A teacher's livestream brings education students right into classroom

College of Education professor Dr. Brandon Juarez makes an observation as his class watches a livestream of COE alum and Sunnyslope teacher Sara Plaum conduct her third grade class.

Photos by Ralph Freso

Watching Sara Plaum teach is like witnessing a maestro before musicians – keeping time, urging, quieting, redirecting, encouraging.

Twenty-two Sunnyslope Elementary third-graders huddle around her, hearing the music of reading a story, their hands shooting up with excitement.

“Notice, as a teacher, she is not stopping her instruction every time a hand goes up, otherwise she would never finish.”

Dr. Brandon Juarez with Sara Plaum, one of his former students.

That is Dr. Brandon Juarez, teaching his 200-level class at Grand Canyon University – who are watching a livestream of Plaum teach her class nine miles away.

For the teachers in training, it’s better than watching the basketball team on a big screen and eating wings. They rank the livestream of GCU alumna Plaum as one of the highlights of the class.

Juarez has been using the method since before the pandemic, when he and College of Education Dean Dr. Meredith Critchfield published a 2019 paper, "Virtual Field Experience for Pre-Service Teacher Candidates," on its use in education classes. Juarez said he continued the practice of “leveraging the technology to have the classroom experience come to my students” before the sophomores visit them in person later.

“It can be a very jarring experience for many of them, being in a classroom for the first time since they were in elementary school,” Juarez said.

On a recent day, they were definitely getting a taste of it from a distance first, as the third graders were guided by Plaum.

“I really appreciate it because it’s been a long time since we’ve been in third grade,” said GCU sophomore John Sullivan. “It’s been cool seeing how a third grade teacher and the kids interact. It’s also interesting that she had Dr. Juarez at GCU and she learned all the things we are learning, and now we see it put into practice.”

Plaum is teaching a science lesson on the food chain and a reading lesson at the same time. She reads a bit about frogs eating flies, then asks questions, then talks about it for a second, then takes questions, all at a fast pace.

COE student John Sullivan appreciated watching the livestream. "It's been cool seeing how a third grade teacher and the kids interact," he said.

“And she is back to teaching,” Juarez tells his students. “The formula is on.”

A teacher has an internal clock of attention spans. Juarez compares it to a shot clock in basketball. But he calls it the “formula” – one minute to 90 seconds for each grade level – meaning Plaum only has roughly three or four minutes before she’ll lose their attention, ever shortened in an era where some third graders might even carry a smart phone, he says.

“You notice the clock,” Juarez tells his students, his red-dot pointer lighting spots in Plaum’s classroom. “See the head tilts. We need to get going. You have that time frame. She will start losing them.”

He says it’s not the “sage on the stage” model of teaching, lecturing and hoping they listen, but a constant loop of practice, teach, practice, teach.

Just then, Plaum breaks them into groups of two to discuss. They are engaged again.

“You see so many things you wouldn’t think of,” said GCU sophomore Ella Behlow. “You can see how the kids were slowly starting to get uninterested and fidget. You get to see things you learn but really only see in your head.”

Ella Behlow, also a COE student, soaks up teaching pointers as she watches an alum in real time teach her third grade class.

For Plaum, in her seventh year of teaching after graduating from GCU, keeping the relationship with GCU professors has helped her professionally, being reminded of the lessons Juarez taught while being able to help future teachers.

“I think of teaching as driving a car,” she said. “There are so many things you have to keep in mind when you are driving – wearing your seat belt, the people driving next you, following the rules. Teaching is the same thing. You’ve got to make sure you are on track with the time. You have to make sure they are engaged and make sure they understand what you are teaching.

“It’s very different from just learning it in books than seeing and actually doing it.”

Plaum uses the camera on a laptop to livestream, occasionally adjusting its view, and wears an ear bud to hear questions from Juarez. On this day, he asked Plaum to point out the children she was “differentiating for.” She circled the seated children to point them out.

GCU students are learning about differentiating, or modifying the lesson for individual students, so Plaum tailored some of the half-hour session with the GCU class to feature it.

While her students were in breakout groups, she took questions from GCU students. One asked if she paired up the students homogeneously or heterogeneously. The latter pairs up those with differing abilities so one can help the other, and that’s what she did.

It’s the kind of on-the-spot learning that makes the classroom come alive, especially hearing it from an alum who was not so long ago in their shoes.

Juarez points his red dot to how Plaum is redirecting a student gently with a hand on his shoulder to move into a group, and how she politely concluded an especially long-winded student answer with “OK, awesome, good job.”

In addition to reading about teaching methods in books, COE students get to see a teacher in action, watching Sunnyslope teacher and GCU alumna Sara Plaum conduct her third grade class.

He also pointed out a mistake – letting a student ramble before they transitioned into group instead of taking the question afterward.

“Even afterward I think, ‘Oh I should have done that differently,’” said Plaum, who is kept on her toes with the livestream. “I really enjoy this so much. I learned a lot from GCU, and I feel like I am able to give back what GCU gave me.

“Hopefully, they can see my passion. I love what I do. Teaching is hard, but when you enjoy something, it’s definitely an easy thing.”

GCU students said it was almost like seeing it from the third graders' perspective, and that helps them.

“You can see in real time what it takes,” Behlow said.

You see Plaum working her room.

“Eyes up here,” she says to her students.

Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected]

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