Whiteaker science teacher Justin Silbernagel gives instruction to his students via Zoom (KEIZERTIMES/Matt Rawlings).

With four chairs at each desk and posters scattered around the room, Justin Silbernagel’s classroom is prepared for in-person learning.

However, he’s still getting used to being the only one occupying the room.

Silbernagel is a third-year science teacher at Whiteaker Middle School, attempting to navigate the world of teaching remotely.

Since he’s still a fairly new instructor, Silbernagel doesn’t mind feeling like a first-year teacher again.

“It’s not that bad for me because I just got out of square one a couple of years ago. But the people have been doing this for 20 of 30 years, they might be freaking out a little bit,” Silbernagel said. “It’s a different world.”

Silbernagel’s different world consists of providing virtual instruction, giving independent work assignments and grading his students’ work, which now, he says, takes three to four times as long.

Similar to many teachers in the district, Silbernagel had numerous problems with connectivity in the first week of comprehensive distance learning.

“I had a ton of issues during the first week of school. Students with slow internet would be in the group, then disappear, then pop back up,” Silbernagel said.

During one class period, Silbernagel asked his students to turn off their videos in Zoom, which ended up leading to fewer problems. He now runs all of his classes without being able to see his students faces. 

“It’s more important to me to make sure everyone is in class,” Silbernagel said. I’m seeing that change make a difference. Kids aren’t dropping as much.”

Students can give Silbernagel feedback during his lecture by using different Zoom tools, including clicking on the raise-your-hand button to share their thoughts on a certain lesson. However, Silbernagel acknowledged that, even though his class runs more smoothly with his students’ screens blacked out, he misses the face-to-face connection with his kids.

“It’s rough not being able to see faces. There is still an opportunity for that back-and-forth communication, but it’s obviously not as easy as it is in a classroom,” Silbernagel said. “The big thing I’ve noticed is that when the video is off, you can’t read the room. You don’t if you’re going too fast or too slow or who is engaged and who is staring off into space.”

One of Silbernagel’s favorite aspects about becoming a teacher was creating relationships with his students, something he’s been unable to facilitate during distance learning.

“That’s another whole issue with distance learning. You’re not building those teacher-student relationships,” Silbernagel said.

Silbernagel meets with three of his classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and has his other three classes on Wednesdays and Fridays. Students are required to work independently on days when they don’t have class.

While most of his students attend regularly and turn in their work, Silbernagel still has trouble getting a hold of some of his students.

“There’s still a couple of them that haven’t quite caught on yet,” Silbernagel said. “I hope we can get the last 15 to 20 percent on board.”

Silbernagel also admitted that the curriculum isn’t currently up to “normal” standards.

“Right now, it’s just about asking them if they understand what the work is. That’s kind of where we are,” Silbernagel said.

In his class on Thursday, Oct. 15, Silbernagel’s 8th graders were finishing up a unit on how to set up a proper science experiment and just beginning a unit on inertia and friction.

“This unit is usually very hands-on, and allows students to do the experiment and collect their own data. Now it’s just watching a video,” Silbernagel said. “It takes a lot of the fun and interesting parts out of the science and really just focuses on more of the boring, but still important, aspects.”

Only half of the students were able to watch their assigned video before class, so Silbernagel showed the video again during class — the class was required to look for errors in the experiment process.

After the video quit working midway through, Silbernagel was forced to show the video in a lower resolution in order for it to work.

Troubleshooting technical issues has become a new facet of Silbernagel’s job.

“I’ve been working a lot with students on trying to figure out why their links aren’t working and just trying to troubleshoot it myself,” Silbernagel said.

On most days, Silbernagel ends his class early in order to provide support for students who have questions.

“I try hard to have a rhythm to my class where everyday we try to start and finish the same way. It’s still weird but you have to make an effort to have them give feedback,” Silbernagel said.

Despite the challenges of distance learning, Silbernagel is grateful for the parental support that he, and other staff at the school have received. He also is proud of the progress his students have made so far this school year.

“We have received tons of support from our parents, who are all concerned about their kids, but are also appreciative of the work we have been doing. This community is behind us 100%,” Silbernagel said. “I’ve seen a lot of growth from kids. I think everyone walked in and wasn’t really sure what was going on. That was definitely a hurdle that we had to get over. But I do feel like people now understand how this works,” Silbernagel said.