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VG teacher and student discuss return to school

By Tony Hooker
With Villa Grove Schools making the decision to return to traditional in class instruction, The Journal thought it would be a good idea to catch up with a teacher and a student to hear about their experiences during the pandemic.  First up, High School English teacher Jim Kestner.

Was this your first year back in front of a classroom?

No, I came back last year after being away for about 30 years. I’ve spent most of my time teaching in business settings and preparing teachers as a professor and Student Teaching Chair at EIU.

What were your initial thoughts when you heard the school was going to a remote learning model?

I really didn’t believe it would last very long, thought we’d be back before spring semester ended. Boy was I wrong about that!

How did those thoughts evolve as time went by?

It took me a long time to realize it was going to go on and on. I kept thinking all summer that I’d be back in August like normal. When July came it finally hit home that remote learning was going to be around for a longer time.

What was the worst thing about having to teach remotely?

Not making a connection with students. I try to bring my classes to life by bringing an over-the-top approach as a teacher. I tell my students this is the most amazing place to be on the planet and pour everything I have into making them see I’m really that excited. Without that personal connection, I just don’t feel like they get that same energy.

Did anything good come from the experience?

Initially, no. But now a couple of things have. One is that I came up with a. self-paced way to teach writing. It’s the Writers’ Workshop Wayfarer Challenge, and students complete higher and higher levels of writing as they accumulate points. They can compete if they want and win real prizes. The teaching comes from some really amazing websites and videos of folks who teach writing skills clearly and in a fun way. A lot of it is on YouTube. Then I help students as they try to apply. It has meant students can be all over the place in terms of what they’re working on. Some may struggle with a concept for several weeks and eventually master it. Others will go really quickly and maybe I get to teach them something I’ve never taught to a high school student before. Students seem to like it and are really trying hard. I never would have thought of it, but remote teaching made me think about resources and time outside my own classroom, things students can get on their own, then with my help do even more than they could have traditionally. They still need help understanding, but now I’m not having to teach the same skill to everyone at the same time. It’s been a blast.

I’m also trying to connect with teachers literally across the country and in other countries to consider ways we might be able to teach each other’s students. Some of my fellow teachers at VG are interested, too, and I’m trying to make connections. It’s time consuming, but I’m hoping it will eventually expose students to things they never would have seen if this pandemic hadn’t happened.

Bottom line is I try to look at what opportunities we have that we may never have considered before.

Did it make you and your fellow teachers and administrators tighter as a group, or did it do the opposite?

I think we’ve been really tight. I have to say I feel VG is really special that way. I’ve been at this since 1986 and been in over a hundred schools around the state – huge schools like Naperville, inner city schools in East St. Louis and Chicago, schools with only 50 kids in the high school, too. I can honestly say I’ve never been privileged to have a closer group of colleagues. Honestly, that’s a big part of why I’m here. People in these classrooms and hallways know what it takes to make a difference and they give everything they can to make that happen. I really have a dream group of coworkers, never seen anything like it before.

Was there anything that you would have liked to have seen handled differently by the administration?

Not in a criticizing fashion, but just something that, retrospectively, could have been done better?

That’s a tough one. Let me see…no, not really. From superintendent to principals I think they’ve tried not to jump into things that we’ll regret later. They’re looking around us and talking to other administrators and trying to make sure we know what’s happening and how it might affect us here. After ten years on the school board I might be biased, but I think our administrators have really done everything anyone could ask. If I have a question, they try to answer it. They give us a framework and let us figure out how we can succeed based on what we know about our subjects and more importantly our students. If anybody’s doing a better job I haven’t heard about it. And I’ve talked to a lot of folks who know.

How is the conversion back to on campus learning been this first week?

It’s Friday and I just saw classes full of students who are tired – and so am I. It’s been an adjustment. But our kids are super excited to be here, to see each other, maybe even to see us. I’m seeing students working hard and learning and doing everything we want them to do. They may not have expected to say so, but I think they’re really glad to be back in school.

Anything you would like to add?

I’d just like to thank you and the community for all the support. This work of learning is hard and our students need everyone’s help if they’re going to succeed. I’ve been amazed by how many people are willing to spend extra time and effort to help their kids and to help our school. I wish every kid could feel that and know that not everyone gets to, but I think overall, we should stand up and be really proud of what our little district is doing every – single – day. It gives me chills when I think about it. Thanks to everyone who helps make this a place that we can feel shows kids that they matter. It really makes a difference!

