Riverside Academy excels in virtual education

Published 12:05 am Wednesday, April 15, 2020

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RESERVE – Riverside Academy English teacher Sonya Mazzella was already known as the “Queen of Portals” among her high school students.

Over her 12 years at the school, Mazzella has embraced technology in her teaching and required most of her students to use the school’s PlusPortals or Turnitin.com to submit assignments.

When the coronavirus shut down schools in March, Mazzella was ahead of the curve. She’s one of the many teachers at Riverside Academy that have adapted to virtual learning, sometimes fielding as many as 300 emails a week from students and parents.

“My kids were always saying, ‘If everyone used Portals the way you do, we could learn from home,'” Mazzella said. “I already used technology in my classes and I already used Portals, so it’s not that different for them.”

The biggest challenge, according to Mazzella, is teaching children to use all the tools at their disposal. It’s a challenge for teachers, too, deciding what’s best for their students between Zoom, EverNote, Turnitin, Edmoto, Class Dojo and Google Classroom in an endless array of online resources.

Amy DiMaggio, an honors English and writing teacher, was also ahead of the curve. In addition to hosting Zoom classes and using resources like Edmoto and Portals, DiMaggio records herself reading stories to students.

“When I started teaching 28 years ago, all I had was a chalkboard and an overhead projector,” DiMaggio said. “I was using Edmodo and Turnitin before. The thing I have really added is Zoom. I haven’t used it every day and I haven’t used it with every class, but the classes I’ve used it with have been really effective.”

Her advice to old school and new teachers is to not worry too much about making it perfect.

“I don’t particularly like seeing myself on camera and I don’t like hearing my voice recorded, but I’ve gotten over that,” DiMaggio said. “I’ve gotten over my hesitation to doing things like Zoom because the kids will help you and it’s that important to stay connected to the kids. That’s really what it’s all about.”

Erin Jung worked as a nurse for 20 years, but she’s spent the past eight as a middle school science, medical terminology and nutrition teacher. She uses Portals to keep her 105 students, as well as her three children, on track.

“At first they told us, ‘two weeks.’ Two weeks is easy,” Jung said. “But then two weeks turns into ‘we don’t know when,’ and now you have to figure out how to keep it rolling because we’re still teaching, we’re still entering grades for the fourth nine weeks.”

Teachers have tailored the curriculum to home learning in innovative ways. Jung’s students recently completed a science project that involved building a moveable car using only materials around the house.

All the while, grading has continued as planned. Principal Michael Coburn said teachers recognize the challenge of not having face-to-face communication. Students are given opportunities to review and learn from their mistakes.

“I’m proud of our teachers and our students for getting the job done in this very difficult time,” Coburn said. “We’re doing the best we can with whatever avenues we have to make it the best we can for our teachers, for our students and for our parents.”

Finding structure has been a challenge for teachers who have their own children at home.

Elementary teacher Kristin Roccaforte is using Class Dojo, online quizzes, read-aloud books and written materials to help her third grade students maintain a sense of normalcy. She has regular Facetime calls with students and parents to check in on the families.

Her family is working on a special project, helping her fifth-grade son create a journal to document life during the COVID-19 stay at home order. Her third grader and even her 3-year-old join in to recount the day’s activities.

Her advice to other parents is to “hang in there.”

“We’re all going to be okay,” she said. “As long as the students are trying, I know that we’re going to get through it.”

Math teacher Jenny Gomez has never seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic in her 25 years as an educator.

Through the chaos, Gomez said parents and students are happy to hold onto one tradition. Each year, Riverside seniors make a “steps to success” booklet to document their high school accomplishments, extracurricular participation and dreams for the future. This year, the steps to success is on a Google form, and half of the senior class has already completed it.

“Whether or not we have a May graduation, this is something we can do,” Gomez said. “They like to see their classmates’ plans. A couple of seniors have told me they are glad they are getting to work on something for graduation.”

Principal Coburn said his heart hurts for the seniors who have missed out on prom, planned trips and potentially graduation, if the governor’s social distancing measures are extended.

“It’s a tough pill for them to swallow. It’s a tough pill for myself to swallow,” Coburn said. “Once we get back, whether it be in the summertime or whatever, we’re going to plan something for our seniors where they can be recognized the proper way, walk across the stage and receive their diploma. That’s what they’ve been looking forward to for the past 12 years.”