Culver High School English teacher Wendee Bowen is learning to check in on her teenage students during her online lessons just to make sure they are tuning in and haven't walked away from their Chromebooks.
She'll give them an "Of Mice and Men" assignment and then occasionally pop into Google Classroom and ask everybody to flip their cameras on.
"I don't have to see their faces. They can point them to the ceiling, which is fine because honestly, some of these kids are just getting out of bed," Bowen says. "They just flip their cameras up, so I can see them wave at me or whatever, and then I require them to talk to me."
And so it goes – teachers are not only learning to use new technology to reach their students, they have to invent new ways of engaging them during Comprehensive Distance Learning.
Culver School District, with 652 students and a 92% attendance rate, is one of the few districts across the state that has been able to have students in classrooms since mid-September, even if it is for just two hours a day.
"The attendance rate is all we can hope for, given the circumstances," said Culver Superintendent Stefanie Garber.
She said the 92% rate is near the normal rates for in-person instruction "normal" school.
"We always hope for better, but 'life happens' for our families, and we support them in that," Garber said. "The online school isn't everyone's cup of tea, but I couldn't be more proud of our students and staff for making the best of it!"
At Culver High School, where attendance is nearly 94%, those two hours are more of a study hall and an opportunity for students to get individual help from their teachers. Students in the Comprehensive Distance Learning option must tune into an online classroom every morning with all of their teachers from 8:30 to noon.
"They spend about 50 minutes with us every morning and then they're expected to pick up another 30 minutes in the afternoon," Bowen explained.
Bowen teaches four online English classes each day. Two classes have about 22 students and two have a dozen. She gives her students five to 10 minutes to get logged on and gives them a writing prompt. She then takes attendance. The PowerSchool program shows the students' icons when they are logged on.
Then becomes the task of keeping students engaged during those 50 minutes of English class.
"It is me continuously interacting with them and talking to them and requiring them to talk to me," she said.
She often puts her students in small break-out groups in Google Classroom so they can discuss a topic.
"They have to talk to each other to work on something, and they know that I'm going to pop in and listen and maybe I'll ask a question or two, just as if they were in my classroom working in small groups," Bowen said. "I will ask them to flip their cameras, and I will just spot ask some questions. If you agree, don't agree, whatever, thumbs up, thumbs down so I know that they're still there because I know that they will walk away if I don't keep checking in periodically through the class."
She says her teaching strategy during the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year has not been ideal, but it seems to be working fine.
"We have learned to give each other grace, we've learned to be super flexible, and great organizational skills," Bowen said.
Freshman Kaiden Tolman likes coming to school and says Bowen is an engaging teacher, and she has no problems paying attention in the online English class.
"I like it better because you get it done faster and there's not as much work, sometimes," Kaiden said of distance learning.
Her classmate Nic Ivie says his internet is a little buggy sometimes, and he misses socializing at school. He comes to the optional two-hour class only if he needs the study hall time.
"It depends on the day," Nic said. "Sometimes, if I have a whole bunch of homework, I'll come, but if I have like five sentences to write, I won't come."
At neighboring Culver Middle School, where attendance is 90%, art teacher Jill Chapman underscores the value of having students on campus two hours a day.
"The social/emotional aspect of the two hours students are here at school is by far the most important piece Culver is providing students at the moment. To see the kids' faces again and watching them grow once more has been so amazing," Chapman said.
Similar to the high school format, middle school teachers live stream their daily lesson, and students come to the school for two hours to work on assignments.
Chapman also teaches art lessons to Culver elementary and high school students and has come up with new ways to offer an interactive environment.
She teaches a high school art class online and hosts daily Google Hangouts. She checks in with them and asks them to show her what they have accomplished during class as one way to ensure student participation.
"I do ask my students to have their cameras turned on. It can be super awkward talking to black blank spaces," Chapman said. "Having their cameras on creates more accountability for the kids to be present and listening."
She gives the younger students quick prompts for them to draw, and they do a circle share on the screen where they unmute and share what they drew.
"It's fun and chaotic at the same time, but once again, the kids are smiling and laughing and that's all I could ask for," Chapman said.
At Culver Elementary School, teachers have a two-hour morning class with one cohort of students. They then have a break to clean the classroom and prepare the materials for a second two-hour afternoon cohort. Some teachers choose to have the online students meet during class time, however, most grades teach the online students between cohorts.
Culver Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Keri Rahi only has three students online – the rest are in her classroom when she teaches her two-hour lessons. She does not require them to have their Chromebook cameras on. One student does not have a strong internet connection and often gets disconnected if the video is on.
But Rahi says she loves having the students' cameras on.
"I am able to see how they are doing, if they are understanding the information, or if they are still confused on a concept. They give me thumb-ups, mouth the answers, and hold their fingers up for math answers, and they raise their hands to ask and answer questions," Rahi said. "I love seeing their smiles and their personalities shine through the screen."
She keeps a daily log of who is present in class and online, and each day she also contacts families whose children receive paper packets. She makes an official weekly attendance report each Friday. Culver Elementary School has a nearly 92% attendance rate.
With COVID-19 cases increasing in Jefferson County, Culver schools will continue in the current two-hour cohort and distance learning model and try to make the best of it.
"I feel really lucky to be a part of Culver and provide normalcy for my students and for myself," Rahi said.
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