Kyleigh Block has a promising future ahead of her, both as a student and as an athlete.  I sat down with her to get her thoughts on the pandemic, and whether she might have discovered a passion for golf due to the pandemic!

What was your first thought when you heard that everything was going to get shut down?

It felt kind of like a dream. It didn’t really feel real, I guess I would say.  When we first found out we were going to be out of school for two weeks, I was kind of excited, just because everyone wants to be out of school, <smiles> but then when I found out we were shutting down for the rest of the year, I was pretty bummed out because none of us knew where this was going.  

And of course, it ended a promising season for your softball team, right?

Yeah, that was a big heartbreaker because we were excited for this year. Our first week of practice had gone really well and everything was normal, and then the second week of practice we began to question whether we were even going to have a season.  Everything switched so fast.  We were bummed out because we knew that we had worked so hard for this, and knowing that it could be taken away, like it was, was very disheartening.

So, fast forward, you finish up your classes remotely in the spring, summer you’re working out and then no volleyball.   What was your thought process like when you decided to try golf?

When I found out we weren’t going to have volleyball, I knew I had to do something because I’m used to being go, go, go.  Running’s not my thing, other than sprinting on the court or the diamond, but not long distance! <laughs>  Dad suggested that I try golf, so I decided to give it a shot.

Did you enjoy it?

Yeah, I really did.

You played pretty well, also.  Weren’t you all conference?

Yes. Logan Lillard, Zack Buesing and I all made the all-conference team.

Is it something you’ll continue to do in the future?

I plan on continuing to play.  Not in college or anything, but just for the joy of the game.

I hear there are lots of scholarships available for female golfers!

Yeah, that’s what I hear! <smiles>

Did you start back to school full time?

Yeah, this is our first week back.

How’s that going?

I like it a lot better than the half and half.  I felt like that was kind of depressing, only having half the students in the school at once, because there would only be three or four students in every class and we weren’t able to have the conversations we would normally have with the whole class.

Is there anything positive that’s come out of the pandemic?

Well, I started playing golf for one thing.  I wasn’t planning on getting a job in high school, but I had so much free time without volleyball that I started working at Tri City Country Club.  

Were you able to maintain your focus academically?

It’s a little tougher coming through a screen.  I feel like in person, with a  teacher in the classroom, I’m more engaged.  There are a lot more distractions at home, as well.

Do you feel like there is anything the administration could have done differently in response to the pandemic?

I thought that overall, they did pretty good, for never having had to deal with anything like this. They were literally starting from scratch.  There were some times when I felt that there was too much homework, but they didn’t really know since we weren’t in the classroom, and they learned and adjusted. It’s been going a lot better the first quarter this year.

Do you think that this has made your class closer or the opposite?

I feel like definitely the opposite. I feel like just because half of us were here one day and the other half would be here the next day.  Last year in school, I’d have conversations with people that I never talked to outside of school and this year I wasn’t able to because we weren’t attending on the same day.  I’m thankful that we can do that now!

Do you think that in the spring when you’re walking across that stage at graduation you’ll be thinking ‘we survived’? 

<laughs> Yeah!  We survived!  It’s so sad, really.  Waking up on Fridays, and usually you’re looking forward to the football game and now there’s nothing.  It’s really frustrating to see people from other states and they’re all playing. I have friends from Indiana and they’re posting pictures of their homecoming and volleyball senior night, and we don’t have anything.  

What’s the future hold for you? WNBA?

<laughing>  No!  I want to play basketball in college but after that I think I’ll be done.

What do you want to major in?

I want to major in kinesiology/exercise science.  

You want to be a physical therapist or go the teaching and coaching route like mom?

I’m interested in physical therapy, but I’m not sure I want to go to school for eight years, so I might go into teaching and coaching like my mom.  We’ll just have to see when I get there. 

What’s your favorite class this semester?

I like PE and conditioning, but some people don’t consider those real classes, so I would probably say transitional math, with Mr. Murawski.  Last year, I hated math, but this year we’re learning stuff that’s useful in life, like how to work off a budget and how taxes work, things like that.

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