IVS Teacher Spotlight – Jennifer Elwell

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This week’s Illinois Virtual School Teacher Spotlight is Jennifer Elwell. Ms. Elwell teaches French I-IV at IVS. She earned her degree from The University of Missouri – Columbia. Ms. Elwell’s hobbies include running, reading, watching and coaching her kids’ sporting events, participating in children’s ministries at her church, and community service activities.

Jennifer recently answered a few questions from IVS and provided her thoughts about online education.

IVS: Tell us about yourself.

JE: I’ve been married for 18 years and have three kids – a 13 year old son and 10 year old twins (a boy and a girl).  We live in Metamora, IL. We are a very active family. We love to enjoy the great outdoors, travel, play games and sports, and visit our family in Missouri.


IVS: Why did you decide to begin teaching online?

JE: I decided to teach online right before our oldest son was born.  I knew I wanted to stay home with him and teaching online allowed me to continue teaching and care for my son.  It has worked out wonderfully. Over the years, I’ve been able to stay at home with all 3 of our kids and still teach French to students in IL.


IVS: What aspects about the online teaching and learning environment do you appreciate the most and why?

JE: I love the flexibility of teaching online.  Like I said, teaching online has provided me with the best of both worlds – continuing my career as a teacher and being a mom.  For the most part, I can set my own “working” hours and that allows me to participate in my kids’ events like school parties, sporting events, etc. It really is the best of both worlds.


IVS: In what ways do you interact and get to know your students? How does this compare to your experience teaching a brick-and-mortar course?

JE: I interact with and get to know my students through discussion board posts, course assignments, and various forms of communication like email, texts, and phone calls.  In the discussion board area of the course, students write about themselves, their families, their activities, their holiday traditions, etc. (all in the target language). I learn so much about them by reading their discussion posts and their written assignments. Once I “get to know” my students, I’m able to connect with them by asking them about and/or by wishing them luck at a sporting event, a band concert, a dance recital, or even just Happy Birthday.  My students always appreciate it when I remember their birthdays. My interaction with my students is important so that they know that I’m a “real” person, not just a computer grading their work and automatically responding to their messages. My communication with them keeps their learning personal and shows them I care about them inside and outside of the classroom environment.


IVS:What benefits exist for students when taking an online course? 

JE: Opportunities are almost endless for students taking an online course.  Online courses are flexible, are for credit or enrichment, and are as rigorous as face to face courses. Online courses allow students opportunities to take courses that they might not have otherwise been able to take at their local school for whatever reason. Also, online courses teach students so much more than the course content.  It teaches them the importance of communication, time management, and being a responsible, diligent learner–all of which are important life skills.


IVS: What strategies do you use to keep your students motivated and engaged?

JE: I use a variety of methods to keep my students engaged in my French classes. Students love learning about culture and eating, so throughout the semester, we celebrate French holidays like Mardi Gras and Christmas.  Students enjoying cooking and eating holiday foods and learning about the similarities and differences between our traditions in the United States with those in other Francophone countries.  We do many activities during National French Week. Furthermore, I offer many additional resources to my students like music links, websites with extra practice, French newspapers links, movies in French (with or without subtitles), etc.  I’ve found that when students are engaged in learning the culture, both past and present, they are more motivated to learn the language.

IVS Teacher Spotlight: Bonita Walker-Jones

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This week’s IVS Teacher Spotlight is Bonita Walker-Jones.

Ms. Walker Jones holds a BS in Computer Science from Roosevelt University, an MS in Secondary Education from DePaul University, and has taken Post-Grad courses at Walden University in Curriculum, Instruction, and Assessment. Ms. Walker-Jones is a movie buff who “binge watches streaming series”. She is also a Jazz Aficionado.


Ms. Walker-Jones recently answered a few questions from IVS, and shared her thoughts on online education.

IVS: Tell us about yourself.

BWJ: I am a mother of 4, grandmother of 8, and great-grandmother of 11, who refuses to retire from teaching, and I’m a lifelong learner. Staying in contact with the younger generation gives me energy and inspiration. I enjoy traveling and spending time with family learning the latest dances and listening to their perspectives on the current issues in the news. As a jazz-lover, when I am not watching movies or streaming series, I listen to music. Sometimes both at the same time and I attend live jazz events as often as possible. My future goal is to go on a jazz cruise.


IVS: Why did you decide to begin teaching online?

BWJ: As a computer science major, using technology to teach was the only strategy I ever wanted to use in the classroom. Working as a computer operator and programmer for 20 years before going into education, to meld technology and education together was inevitable. The computer lab was my first classroom, so I taught:  Keyboarding and Microsoft Office skills, Animation, Computer Technician certification, and Cisco Networking certification.

In 2001, Dr. Sandy Atols walked into my computer lab and asked if I wanted to pilot online classes for Chicago Public Schools.  I jumped at the chance. I started with five students taking credit recovery classes during their lunch period and grew it to four sessions during lunch periods and two sections after school that increased the graduation rate at my school.  In 2005, I took the next step and applied to teach English classes. In 2007, Dr. Atols and I created the first Chicago Public School offering one-to-one laptops to facilitate blended learning. It was called Virtual Opportunities Inside a School Environment (V.O.I.S.E.). We used online learning in the classroom to allow students to work at their own pace and for new teachers to learn how to incorporate technology in teaching and learning.

At V.O.I.S.E, I used online resources to develop curriculum, instruction, and assessments for all our courses that vendors were not offering at the time. I created and taught Broadcast Journalism, College/Career Prep, Senior Seminar, Reading and Writing Workshop, African American History and English classes using multimedia. In 2016, when CPS closed V.OI.S.E., I retired from the classroom, yet I wanted to continue teaching using technology as the medium of choice.


