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  • Writer's pictureThis Is Rutherford

This is Jennifer and Kalilah Whitford

Updated: Jan 26, 2021

By Jennifer Ersalesi

Photo credit: Jennifer Whitford

Jennifer and Kalilah Whitford

It has almost been one year since students and teachers have been required to adapt to entirely new ways of learning and teaching. Both teachers and students have faced many challenges throughout this year while dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. Rutgers University senior, Kalilah Whitford used her cinematography skills to create a video about her mother, fourth-grade teacher, Jennifer Whitford. This is Rutherford spoke with Kalilah and Jennifer about the video and their own learning and teaching experiences.

TIR: What are you studying in college?

Kalilah Whitford: I am majoring in cinema studies and minoring in creative writing and entrepreneurship.

TIR: You currently have a YouTube channel where you have been posting videos. The video you recently posted featuring your mother, Jennifer Whitford, has been very meaningful for teachers, parents, and students. What made you decide to create this video?

KW: In my cinematography course last semester, we had the assignment of making a short video in one of three shooting styles. I chose interview/documentary because it was a form I was not very familiar with and haven’t worked with before. I wanted to explore the camera and lighting setups as well as the extra footage needed for the interview style. Since this was filmed during COVID I had a limited amount of resources and that included actors. I’ve watched my mom work extremely hard throughout this entire process and thought an interview on her challenges would be relatable as well as eye-opening for many people.

Here is a link to watch Kalilah's video about her mother Jennifer.

TIR: What were some of the main points and messages you were trying to convey through this video?

KW: While being home at this time, I've watched my mom work for hours on end during and way after school hours. In this video, my goal was to convey all the extra work she was putting into making this online transition as seamless as possible for her students. Her dedication itself shows how much she cares about her students and I wanted to show that as well.

TIR: As you put the video together, who was your target audience?

KW: Initially, my target audience was my classmates and other students who know the struggles of online learning and may not know the other half of it. Many students see it from their perspective and forget there is someone on the other side as well. After the video was shared, the most relatable audience was other teachers or family members of teachers. Many of them commented on their similar situations and how they related to my mom’s story.

TIR: As a college student, you have also had to attend classes remotely up until recently. How has that experience been for you?

KW: It has been tough as a student, especially mentally. The quick transition from in-person to online was confusing and draining. As a student, I learn by participating and being present in the classroom and with the online classes, I lost that motivation, especially when everyone had their cameras off. The personalization of the courses was lost and I felt like I was just going through the motions of logging onto the class and just listening. Because of the online style and technical difficulties, a lot of the classes became self-taught where it was textbook chapter after chapter, and the workload was intense after class hours.

TIR: What types of videos do you plan to create in the future?

KW: I am still exploring all the options I can but I do want to explore documentaries, interviews, and short films based on true stories. On top of that, I want to explore fiction and the stories and scripts I write.

TIR: How many years have you been teaching? Where do you teach?

Jennifer Whitford: I have been teaching for 26 years, since 1995. For all 26 years, I have taught in Elizabeth, NJ. For 25 of those years, I have taught 4th grade.

TIR: Now that it has been almost a year of teaching remotely, what have you found to be the MOST challenging part of the experience?

JW: Wow, you want me to narrow it down to ONE MOST challenging experience. Let me try. Although the challenges are innumerable, the biggest has to be separating the school day from my home day. Having my classroom, first in my dining room and now in my bedroom allows me to keep going. I find it hard to disconnect. Before I used to just bring home student work, now I find myself on calls with them for extra hours. I sometimes am at my computer and don’t realize it’s dinner time and the sun has set. It takes a lot to walk away and I have to remind myself that my own personal space and peace of mind are important too and I NEED TO SHUT IT ALL DOWN until tomorrow.

TIR: Remote learning has been a test in flexibility and resiliency. What new skills have you learned through this process?

