online, and yes, I saw them in a car, it's still something that I don't know that I will ever have the same amount of closure or that feeling that I have had in past years, packing up my classroom.

I did go in and have to take care of certain things so that the custodial staff can clean and sanitize the classroom. But again, it was very surreal looking at the work on the walls and not really packing up with them and saying goodbye, and signing their yearbook, and signing the back of each other’s shirts, which was something we would normally do.

When you talk about the momentum for next year, we normally do a meet-and-greet where the parents and the students come in briefly the day before school starts just to meet you and say hello, so you can attach a face to a name.

And I'm thinking, I wonder how that's going to be, if we're going to do that—is it going to be one-on-one, is it not going to happen? It's causing me to have to be a little bit adaptable and not really think about what I'm missing. And instead, try to be more “glass half full” and look at things like, well, what new experiences can I learn from this?

A view from Sharon's usual walking route.

Noelle: So let's think about something positive, anything fun that you've done over the last 90 days with you and your colleagues or your team that you normally might not have done because you take for granted that you do get to see each other every morning at 7:00 a.m.

Sharon: Well, I would say I had a couple of Zoom happy hours or Zoom “what are you doing?” type things, which is great. Also a couple of my colleagues who live close by as well, we did a socially distant thing—bring your own lunch, and sat outside and had lunch socially distanced from one another.

And it was really great to see someone else other than your family and be outside of your own four walls. And I did just take a quick little trip to the Keys. I have a friend who has a house there, so that was really nice to just be able to sit outside and not really think about anything other than just relaxing.

And that did me a world of good.

Noelle: That just did me a world of good because now I'm picturing Key West.

So for our friends, our teacher friends across the country, what is that drive, Sharon? How long does it take for you to get from your area—Broward County, Fort Lauderdale area—to Key West?

Sharon: Probably to get to Key West from where I live, because I live on the cusp of Dade and Broward in Broward, probably about three hours, depending on the traffic. The place I stayed was actually in Marathon, which is kind of midway there. Key West is unlike so many developed places that we have in South Florida, because South Florida is very, very much a booming metropolis, with lots of people coming and going.

When you get to the Keys, the island life, it's basically a two-lane road, other than some certain areas where there's passing. You could get there in three hours, you could get there in six hours, depending on the traffic.

Noelle: This is just going to be a random question because I am very curious. Are you a Key lime pie fan?

Sharon: I am a Key lime pie fan. However, I discovered something that is absolutely the most amazing thing. I can't even believe I didn't think of this, but whoever thought of this is making a lot of money. It is a Key lime pie on a stick that is coated with chocolate. Not to be confused with ice cream, but it is literally Key lime pie down to the Graham cracker crumbs included on the stick. The most amazing thing I've ever had.

Key lime pie is a must-try in Key West, no matter what form it takes.

Noelle: All right, so here's another question. The drive where your brain is focused on relaxing: what question or what thought popped in your mind? Because every teacher always thinks back to something in their classroom. So as you were on your way to relax, what teacher-thought popped in your head?

Sharon: Well, because I'm looking at all this beautiful nature, and in fourth grade we learn about Florida and the Everglades and all of the things that the fabulous Sunshine State has to offer, I'm looking at things like, Oh, I can include that next year. We didn't learn about that. Oh, look at that.

Always thinking of new ideas and different things that I didn't cover as I see something on the side of the road, or as we pass something. I need to do that next year, I need to cover this part. So that would be my teacher moment as I was trying to relax on my way to a short vacation.

Noelle: I know—isn't it hard to explain to your family that that is relaxing? You’re just, all of a sudden like, I might need that brochure because that's going to give me an idea for a writing activity. Or, Ooh, that's a cool commercial. I like how they did that video. Maybe I'll have my students explain this concept. It's part of being a teacher.

So, what's summer look like for you, Sharon. What are the three things that are top of mind for you to do this summer?

Sharon: Sure. First thing I need to perfect is video recording myself so that I can upload it into a digital platform if need be. I was a little reluctant on that and I tended to prefer to go live, but we don't really know what scenario the school district is going to come up with—things change moment to moment, day to day.

But I feel like I need it to take this opportunity to challenge myself, to become even better at doing things digitally. While I feel like I really learned quite a bit in the last quarter of this past school year, there's more I can do.

And that's one of the things that I'm going to be looking at. Also, I need to look at a way to connect with my new students. If we are not in a building—or if we are not all in a building at the same time together—how am I going to create a classroom and family environment that I have done successfully every year, where we truly become a community of learners and respecting one another?

And finally, I think that I'm looking at some of the things like I always do every summer. I reflect back and think, what did I do this past year that was successful? What did I do that was just okay? And what am I going to keep? So those are the things, the three things that I'm going to be focusing on this summer.

Noelle: Those are worthy. They are reflective, and they are definitely purposeful.

If you remember when we were together in person, I asked you what your walk-up song would be. I'm going to ask you again, but in a new context. Today, Sharon, what would be your walk-up song?

Sharon: I would say my walk-up song would be I Will Survive, and I say that because no matter what has been thrown at me, whether it be in my personal life, whether it be in my professional life, I feel as though I have hit the challenge head-on and come out a better person for it.

And from a person who truly [is not] really that technology savvy, when I look at what just happened here in the walls of my home this last quarter—and how instead of being afraid to meet the challenge head-on, I just dove right in—I will survive no matter what.

I will survive and be successful with my students. If we're back in the building, if we're not back in the building, if we're part-time, whatever it is, I'm going to make it—and make it successful for not just myself, but those around me.

Noelle: I'm grateful for you and what you instill in your students. That’s what I was able to see when we were together in person, and that's what our audience is still able to hear in your voice, is what you just said. It's not just, I will survive. It's that because you see hope and you have hope that you teach that, and you instill that in your students.

And so thank you, Sharon, for spending time with me to talk and catch up, and I look forward to the next time where it will be back in person, I'm sure. So thank you, and thank you everyone for listening.

Sharon: Thanks, Noelle. My pleasure.

Lish: If you’d like to be a guest on the Learning Moments: Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Learning Moments by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

We hope you enjoyed today's show. Please rate and review and share with your network. You can find Teachers in America on the HMH YouTube channel, and read more on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped for the transcript and key takeaways. The links are in the show notes.

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Learning Moments is produced by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, The Learning Company. Thanks again for listening.

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