'I like remote learning'

For some Chatham students, remote learning’s not a disaster — it’s an opportunity

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SILER CITY — If she’s honest, Jordan-Matthews senior Jacquelinne Marroquin Tobar isn’t the biggest fan of remote learning.

Without it, however, she probably wouldn’t have had the opportunity to take several Harvard courses for free.

“It’s just so amazing ...” she told the News + Record. “No, (remote learning’s) not my thing, but it gives time and opportunities to do many things.”

For most students in Chatham, remote learning has stunted growth and dampened motivation, as parents, teachers and students have repeatedly told the News + Record over the past nine months, since COVID-19 first halted in-person schooling. Yet for some students, like Marroquin Tobar, remote learning has also provided a unique opportunity to pursue their interests, learn new things and even thrive.

Starting her online journey with Harvard wasn’t how Marroquin Tobar had originally planned to spend her summer. She had plans to return to Guatemala, her home country, and lead a water bottle recycling project in one of Guatemala’s public schools; she’d also planned to buy students meals from McDonald’s. The pandemic, of course, canceled her plans.

“It was a big project,” she said, “but I couldn’t do it. The airport closed, and it wasn’t safe ... So my summer was like, ‘What do I do?’”

While she was searching for something, a friend in California told her that Harvard University was offering free, online courses to everyone with internet access.

“At first, I didn’t believe her,” she said. “Nah, Harvard? We’re talking about Harvard. No way they’re saying, ‘Hey, here are some free courses. Go take them.’ Like, no way.”

But when she went to Harvard’s website, she found out her friend hadn’t been joking.

Back in 2012, Harvard partnered with MIT to create edX, an online learning platform that provides access to free and paid courses in dozens of topics from top universities all over the world. Many courses are free to attend, but users have to pay a fee to receive a verified course completion certificate; the courses don’t provide college credit.

After reading about the classes, Marroquin Tobar enrolled in two Harvard courses, which matched her interests in political science and international relations. She attended both classes for free, though she decided to pay the fee to receive completion certificates for both.

“The first one was ‘Religion, Conflict and Peace,’” she said, “which I took with so much happiness, because it’s really related to the United Nations and something like what I’m planning on doing.”

The second was “Lessons from Ebola, Preventing the Next Pandemic,” which she started a few weeks into her eight-week “Religion, Conflict and Peace” course.

“So I was doing both courses at the same time,” she said. “Ooof, it was a little bit stressful, but I loved it. I loved it so much. I really was able to understand about the Ebola outbreak in Africa, what the (World Health Organization) did, and the national response and the local response.”

The courses were designed to last eight and four weeks respectively, and beyond lectures, they included regular tests and discussion boards.

“(They said) it will last eight weeks, but uh-uh. That’s a lie. No,” she said, laughing. “They’re very long, and the lectures are long. You have to read a lot. And their vocabulary is like Harvard-level. It’s difficult.”

Since she’d started her first course late into summer, Marroquin Tobar ended up taking both Harvard courses while she attended her J-M Zoom classes, completed her classwork, submitted college applications and applied for scholarships, including UNC’s Morehead-Cain scholarship. All of that at once, she said, led to “many, many, many, many late nights.”

But she doesn’t regret it for a second — and now that she’s finished up college applications, she said she’s going to sign up for more.

“It challenges you, but at the same time, it teaches you how to be responsible, to actually read before lecture,” she said. “It helps just to see how college is like and how Harvard is like. I really do recommend it. … I think many students can do the same thing because this is such a great opportunity.”

J-M junior Vielka Gonzalez also took advantage of remote learning to develop new skills and hobbies. Gonzalez, 16, moved to Siler City with her family in June of 2019 from Chihuahua, Mexico.

At first, she knew little English beyond the colors, greetings and the word for “baño” (bathroom), but since enrolling in ESL classes at J-M, her English skills have skyrocketed — and remote learning hasn’t changed that trend in the slightest. She even began reading a 200-page book about medicine to push her knowledge further.

“I can say that it is improving in the part of writing and reading and speaking, sometimes, because I can speak a lot with some friends or with the teachers,” Gonzalez said, adding, “So I think this time has helped me for understanding more words ... I can speak more than before the remote learning.”

Besides working on her English, she’s also taken advantage of her time to improve her painting skills, a hobby she’d fostered since she was in middle school.

“I always liked painting, because you can paint something beautiful and then show it to the people,” she said. “You can express feels in that. You can express sadness or happiness.”

In just a few months, Gonzalez taught herself over six new painting styles, including chiaroscuro, pointillism, surrealism, and she entered a few paintings into several art competitions. One was JMArts’ annual holiday card contest, though she didn’t win. Gonzalez also learned to bake vanilla cakes, cupcakes, bread and even cream cheese pie.

“I discovered I can bake, so what’s up!” she said, laughing. “One day, I said, ‘I wanted cake. I will bake.’”

It’s all possible through a schedule she set herself for her classes: finish all of her school work during the week, fit in small breaks and reserve the weekends for art, baking and learning new things. And even though she misses her friends and teachers, she said she wouldn’t mind staying in remote learning.

“I like remote learning,” she said. “I think that you can do more things in your house because in a school you need to change classes or go to lunch.”

And besides, she added with a laugh, “I don’t want to get up early.”

It’s not just high school students, either. Diana Ciro, Silk Hope School’s only ESL teacher, told the News + Record last November that a few of her students — all 5th and 6th graders — had done exceptionally well during remote learning.

Two of her students, both siblings, had always struggled with content, especially reading; during remote learning, however, both made progress in leaps and bounds.

“They’re doing really well,” Ciro said. “They’re doing their homework. They attend their classes. They send emails to their teachers. They even want to do more.”

Before, she said her students felt pressure being inside the classroom and not knowing how to say something; now from behind a screen, she thinks some have gained confidence they didn’t have at school.

“Teachers are amazed seeing the progress they have made, because again they have always been, ‘These kids don’t participate. They’re very quiet. Now they are so active,’” she said, adding, “When the teachers told me, I was proud. That was a proud moment.”

Reporter Victoria Johnson can be reached at victoria@chathamnr.com.

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