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Nancy Braun teaching a class

Nancy Braun (pictured) teamed up with Ree Hartman to co-teach their course in the Department of Special Education to increase student engagement.

Illinois State instructors team up to engage students in an online environment

Like many professors, Illinois State clinical instructors Ree Hartman ‘85, M.S. ‘92, and Nancy Braun ‘85, M.S. ‘93, weren’t sure how they would instruct their students when the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic necessitated a shift to online education. One thing the ISU alumni, former college roommates, and longtime friends knew was that they were stronger together. 

“Our students love us together,” Hartman said. “It gives them as much a sense of normalcy as possible.” 

During a traditional school year, Hartman teaches a class in the Department of Special Education for juniors in their second semester. This practicum program assigns special education majors to cooperating school districts to work with teachers and students two days a week. An emphasis is placed on ensuring the Illinois State students are evaluated in the same way they will be as special education professionals. Students then had course work to complete during the other two days of the week. 

“They are learning how to write lesson plans, how to take data, how to critically access and analyze, and then from that analysis, reflect and teach again,” Hartman said. “We teach these methods and then they go out and apply it with their students.” 

The completion of this course is an important milestone for special education majors as it leads directly to their student teaching experience as seniors. The coronavirus pandemic changed everything. 

“We had our students out in the field at the halfway point and we had to bring our students out of those schools,” Hartman said. “Their field experience was cut in half. Their cooperating teachers were having to learn how to go online with their own students and our students were having to learn with them.” 

Hartman didn’t relax much over the summer. She paid close attention to the University’s response to the coronavirus pandemic and began working on the curriculum for her fall classes. One thing she decided early on was that she wanted to co-teach with Braun in a classroom even if the class would be held online. Braun is teaching full-time at Illinois State for the first time this fall, and Hartman felt her friend and colleague could bring a new perspective to the course work. 

Their experience as Illinois State parents informed the decisions they made with the curriculum. Two of Braun’s children graduated from Illinois State, and Hartman has had three do so with a fourth scheduled to graduate in the spring. 

“We know from our own kids what they need as far as learning, academically, but also that engagement piece,” Hartman said. “If you can’t engage your kids and you are losing them, whether it is in-person or online, forget it. You have to engage them.” 

During class, one of the instructors presents the material to students like what they might expect in a traditional classroom. They are aided by a camera installed in 128 Williams Hall. By default, the camera focuses on the instructor standing behind the podium. Once they step away from the podium, the camera’s focus widens automatically follows their movements. They can also manually choose angles to focus the whiteboard, material presented through PowerPoint, or the other instructor. 

The other instructor is in the same classroom, safely distanced from the other, monitoring the chat function on Zoom. They interact with the students and bring questions to the group for discussion. This enables Hartman and Braun to focus on delivering the material while ensuring their students feel like active participants in the class. 

“I really enjoy having both of them give instruction because they provide two unique perspectives to topics and a great job of building off each other’s ideas,” junior Allison Eby said. 

Illinois State instructor Ree Hartman teaching from her laptop.

“We have high expectations for our students, but they know that we love them, and we are there for them all the way,” Hartman said.

The department is working to find ways to get the students back into the schools safely, but this course has adapted curricula to prepare students for their careers in the best possible way in the meantime. Hartman and Braun said this style of teaching necessitates far more preparation than what they did in the past. They need to be mindful of the material and their students, but also of the technology they are harnessing to deliver the course work. They liken the new style of teaching to directing a live television show. 

“Even though our class is only 4-5:50 twice a week, we find ourselves in there all the time getting things organized or redone or reworked just to make sure we are ready,” Braun said. “Planning and preparing for online teaching is very different than in-person teaching. The attention to detail certainly increases the time commitment.”

They also find themselves finding creative ways to ensure each student receives the individualized attention they are promised when they come to Illinois State University. 

“We have high expectations for our students, but they know that we love them, and we are there for them all the way,” Hartman said. “If you need clarification of something, we are going to clarify it, whether that means through phone, through text, through email, through Zoom, we’re going to do it. I have one student who just wants to Zoom with me every week just to make sure she is on the right track. I have students from last semester who are Zooming me and asking questions.” 

That willingness to go the extra mile explains why Hartman and Braun are beloved by their students. 

“Ree and Nancy are amazing professors,” junior Emily Schafer said. “It is very evident that they really care about us as students and this motivates us and gives us the energy to want to do our best.”

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