JW: As a teacher, flexibility and resiliency are a requirement, but the COVID quarantine situation has pushed teachers beyond their normal limits. I have become an expert on Microsoft Teams meetings and breakout rooms and muting participants (laughs). 😊 LOL. I have become the resident Brain Break queen because my 4th-grade students get antsy and need to go find something that starts with the letter B, something made of wood, a favorite toy, or anything (And I need to get out of the chair and run around my house!!!).

I have mastered turning PDFs into Word Docs and JPEGS into PDFs and all that document jargon. Lastly, I have mastered the 4-screen classroom. My son Miles hooked my teacher’s laptop to an extra screen he had, and my bedroom TV to a student laptop I was also using. It is like air traffic control for the classroom!! Monitoring student faces and keeping them on task…. watching their screens to make sure they are on the right site, and keeping email and Remind accessible for administration, colleague, and parent communication. It is really a blast!!

TIR: Is there any particular advice that you have given your students that has proven helpful during these challenging times?

JW: Advice that I gave to my 4th graders, hmmm.

You have to take care of yourself and get up and move, you cannot live in front of the screen. We get up and do minute exercises and I remind the students to get up every 20-30 minutes and just move. We talk about staying hydrated and making healthy choices.

I advise them to go PLAY or do something that they enjoy; alone, or with someone, something that does not involve a screen or technology. I encourage students to send me pictures of things they make or draw, pictures of them with the snowman or snow angel they made or playing a board game, or blanket fort they built. Just encouraging them to be kids in a time when they are expected to handle this whole situation and make sense of being inside 24/7.

TIR: Assuming we all go back to a normal school year in September, what do you think will have changed in terms of the way you will teach and the way your students will learn?

JW: We will continue with the technology platforms we have been using that allow students to make virtual presentations on and manipulate virtual tools like Paint 3D, Flip Grid, and PowerPoints. The curriculum has become adapted to and relies more on online work, more typing, and finding virtual resources, than before the pandemic.

When we go back, I think it is imperative that students also use paper and pencil to complete their work. I’m a little old school as well, and will definitely have students incorporate more hands-on projects using your typical school tools: paper, scissors, glue, markers, etc. I think it is important for students to use technology and have 21st-century skills, but it is just as important for them to use physical tools to create things. For example, fourth graders need to color and express their creativity. There is just something about real crayons and school supplies! I miss all that!

TIR: As someone who has been teaching for many years, how do you feel this experience has changed you as a teacher?

JW: As a “veteran” teacher, I do not think this experience changed me too much. There are always new programs, new technology, and new pedagogy that come through the system that always makes me feel like a new teacher all over again. But overall, I think I am still encouraging, trying to get the kid who does not come to class to stay for an extra few minutes to make up work or just to talk. I am still sympathetic to my students’ needs both academic and emotional, even more so than ever, staying online after hours to help a struggling student complete an assignment. Or staying on with an A student who is home alone and just wants to talk and know someone is there. I guess, this experience taught me to give myself more credit for, and to be proud of, the amazing job I do every day in and day out, for 180 days a year.

First off, when they told us on March 16, 2020, that we would teach virtually, I grabbed a few bags of materials, packed the kids bags with a few assignments, and closed my door and never imagined that a year later I would still not be in my classroom with my students. It is heartbreaking. I realize how much I took my classroom and the time we shared there for granted. I spent 71/2 hours a day with my students, we learn together, we take care of each other, look out for each other and enhance each other’s lives. Being virtual made me realize how special the bonds I’ve made over the years really mean to a lot to my students, and hopefully someday soon I will get to meet my current class and say goodbye to the ones I sent home on March 16, 2020.

We were discussing how the inauguration was a special moment in history that we were experiencing together and how we would be able to talk about it to future generations. One little girl said, “Mrs. Whitford, what we are living now with this pandemic is also going to be in the history books when we are older. Our kids and grandkids are going to have to do projects and interview us about what it was like to live during COVID 19.” Other students added, “We couldn’t go to our real school, we had to learn on the computer all day, we had to wear masks, couldn’t celebrate things, it isn’t easy.” My heart hurt for a moment and then felt that this is going to make these boys and girls more resilient and adaptable as they continue to grow and contribute to this world.

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