A look inside distance learning: CDOS teacher Uniqua Smith

Distance learning with CDOS teacher Uniqua Smith

When the governor decided to close schools due to COVID-19 and schools across the state moved to a distance learning model, Uniqua Smith and her students at Port Chester High School were way ahead of the game. Since September, her Career Development and Occupational Studies commencement credential class has been using Google Classroom. Students with attendance issues or other reasons for not reporting to class regularly have used the platform throughout the year.

“When the COVID-19 pandemic began to unfold, it was very easy to transition our classroom completely online because a lot of our students were accustomed to it,” Ms. Smith said. Some were not familiar with the platform, but it did not take long for them to learn how to use it.

Initially, Ms. Smith, an itinerant teacher with Southern Westchester BOCES, posted class announcements, expectations of what students would be working on, how they would be graded and her contact information.

In many ways, the transition fits in perfectly with what she teaches in CDOS, an alternative to a traditional or Regents Diploma. The class focuses on preparing students to move directly into the workforce, which often requires flexibility. In the class, they learn about employment readiness, maintaining employment, building a professional foundation and more. They can also research different careers and what might suit them best. The class also covers practical skills, such as constructing a résumé and cover letter, as well as how to get through a job interview.

“Remaining in close contact with my students has been key in the success of our scholars because it helps to keep them motivated,” Ms. Smith said. This too has required flexibility. Students were growing anxious when they saw the number of assignments and deadlines she had shared. To help them feel better, Ms. Smith set up a telephone number through Google Voice and let students know they could call her Monday through Friday between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m.

“The students definitely call me, a lot more than they email me, and I welcome that,” she said. “Sometimes a quick answer is all they need, and other times they need me to walk them through how to complete an assignment.”

In addition, she hosts virtual meetings on Google Hangout for these events. She also uses Zoom to host webinars that she has made. To do this, she enters a meeting by herself, and records herself sharing her computer screen as she walks students through assignments. She then uploads the video to a dedicated YouTube channel that students can access and links it to her assignments on Google Classroom. Her first webinar was about navigating Google Classroom. Later, she created one focusing on a particular assignment.

Each online assignment is interactive, and students must answer questions and submit their responses in order to be graded.

“My goal in teaching is to continue to empower generations of happily fulfilled, critically thinking members of the workforce,” Ms. Smith said. “I aim to enter an office building one day, run into one of my prior students and have them tell me ‘Ms. Smith, did you know that I am a manager here? Not a day goes by when I don’t utilize one of your coping with workplace anxiety, goal-setting or decision-making skills mechanisms.’ To me that would be a life well served.”