Dory Learning Center

Don’t try this at home kids….

Hello from the other side. Not that we are on the other side of COVID of course, not by a long shot, but we have reached the end of the strangest spring I have ever survived. By this Friday, Dory will (fingers crossed) retire her job as Emergency Learning Center and transform once again into a camper trailer. It seems fitting to at least attempt a capture of life in Dory these past three months, even if it has not involved any actual camping.

Once our shelter in place at Lake Berryessa came to a close, we returned home and steeled ourselves to the fact that four adults would have to figure out how to share close quarters in a small house with one bathroom 24/7. I think it took about two days before I activated Emergency Plan B: Personal Space Escape Pod. Before Richard even knew what I was doing, I had Dory out on the upper part of the driveway and was performing advanced maneuvers with the Caravan Mover. Clocking in at a 17% grade, our driveway presented a serious challenge for leveling. But I was committed and prepared to be pretty unsafe. After using all of the leveling blocks, and a ramp, and just the right angle, I achieved a “double 0” on the little bubble levels, which was far better than I expected. I was doing a happy dance while Richard, now aware of my plan, was texting pictures to Randy to see if he thought this was a good idea. All Richard really needed in order to be convinced was the reminder that this would allow us to watch shows at night without the offspring freaking out about the noise and slamming doors. At that point, it was deemed “safe enough.”

Trailer? What trailer?

We are grateful to our neighbors for not turning us in to the Ordinance Police. It would be a stretch to claim that our RV was 95% obscured from view from the street, though we did have both cars parked in front of her. I would have made a strong case for clemency based on being an essential worker, but I never had to. I figure there were probably more pressing things to deal with than code violations.

In addition to offering nighttime distancing, it also allowed me to do all of my distance teaching in relative peace. “Distance Learning,” for those not directly impacted, means a whole lot of time spent recording videos, reading audio instructions, and sitting on Zoom calls. Meanwhile, Richard’s job is to basically sit on a Teams call (same thing as Zoom) all day long, so we would be talking over each other constantly.

We learned that wifi does not travel well through stucco walls and aluminum roofs, so Dory got her own wifi router and a super long cable to make her extra fancy. And she got a super cute little printer that just fits on the little 4″ bench under the table. She also got filled with teaching supplies. What used to be a kitchen became buried under stacks of everything from phoneme cards, to red crayons and bumpy screens, to multistep word problem cards. A definite bonus was having a handy wine fridge ready at all times. Teaching essentials.

Darren got good at short vowel sounds. Diphthongs not so much.

So we got into a little routine of sorts. Richard and I slept in Dory and would wake up and go in the house for coffee and showers. Then I headed out to start working on creating content to send to students. Zoom meetings were abundant and every single time I joined any staff meeting, you could bank on the fact that someone would inevitably ask, “Alissa, are you on a space ship?” Video recording of lessons happened daily. Darren discovered the downside of sheltering in place with a teacher and was involuntarily recruited as my assistant for teaching phonics lessons. Of course, he became the highlight of the entire experience and his mix of dry humor combined with genuine confusion over spelling rules made him a distance learning hero in many households. Best Darren quote: “I actually learned something today.”

Meanwhile, life went on. We found ways to get out by hiking through the open space near and behind our house. Samantha tried finding space by setting up a large screen tent in the back yard, complete with a little cot and desk. I would have invested a lot into that set up, except she ended up not terribly impressed. It was too hot, or cold, had bugs inside and puddles after rain. It was, you know, a tent. And I really can’t be judgey for her not liking it. All those reasons are exactly why we have a forty thousand dollar trailer.

As the “regular” school year wrapped up, I started joining all kinds of committees and focus groups looking at what in the world we might do in the fall. Work on that will continue through the summer. I also offered to teach Extended School Year (summer school for special education) because I wanted to try an entirely different format for distance teaching, in case I have to keep doing this in the fall. “ESY” ends this Friday and we are planning/hoping for a two week trip up into Northern California. It’s not the kind of summer we have grown used to, but it’s sure better than nothing.

I will say, distance learning has been hands down the hardest thing I have ever done professionally. Just considering the sheer number of hours it takes to create the lessons, every day has been a race against time to have something ready to send out. For special education, you have to individualize the content across multiple skill levels, ranging over five grades, in every academic area. Some lessons are literally created for one child and each lesson takes hours to put together. On top of that, there are online subscription programs that have to be monitored, and adjusted, as kids progress. Thank goodness we did that seat mod in Dory, because I basically have a desk job now.

The thing that is the hardest about all of it, besides time, is that you are doing this in a vacuum. You don’t get to tailor the instruction to the minute by minute live feedback from the child, so you have no idea if they are getting it, or are bored, or are even tuning in. An hour of effort might result in ten minutes of student engagement, or it may have overshot the mark. You just don’t know and it is not the way any of us knows how to teach. Nor is it why we teach. My hope is that some of the effort was useful to some. I did a whole presentation to the School Board in May so they could get a sense of what distance learning looked like from the perspective of a special education teacher. It was well received, but my favorite compliment was a nod to the lighting. Altos rule for Zoom lighting.

Near the end of the year, the teachers did a driving parade all through the neighborhoods. Everyone came out and it went on for three hours. What was crystal clear was how much we all ache for that connection. Smiles mixed with tears as we waved and shouted. Parents and kids held signs and camped out along the parade route, just for a chance to see their teachers. It was honestly one of the most moving experiences I have ever been a part of and I tear up just thinking about it.

Dory played an integral role in Distance Learning Center, but I’ll be honest, I hope she doesn’t ever have to do this again. I miss my students, and my families. Still, in and amongst the enormous struggle, there were countless acts of joy, and love, and generosity, and strength, and kindness. I think our community has shown incredible resilience and we will continue to need it as we navigate this transformational moment in history. These days are simultaneously tragic and heartening, and the word “overwhelming” is a vast understatement. But here’s what I know: when things are hard, what do we do? We just keep swimming.

Total miles: 0 in three months. Site: driveway. Great wifi and cell service. Bathrooms kinda gross, wonder if anyone ever cleans this place. Nice hiking trails nearby. All in all, could be worse.

6 thoughts on “Dory Learning Center

  1. Wow! As a fellow teacher, so well written! This has been the hardest year ever. I used the time we used to spend camping racing against the clock to make videos for all of my classes, so in case something went wrong with the Zoom, they had a really good back up resource, It was SO time consuming, and I was left totally burnt out (I worked 7 weeks straight with zero days off, and only one day off a week for the remainder of the year). After the third camping trip of the season (when normally we would be on 14th or so), we both are starting to come back to ourselves. Glad you can get away for some time in Dory!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a beautiful and inspirational post! Thank you Alissa! You are clearly rising to the occasion and making the most of such a challenging situation. We are so grateful for the deep commitment teachers like you bring to their work. You are a true She-ro! This made my day! Now go have a glass of that Edna Valley! Gaye

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    Liked by 1 person

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