Editor’s note: The Virus Diaries is a series in which Mainers talk about how they are affected by the coronavirus outbreak.

Jes Ellis, a fifth-grade teacher at Riverton Elementary School, stands in the doorway of her Portland home, where she teaches students through online apps and platforms during the pandemic. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Jes Ellis has been an elementary school teacher for 18 years, but nothing in her professional experience could have prepared her for the challenge of distance learning during the age of coronavirus. Like her colleagues, she has had to adapt on the fly.

Ellis, 45, is a fifth-grade teacher at Riverton Elementary School in Portland. Working from a quiet guest room in the Portland home she shares with her husband and two children, she has tried several different approaches to connect with students.

“The reality is that teachers do not teach content; we teach children,” Ellis said. “Specifically, we teach children how to connect: with one another, with themselves, with ideas, and with the world around them. Typically, we connect in person, first thing every day when we greet each child at the door, at morning circle, and throughout each lesson as we circulate.”

That was the norm less than a month ago – before the virus outbreak forced schools to send teachers and students home.

“How can I teach a child I cannot even see? In the span of a week, I had to join the 21st century and become proficient in dozens of social media apps and educational websites, including but not limited to: Zoom, Instagram, YouTube, TalkingPoints, Flipgrid and Loom.

“On a good day, when we are all together in one room, about a third of my class is able to do the assignment independently after I teach a lesson. Over half of my students are English-language learners and require some level of additional support. But nearly all of my students are average 10-year-olds who, if left to their own devices, would spend the entire day destroying school supplies, chatting with friends, and doing TikTok dances. It takes a delicate cocktail of charisma and consequences to compel them to do any schoolwork at all.

“My first attempt to upload a lesson video was met with relative radio silence. A few students completed the assignment. Then I tried to set up a live virtual class. Eight out of 60 students showed up to my first Google Meet, but there were several adults cooking and scolding in the background, and at least 10 siblings in and out of the frames. The “lesson” was more like a kindergarten soccer scrimmage. I ended the meeting after 30 minutes of chaos, exhausted and feeling like a first-year teacher again.

“This COVID-19 crisis has forced me to connect more assertively and authentically with my students than ever before. I spent much of this school year scolding my students for doing TikTok dances during class. But that’s where my students are. So my 12-year-old daughter helped me set up an account. Now, in addition to uploading my lesson to Google Classroom every day, I post a TikTok video of me talking about the day’s objectives with a helium voice and filter enhanced eyes. I can even add sparkles, or rainbows.

“This crisis has forced educators to innovate the way we connect with children and their families, and to leverage technology in ways we may have previously resisted. This will be one silver lining to the vast cloud of the COVID-19 crisis.”

Do you have a story to share about how you are affected by the coronavirus outbreak? Email us at [email protected]

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