Making school 'magical'
Kindergartners at Buff Elementary have been taking lots of field trips during distance learning – field trips to the window to look at the weather, to the calendar to learn what day it is, and to different parts of the classroom so they can learn what it looks like.
"By moving around and doing different things in the room, I'm showing them that it's real, that I'm real, the classroom is real," said kindergarten teacher Erika Skaar. "My job is to show them what a magical place Buff Elementary is and show them how magical kindergarten is."
Jefferson County School District 509-J reported an 85% district-wide student attendance average for the first quarter of Comprehensive Distance Learning, down from 92% for the 2019-2020 school year.
In November, the district began offering Limited In-Person Instruction to some students. Selected students came to school for two hours a day and remained in groups as large as 20. The district paused Limited-In-Person Instruction on Dec. 7 until further notice after a few support staff tested positive for COVID-19.
But with most lessons being taught online, teachers across the district have gotten creative and have put extra energy into engaging their students during Comprehensive Distance Learning.
Buff Elementary School
"Being a kindergarten teacher, I think I have a slight advantage that just being silly and singing songs and using different voices or sharing funny videos really helps get them engaged," Skaar said. "If I seem like I'm having fun, they're going to have fun because they're in kindergarten."
Skaar and her 24 students meet online through Google Classroom each morning. Then, an educational assistant helps run small reading groups. She then shares pre-recorded videos with daily lessons.
Most of her students have their cameras on during online learning, although some Wi-Fi connections are not strong enough for a couple of students to have their cameras on all morning.
"Little kids love to have their cameras on," Skaar laughed.
Each day, four students get to be unmuted and can sing along and answer questions. Their classmates remain muted unless they are called upon or have questions.
Buff Elementary has a nearly 92% attendance rate, compared to 95% last school year. Skaar says parents must be part of the team in order to help students log in and complete the lessons. Once a week, she meets one-on-one with the parents of her students.
Some Buff students came to school in small groups for two hours a day for a short time. In addition to teaching them reading, writing and math, Skaar also had to remind them to have their masks above their noses, to do "zombie arms" if they got closer than 6 feet to a classmate, and to use hand sanitizer frequently.
The other day, one student dropped a crayon box on the floor, and the neighboring student automatically began helping clean up, but with COVID, Skaar had to ask the helper not to touch the other student's crayons.
"It breaks my heart," Skaar said. "We talk about filling buckets by doing kind things for people, but it's going to be tricky this year."
Madras Elementary School
Up the street at smaller Madras Elementary School, second-grade teacher Jean Bendele has also learned to do a lot of interactive work to keep her 24 students engaged in the online lessons. They do math problems on whiteboards together, they do read-a-louds, and she shows educational videos.
"Frequent breaks are really important," Bendele said, adding that she'll ask her students to get up and move their bodies once in a while.
She asks that her students have their cameras on while in online learning, however, a couple of students don't have strong enough internet connection to do so.
Bendele said some young students have difficulty completing computer assignments.
"They don't have the dexterity to be able to hold down different buttons," she said. "Even if they know it, we don't know if the barrier is they don't understand the content or they just can't access it."
Madras Elementary has a nearly 90% average attendance rate. Last school year, attendance was 95%. Bendele said they take attendance over a 24-hour period. If students have engaged in any way during that period, they are considered present.
"The kids are resilient. They've done an amazing job," Bendele said.
Jefferson County Middle School
"Relational capacity" is a buzz word at Jefferson County Middle School.
"It's building relationships with students and getting them to trust their teachers and trust themselves as learners," said Deseray Duncan, who is the English Language Development specialist and AVID site coordinator. "We make sure that we build in time to get to know our kids and let them get to know us. That establishes a relationship where kids actually want to come, and they want to talk to you, they want to learn from you as their teacher."
A couple of teachers use "This Day in History" trivia to engage students, and teachers send home water bottle stickers to lucky winners. One teacher plays his guitar and another joins him on the bongo drum during "Name That Tune." The sixth-grade science team does "Pump Up Fridays," getting students to pump their fists and dance to music.
Students attend their four classes online through Google Meets each day. It's optional for students to have their cameras on.
"We love to see their faces because we miss them so much, but at the same time, everybody's situation is different. Maybe a student doesn't feel confident about their surroundings, so we don't ask that it be a requirement," Duncan said.
Google Meets helps teachers take attendance by providing an overview of each session with details about who attended and for how long. Duncan is excited about the nearly 92% attendance rate for the first quarter at JCMS, compared to 95% last school year.
"Kids are starting to realize and see that school is a central part of their lives," she said. "We're seeing that they want to be here, which is actually really reassuring as an educator."
Bridges High School
At the local alternative school, Bridges High School, English teacher Reuben Steinglass uses a variety of technology tools to help engage students during online learning. He records lessons and posts them to Google Classroom so students can review the material as needed.
Steinglass also offers daily help sessions through Google Meet for those wanting to review and work on assignments or to move ahead in the curriculum with additional enrichment or challenge.
"Most students opt out of using the camera during the lessons, but a few students do engage directly through talking into the microphone or coming on camera," Steinglass said.
Most of that engagement occurs during the help sessions. Students usually communicate through the interactive chat feature of Google Meet during the daily lesson, he said.
Attendance during the first quarter for Bridges High School students is around 40%, compared to around 64% last school year.
Madras High School
Madras High School science teacher Cameron Rosenfield says creating an environment where healthy, positive relationships can flourish is the most important responsibility of a professional public educator.
He has students visualize what they want their life to look like, and they chase that image every single day over four years.
"I ask, listen and use my students' own goals and aspirations to keep them engaged," Rosenfield said. "When students know 'why' they are in my classes, I have little trouble showing them 'how' to do some pretty fascinating stuff."
The hardest part – overcoming the challenges that come with "learning" while staff is "learning." Rosenfield said everyone continues to spend an honorable amount of time learning how to use and integrate new technology.
MHS teachers use Google Meet to teach their online classes, which captures student attendance. During the first quarter, student attendance averaged 79%. Last school year, attendance was nearly 92%.
When taking attendance, teachers are required to select "teacher communication" if a student reaches out to them but is not in class. If a student leaves class early, they can see that in the log and investigate as needed. Rosenfield says most of his students who leave early are being dropped due to internet issues.
MHS students are not required to have their camera on during lessons.
"Students have very different versions of 'home' in our district, and we strive to protect the privacy of our students and families," Rosenfield said, adding that none of his students use their cameras.
He thanks the community and encourages everyone to work together to navigate these troubled times.
"Our young people are watching us every day, and we must strive to continue to be positive role models for them," Rosenfield said.
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