A month into the school year, teachers are finding creative ways to keep their students engaged in their lessons when they’re separated by screens while at home or masks in the classroom.
“Where we were in early September to where we are now, it’s shocking,” said Daniel Crispino, Meriden’s Director of School Leadership at the elementary level.
When “sitting in” on virtual classrooms over the past month, he said he’s noticed that the environment has become less of the teacher lecturing at students and more back-and-forth engagement as educators and their pupils become more comfortable using the software that’s become ubiquitous in their learning.
The Meriden school district has been holding weekly meetings where students are dismissed early so staff can convene to collaborate and share observations about what’s working well in their classrooms. The district’s mindset is that if something isn’t working, to not just follow the status quo and continue doing it for nine months, Crispino said.
During one of those meetings, teachers noted that their students thrived during the outdoor mask breaks and suggested holding some lessons in school courtyards, lawns and adjacent nature trails. Now classes are meeting in tents with picnic tables outside the buildings and walking through the woods.
“Having that opportunity to go outside … it creates an extra level of engagement for kids,” Crispino said, adding that he was surprised by how quickly students transition from being indoors to opening their books on the grass.
Moving gym classes outside has also freed up space in the gym for students to have lunch there, allowing for more social distancing in the cafeteria. Bringing students outdoors has been so successful that it’s likely to be one of the many new practices that will become permanent after the pandemic passes.
“This pandemic has made us step back and look at other ways we can be creative and instruct our children,” Crispino said.
At the elementary school level, scheduling “flex blocks” and dedicated social/emotional learning times throughout the day has given teachers time to pause a lesson, address issues they’re seeing in their students in real time and then pick the lesson back up in the flex block. Since students have been out of the classroom for six months and experienced the stress of a pandemic, Crispino said that focus is needed to ensure that kids are in the right mindset to be able to learn.
When Gianna Gurga, a family consumer science teacher at Dag Hammerskjöld Middle School in Wallingford, polled her students about how they were feeling on a score of one to four and saw many ones, she stopped her lesson and had a conversation about what was stressing them. Many felt isolated from their classmates and pressured by the assignments they were getting online, so she opted to have the students work on a group activity instead of continuing her lesson plan for that day.
“Unless the social/emotional piece is addressed, there’s no learning that’s going to happen,” she said.
To keep her students engaged, she’s been creating backdrops from well-known children shows for pre-recorded lessons and tries to get them up and moving when they’re in the classroom. To teach finance on virtual days, Gurga has been using a website where kids design a character’s bedroom and then create a budget and shop for all the furnishings.
“My teaching honestly has transformed,” she said.
Teachers in Cheshire have been adapting to new high technology classrooms that have been outfitted with microphones and speakers retrofitted into the ceilings and laptops that show all the students in their virtual classrooms. Students at home are shown on a laptop visible to the teacher, and can interject with questions alongside their peers who are present in the room and hear all the classroom discourse. The district has upgraded 56 classrooms with the technology.
“We’re doing our best with these broadcast rooms to give the students at home the closest (experience) to the kids in the classroom,” said Assistant Superintendent Marlene Silano.
Silano said the speakers also have an extra benefit of projecting teachers’ voices to make them easier to hear through their masks. The upgrades will also assist students with hearing impairments or attention disorders in better following the lectures.
To fine-tune their ratio of staff teaching virtually and in-person, Cheshire also exchanged some remote teachers with in-person teachers from Meriden. The teachers are still the employees of their respective districts, but they teach students from the neighboring community.
Crispino said he’s never heard of another district engaged in such an exchange and it required some consulting with the unions, however, it’s been working well.
Teachers have also had to come up with all new activities for students to work on since group activities are impractical under social distancing rules and much of the individualized feedback teachers learned to employ, like giving a smile or whispering encouragement, cannot be done through masks.
“I think everyone — students, teachers, faculty — (has) been very flexible in how we get the job done,” Silano said.
Some of the more innovative and “risk-taking” teachers in Southington have been recruited as “techsperts” to help train their peers in using some of the new equipment and software that have become part of everyday teaching.
“A lot of people stepped up and offered to help which is a testament to the professionalism of our staff,” said Assistant Superintendent Steven Madancy.
Blending teachers’ instructional skills with technology has become especially important since so many parents opted to have their students learn at home. Administrators grouped elementary students into a separate virtual school, Southington Remote Elementary School, since combined they were a larger cohort than any of the eight elementary schools in town.
“The kids are highly engaged and the teachers are providing them a quality learning experience,” Madancy said.