Learning to teach in a pandemic

For students with special needs, learning from home provided a new set of challenges.

Instead of spending the latter half of his senior year of college celebrating with friends and family, 2020 Pepperdine University graduate Daniel Zarasua has spent the last few months helping his cousin Joseph, an 11-year-old with multiple learning disabilities, to pass the fifth grade.

“We both kind of crossed paths in the sense that he was sent home for remote learning and I was sent home for remote learning,” Zarasua said. “We were kind of experiencing that together, though in two totally different walks of life.”

Joseph has faced a variety of challenges. Before he was born, Joseph’s mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and placed in a long-term care facility. He was diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and Oppositional Defiant Disorder in the fourth grade and currently lives with his grandfather in Rosamond, about 80 miles north of Los Angeles.

As an 11-year-old with several learning disabilities, Joseph is one of thousands of kids who receives special education services. According to the California Department of Education, 795,047 students in California received services during the 2018-19 school year. California provides these resources to meet the individual needs of students with disabilities.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Passed in 1990, it requires schools nationwide to accommodate students like Joseph and their family by providing ample support.

Zarasua, who is currently in the process of completing part-time and full-time student teaching, has utilized what he learned in his coursework to assist with Joseph, who is enrolled in an Individualized Education Program in which he receives specialized attention from his school.

At the start of the pandemic, Joseph was in danger of failing the fifth grade. Teachers would email the family packets for Joseph to complete, but Zarasua said his cousin was defiant and determined to finish homework only on his terms. Joseph would look at an assignment, Zarasua said, and if he decided he didn’t want to do it, he wouldn’t complete the work.

While completing university assignments, Zarasua said he would regularly check over Joseph’s homework, spending extra time to make sure the child not only finished his studies but learned the material.

Zarasua’s mother Karla Diaz, who is also Joseph’s aunt, said Daniel acted as a role model for Joseph during the months after the pandemic ended in-person teaching.

Joseph is an isolated child, she said, so having Daniel available to help was crucial in providing her nephew an in-person tutor and engaging support system. Diaz said online learning required the family to find creative and innovative ways to engage Joseph in his lessons.

She spoke of making banana bread with him one day. “I’m like, OK, let’s do this: I need a cup of sugar, but I only have this one-third cup. So, how many of these do I need to make one cup? You know, stuff like that,” she said. “Just getting him to do it on his own.”

Zarasua said he would reference animals from his grandfather’s farm to quiz Joseph on math lessons, asking Joseph to calculate measurements and numbers using cows and hay as examples.

Since Joseph wasn’t competing with 20 to 30 other classmates for attention, Zarasua wanted to ensure his class time at home was effective. Teaching was a balance of determining how much help to extend to the boy, Zarasua said. Just because he could give Joseph two hours to do math, didn’t mean he should.

“We want to give him the time, we want to accommodate that,” he said. “But also, you know, is that kind of hindering his progress in the long run?”

Zarasua also reached out to professors in his degree program. The professor of the Teaching Students with Exceptional Needs course Zarasua was taking in his university program provided him with additional support.

“I’m emailing my professor in that class, saying, ‘Here are the resources I’ve tried, here are the resources you’ve given me, you know, do you have any advice?’ And she’s like, ‘Oh, my sister works with kids in schools with special needs, she can help you out.’ So she gave me advice too,” he said.

Remote learning provided its share of challenges. Instead of using his Chromebook, Joseph found completing the paper packets emailed out by his teachers to be more effective. At school, Joseph was on the basketball team and had frequent interactions with kids his age. At home, Joseph’s interactions were limited to family members.

The situation was extreme enough for Joseph to explain to his aunt that he felt isolated. “He can’t go to school, he can’t run around with his friends. He can’t be the class clown,” said Diaz. “Everything is just monotonous for him.”

Having graduated from elementary school, Joseph is slated to start sixth grade in late August, meaning he will start a new school from behind a computer screen.

“It’s going to be creating a harder adjustment than usual,” Zarasua noted. “I fear that he doesn’t have the social exposure he needs, especially at this age.”

Diaz said the family is unsure of what middle school classes will look like online.

“Sometimes you wonder, is what we’re doing even beneficial?” Zarasua said. “It’s frustrating to work for three hours to teach him figurative language” —such as hyperbole and personification— “and have him not be able to tell you what figurative language is.”

Diaz said that even though online learning this year provided setbacks for her family, she admires the work Joseph’s done and his efforts to learn in his classes.

“It was challenging. It was frustrating,” Diaz said. “It got to the point where there were days when everybody was angry. But when his grades came back at the end of the year, it was like, ‘We’re glad we’re done, but we were amazed at what he was able to accomplish.’”

“I’m not a teacher yet, but it sure feels like it,” Zarasua said.

Even though there were times of frustration, Zarasua noted, there were just as many times of hope. He remains optimistic, hoping this experience will have a lasting impact on his cousin moving forward.

“It all seems for naught right now, but in five years or 10 years, he might be able to look back and be like, ‘Wow, I felt supported when I was a child,’” Zarasua said. “And that’s what matters.”