“It Is Amazing the Relationships I Have with the Kids This Year” – A PLTW Master Teacher Reflects on Teaching During a Pandemic

Joey Giunta (pronounced JUNE-tuh) is a PLTW Master Teacher who has taught science for 14 years – the most recent six years at Tritt Elementary School just northwest of Atlanta, Georgia. Approximately 850 students are enrolled in the school, which is nationally STEM-certified through Cognia and is a 2019 Blue Ribbon School.

Mr. Giunta has been a Master Teacher for nearly five years, and he teaches the PLTW Launch program’s engineering modules for all grades in the school (K-5) as part of the “specials” rotation. We recently asked him to share a bit about his experience as a PLTW Launch teacher and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted him and his students.  

What was your road to PLTW (i.e. how long were you teaching prior, did you have another career path before teaching, etc.)?

Prior to teaching at my current school, I was a non-formal educator for 10 years. I worked at a non-profit nature center, visiting schools with animals or taking students on hikes of our property. I intended to focus on environmental education when I got my own classroom, but I was so fortunate to be given the opportunity to use PLTW and have never looked back! (Of course, I still garden with all my students but have been able to tie that into many of the PLTW modules!)

How does your school/district use PLTW Launch in its curricular plan?

Our students use PLTW in my Science Lab and learn the Computer Science modules in our Technology Lab. The PLTW engineering design process is used in every homeroom as they develop community-focused project-based learning (PBL) every school year.

Every student in our school uses PLTW in a six-day rotation. The middle and high schools we feed into have optional PLTW tracks.

How did your school respond to the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our district was just rolling out a new learning management system (LMS) in spring of 2020, so when we went home last mid-March, we were able to switch to virtual immediately for the remainder or the year. Q1 of this school year was 100 percent virtual, and then students could choose face-to-face vs. digital starting with Q2. It started about 75/25, then 80/20 by Q3, and now we are about 90/10 face-to-face/virtual. We require masks 100 percent of the time from all students and staff.

Our specials rotation changed as an effort to see fewer students in the same amount. Rather than see students every six days (six classes per grade in a rotation), we see each class on six consecutive days, but that’s it for the entire quarter. It is the same number of days, just all condensed to one block of time. I’m spending a week and a half with the same class for each grade, and then we switch to new classes. 

How did the pandemic most impact your students and your method of teaching?

The most immediate impact was just missing the kids! It is hard to believe that at the time we thought we were getting a couple of extra weeks of spring break and then things would be back to normal. I’m not immune to shedding a tear, but I’m a tough nut to crack – I lost it when we came back in May and saw all these unfinished projects and student work. As I said, we were able to pick right back up on Zoom with our new LMS, but at the time it was a novelty. We did at home projects – it was great, but you could really feel the distance between us all.

Generally, we tried to focus a lot on social and emotional learning (SEL). For me without a homeroom, that meant logging in early and staying on late just trying to have conversations with students. I’m pretty tech savvy, so navigating our new digital space and allowing each student to feel welcome wasn’t too hard. BUT! A lot of these kids were really worried about what was going on in the world. Some families were shut in, and others were acting like nothing was wrong – and those families, those neighbors, stopped getting along. I’m not sure that squabbles were confined to neighbors either; it feels like lots of families had a hard time getting along once suddenly confined to their houses.

I still try to spend extra time with our Zoomers now. They are able to log in with me as their class makes their way down the halls between classrooms, and they’ll usually stay on for a couple minutes afterwards. Sometimes that is to work on a project, but it is usually to share something they did over the weekend or just whatever is on their mind. As far as projects go, I can’t have multiple Zoom meetings going on in the classroom, and we opted away from Breakout rooms. So typically the Zoomers collaborate as one group, or my iPad is moved to a table group who then includes them. Often I am able to leave materials for them at the front of the school, but most of our builds are just found craft items anyway – just whatever they have at home.

How have you adapted? How has that affected you and your students?

One thing that changed in my PLTW Lab, and in other classes as well, is the collaborative part of STEM/PBL. We can’t let them share supplies and huddle over a group build with the pandemic – for one thing we have plexiglass dividers on all the tables/desks! That is one way we adapted: our ABILITY to ADAPT. I think we teachers always had to be ready for that - you never know when lessons won't come out right, or technology fails you, or any number of things, but now it is the norm.

More than any other year, I have allowed the PLTW curriculum to serve as a window into the minds of my students. Not only am I using our conversations and their journal (Launch Log) entries as formative assessments of their studies of our science lab standards BUT also of how they are doing. Formative assessment of my student's wellbeing. This could be old hat for homeroom teachers, but I see my students so infrequently that building meaningful relationships with them is hard. I LOVE my kids, but I don't get to spend enough time with them to get to know them. As a result of our schedule change, I was able to spend consecutive days with them. Not more time, but it was all condensed into six consecutive days. What really made the connection strong was this joint (PLTW) project we are working on. We were a team. I was a part of each group in a way I hadn't made myself before. We took the time for meaningful discussion of each step on the Design Process. Because they were limited in what they could physically do together, they spent more time in the planning phase (Explore).

It is so important to take a minute and think about what we as teachers learned this year. I have never taught this way before (I assume most specialists haven't), and it is amazing the relationships I have with the kids this year. I don't know what my schedule will look like next year, but I know that I want to continue to slow down with my students and spend quality time together.

What is it about PLTW Launch specifically that allowed you to adapt to meet the needs of your students?

PLTW is all about iteration! We aren’t just teaching our Kindergarteners to iterate paintbrush designs, or our fifth graders to iterate robotics coding – we are adapting/modifying/iterating our instruction all the time! PLTW empowers us three main ways: the APB approach, formative assessment, and the Engineering Design Process.

When the kids are working on their final projects – sharing their journals, their work, their ideas – with this curriculum I feel like kids have the tools and confidence that they can let me see what they see. Like transcendental summative assessment.

I was impressed with the speed at which PLTW created and made available digital resources for each module. Because my situation was unique to me (as it was to most everyone else), I didn’t feel like I needed to use them specifically, but they did help with idea generation. Trying to stay actively engaged in the Community tool was as helpful for me as I hope my responses/questions were to other teachers.