University Trains Local Teachers to Teach in the Virtual Environment

Julia Alder-Deyett has been teaching school for 28 years, and this is her 10th year teaching in the Syracuse City School District. This year, Deyett, a teacher at Webster Elementary School, will teach 27 kindergarten students general education in a special education classroom. She will be joined by a special education teacher and a teaching assistant. Some of her students will be taught using the hybrid model and the others will be learning virtually. Deyett says that one of the biggest challenges she and other teachers faced last spring, when they had to adapt to teaching virtually, was keeping the students engaged. “No matter what my co-teacher and I tried, we couldn’t get them to log on and participate,” she says.

University College Dean Michael Frasciello speaks at a
Sept. 3 press conference at Syracuse City Hall.

In August, Syracuse University partnered with Blackboard to offer K-12 educators the opportunity to sharpen their skills and learn new strategies to teach students in a virtual environment. Nearly 300 teachers in the Syracuse City School District participated in the online course free of charge.

Deyett says the course was invaluable. “I have learned that routines and procedures are a must. Students need to know what is expected of them. The clearer the expectations, the better the outcome,” she says. Deyett  says providing office hours and offering ways for families to contact her is also important. What was particularly useful for Deyett was the section on how to adapt virtual learning for all students, no matter their level of ability or disability.

At a press conference on Sept. 3, Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh talked about the challenges that face local and national industries and educational institutions as a result of the pandemic. He thanked Syracuse University and Blackboard for offering this program to Central New York educators. “What I love about this community and the partnerships we have is that even as we are going through our own challenges, we are looking for ways to help each other,” said Walsh. “That’s what today is all about. Syracuse University, specifically, is looking beyond campus to find ways to help their community. We are very appreciative of the University’s support and partnership.”

Syracuse University Vice Chancellor J. Michael Haynie said that during an unprecedented school year that is impacting everyone, it will take all of us pulling together to meet the issues and challenges facing teachers at all levels. “This year, we at Syracuse University—like our colleagues in the Syracuse City School District—are innovating and adapting every day to not only meet and overcome the challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, but to emerge as a stronger institution given what we learn from this experience. I am pleased that Syracuse University is in a position to leverage some of those learnings and offer our unique expertise and resources to support teachers with specific and tailored training to help them effectively engage students in a virtual environment.”

University College (UC) at Syracuse University is the continuing and professional studies college of Syracuse University. Dean Michael Frasciello says that UC is ideally situated to support the school districts in the region in preparation for remote and full online instruction. “As Syracuse University’s academic unit focused entirely on developing rigorous and differentiated online teaching and learning, this teacher training opportunity is another example of how our longstanding partnerships with regional school districts benefit so many,” says Frasciello. “Partnering with Blackboard to seamlessly extend their training courses to teachers and educators is another example of University College’s dedication to the region and our commitment to serving as the gateway to Syracuse University for continuing and professional part-time studies.”

The course, “Blended Learning and Online Strategies for K-12,” provides teachers with tactics for designing courses for the online classroom. Deyett says a lot of the methods she learned will need to be adjusted to fit the needs of her kindergarten students. Simple strategies such as font size, colors and graphics can help hold a child’s attention. “Another strategy I learned was to prerecord myself and then log on as a student to see if what you want taught is being achieved,” she says.

“Given the circumstances we are facing this school year, the course content being offered to teachers through this program is especially relevant,” adds Jaime Alicea, superintendent of the Syracuse City School District. “Virtual learning is still new for so many of our staff and students and any chance we have to provide ways for us to improve is appreciated.” Alicea says that while the pandemic has separated us in many ways in our daily lives, it has also brought our community together. “Opportunities like this online learning class demonstrate not only the dedication of Syracuse teachers and staff, but also the power of our community and what we can accomplish when we work together.”

Over 500 teachers in 27 districts throughout Central New York registered for the online course.  Through the generosity of the Allyn Foundation, the Central New York Community Foundation and private donations, four sessions of the course were offered free of charge. In addition, Blackboard and University College matched the registration fee dollar-for-dollar in order to offer the course free of charge to K-12 local teachers. Syracuse University has a longstanding partnership with Blackboard to provide a virtual learning environment that is accessible and relevant to students across the globe. Additional private donations have made it possible to expand the course offering to teachers throughout the Central New York region.