Online lessons helping Forbes Road student come back from kidney transplant
On a snowy Friday morning in April, 16-year-old Jarrod Danka settled in at a desk in the cozy den of his family’s home in Natrona Heights. The 10th-grader had a 9 a.m. conference call, and he was running a few minutes late.
Within moments, his teacher’s face popped up on a computer screen, and the two chatted about Jarrod’s recent assignments and plans for tackling future lessons.
“Computers are kind of the future nowadays,” Jarrod said, leaning back in his chair and turning away from his laptop as he explained, in a cool, confident tone, his plans for a career in information technology and security. He’s excited to work in a rapidly changing field that will give him a chance to keep learning and master evolving technologies.
For the past five weeks, online learning and video conference calls have been part of Jarrod’s daily routine. It’s how he keeps up with his studies at the Forbes Road Career and Technical Center in Monroeville while he recovers from a second kidney transplant.
Jarrod was born with polycystic kidney disease, a genetic disorder that attacks the kidneys. He had his first transplant when he was 8; because his body rejected that kidney, he had a second transplant in mid-February.
Before the surgery, Jarrod spent half the day at Highlands High School in Harrison Township studying core subjects such as math, science, social studies and English, and half the day at Forbes Road, where he is enrolled in the computer networking and security program, which will help him develop skills needed for college course work and a career in computer science.
He had to take time off for recovery after the transplant, so Highlands set him up with an instructor who tutored him at home. Jarrod returned to high school last week.
But Forbes Road doesn’t have a formal program in place to support students who have to miss school.
That’s where Jarrod’s teacher, George Karnbauer, saw an opportunity to use technology to meet his need.
Karnbauer wanted to make sure that the challenges Jarrod faced would not become obstacles to him staying on track with his learning. But this wasn’t an easy task, even for a veteran teacher with more than 20 years of experience.
“This is different,” Karnbauer said, comparing the online coursework he set up for Jarrod to running a traditional classroom. “It takes more work on my part.”
Karnbauer teaches during the day, so he had to carve out time during free periods to review assignments Jarrod submitted virtually and to schedule video conference calls.
Even harder was trying to figure out how to recreate the classroom environment. Karnbauer knew it wasn’t enough to put presentation slides online and ask his student to learn the material on his own.
“There’s no interaction,” Karnbauer said. “There’s no chance to ask questions.”
Students learn from interacting with their teachers and with each other, Karnbauer said. If one student asks a question, the rest of the class benefits from hearing the question, hearing the teacher’s explanation and participating in the follow-up discussion. It’s hard to recreate those organic learning experiences when a student is at home alone in front of a computer.
While tools such as video conferencing and email can help recreate the classroom experience, Jarrod pointed out that technology doesn’t always cooperate.
Despite the challenges, Jarrod said taking his class online has been a positive experience. When he returns to Forbes Road at the end of the month, he’ll be ahead of some of his classmates.
More than anything, he’s eager to get back to school and see his friends. He’s been keeping in touch with them via text message, but it’s not the same as hanging out, Jarrod said.
And while Jarrod’s worried he might have to miss a few more classes — his health is unpredictable and he has to stay home if he’s not feeling well — Jarrod’s father, Ed Danka, said they are working with Karnbauer to keep the online system in place. That way, if Jarrod has to miss time, the transition back to class will be seamless.
“Sometimes it’s hard to keep him on a schedule,” Danka said.
Like many teenagers, Jarrod likes to sleep in instead of waking up early for online classes and sometimes needs a little help staying focused on his homework. Coordinating doctors’ appointments and making sure Jarrod takes his medication at precise times each day make the need for structure even more important.
“You have to be diligent every day,” Danka said.
Jamie Martines is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-850-2867 or [email protected].