IVS: What aspects about the online teaching and learning environment do you appreciate the most and why?

BWJ: Allowing students to learn at their own pace, anytime,  any place, using multiple digital devices, I believe is the essential aspect of online learning. There are four elements of online education I appreciate. The ability to deliver content, lessons, and activities using teaching strategies that meet the needs of the students with multiple learning styles. The option to offer assessments to diverse learners to evaluate competency skills. A source to provide educational opportunities to students who cannot attend schools for multiple reasons and for schools to augment course offerings.


IVS: In what ways do you interact and get to know your students? How does this compare to your experience teaching a brick-and-mortar course?

BWJ: The first assignments in the course provide several opportunities to develop teacher-student relationships. When students post their responses in the student lounge, I try to connect to their interests, activities, or hobbies by sharing personal experiences. I quell the concerns of students new to online learning by letting them know I am available via text, FaceTime, or phone call while they are working in the class up to 10:00 p.m. When students send the introduction text, I text back immediately to prove I am here for them. When necessary, I reach out and partner with parents to motivate and encourage struggling students. When communicating with students, I relate to what they are going through by using positive statements that build self-esteem, self-discipline, and self-motivation to offer ownership of their learning.  

When comparing online course interaction opportunities to brick-and-mortar course interactions, is the time teachers have to work with students. One-to-one communications in f2f classes are hard to schedule due to student and teacher schedules. Working one-to-one with students in the classroom while they are working on assignments is minimal due to the number of students and the amount of time during the class session.  

In Chicago Public Schools, teachers and students are not allowed to exchange cell phone numbers, and communications outside of school are only allowed through the parents. Giving too much attention to a particular student’s interests, activities, and hobbies would be considered questionable by other students, colleagues, and administration.


IVS: What benefits exist for students when taking an online course?

BWJ: The critical benefit I hear lately from my online students is the opportunity to pursue their talents and interests while continuing their education.  Over the years, some of my online learners were: training for the Olympics or other sports meets, training and performing ballerinas, working missionary-teacher in Africa, traveling with parents around the world, visiting students from other countries, competing equestrians, and working-on-site movie stars. Finishing several classes within a semester to graduate high school early, are becoming very common for gifted students to attend college or schools to advance their talents.

For struggling students, online courses provide the opportunity to make up credits to graduate on time, receive more one-to-one help, or improve grade point averages for college entrance. Learning at your own pace benefits students with medical issues to continue their education until they can return to the classroom. Homeschoolers benefit from online courses because the curriculum aligns with Common Core Learning Standards and high school course requirements. Over the years, several of my online learners were non-verbal autistic students and young adults struggling with extreme psychological challenges. I believe online education will continue to benefit these specific diverse learners.





IVS Teacher Spotlight – Jennifer Smith

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This week’s Illinois Virtual School Teacher Spotlight is Jennifer Smith. Ms. Smith earned her bachelor and master’s degrees in Education from Eastern Illinois University. She then went on to Illinois State University and earned a Master of Science in English. Ms. Smith has also earned a Master of Science in Teacher Leadership at the University of Illinois at Springfield.

Jennifer teaches several courses from the IVS Middle School Catalog, including: 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Language Arts, Middle School Ancient History, Middle School US History, and Middle School Civics.

Ms. Smith also teaches at a face-to-face school where she is in charge of the makerspace and 8th grade science club. A couple years ago, Jennifer approached her school about the possibility of opening a makerspace, and they agreed. Ms. Smith’s school provided the funding to purchase a variety of high tech and low tech equipment to begin the space. The space includes 3D printers, a 3D scanner, Lego Mindstorms, Snap Circuits, hand tools, a sewing machine, a Cricut, and other various materials. The makerspace serves students in grades 6-8 at her local school. The workshop is open daily during school and after school one afternoon a week. Ms. Smith also tries to open the space periodically over the summer. As the coordinator for the makerspace, Jennifer is in charge of maintaining equipment, writing grants for new equipment, supervising the space during open lab times, and developing projects and activities for students to complete.

When Jennifer is not teaching courses, taking courses, or writing curriculum, she also enjoys reading. She has a seven year old and a nine year old who keep her very busy playing board games, reading, and making crafts.

Ms. Smith recently sat down and answered a few questions for IVS:

IVS: Why did you decide to begin teaching online?

JS: In my face to face school I was transferred from teaching language arts to teaching science. I really missed teaching language arts, so I applied to teach it online.


IVS: What aspects about the online teaching and learning environment do you appreciate the most and why?

JS: I appreciate the opportunity to teach students from around the state because it gives me an opportunity to learn more about students and the best ways to help them learn.


IVS: In what ways do you interact and get to know your students?

JS: I am able to interact with my students through discussion boards and learn more about them from the stories they write in class.


IVS: What benefits exist for students when taking an online course?

JS: Online courses are helpful for students because students may access information at a time and in a location that works best for them.


IVS: What strategies do you use to keep your students motivated and engaged?

JS: I try to send positive email to students who are doing well, to keep them motivated. I also email students who may be struggling, to see how I can best help them.


IVS: What advice may you offer to students who are not sure if the online environment is a proper fit for them?

JS: I recommend that students honestly evaluate their independence as a learner and their ability to focus and stay on task while working online.


IVS: How have you grown professionally through your online teaching experience?

JS: My online teaching experience has helped me to learn how to give more specific written feedback and how to better anticipate student concerns/difficulties on assignments.


IVS: Why is IVS a special place to be a part of?

JS: IVS is special because it brings teachers and students together from around the state.


IVS: What is your favorite assignment or unit of study to teach students?

JS: My favorite assignments are the ones that ask students to authentically apply their learning to a current experience in their lives.