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Online story time, virtual PE keep students connected during shutdown

Teachers, principals reach out to offer lessons, comfort to kids

Brown Elementary School first grade teacher Suzzy Post settled down to read a goodnight story, “Animal Strike at the Zoo. It’s True” to her students – virtually.

She posted it on the school’s Facebook page, with a special introduction. “I hope that you are doing well and staying healthy. I know I speak on behalf of all the teachers at Brown that we miss you guys already.”

Post is taking turns with other teachers for the 7 p.m. daily story times.  The activity was already planned before schools closed as part of March is Reading Month. Now it seems even more needed, Post said.

“During this time more than ever, we want to reach out to our students,” she said, noting that she plans to write each of her students individually. 

Ideas for Learning at Home
• Beth Whaley, principal of Cedar Trails Elementary School, offered these tips for parents of young children:
• Read to your child every day and have them read to you.
• Have them play outside and draw pictures about what they see.
• Encourage them to write stories and draw pictures.
• Make note of numbers that you see during the day.
• Count items in your everyday life.
• Make patterns. Look for 2D and 3D shapes.
• Practice adding groups of items together and taking them apart.
• Go for walks, and talk about the spring changes that you notice.

Other educators at Kent County schools are also reaching out to their students, connecting with and engaging them through social media as they enter week one of the mandatory statewide school shutdown. Since they can’t read to their pupils gathered on a rug around a rocking chair, they’re doing the next best thing – online story time. 

It’s as much emotional connection as it is make-do instruction, said Mindy McGinn, principal of Lakes Elementary in Rockford, who’s also reading stories to students on Facebook.

“I think kids need to see our faces in these kind of weird times,” McGinn said. “They need to see we’re smiling and happy and that we’re OK, and that they’re going to be OK too.”

Mindy McGinn, principal of Rockford’s Lakes Elementary, says reading online helps give comfort and reassurance to students

Online Teaching Ramping Up  

It’s not just story-tellers digitally reaching beyond the school and into students’ homes. Lakes physical education teacher Bethany McClure is posting daily exercise routines on Lakes’ Facebook page, and Northview West Oakview Elementary PE teacher Jordan Wallin is posting exercise games on YouTube that students can do with their families. 

As fun as the activities may be – McClure donned a goofy shamrock mask for a St. Patrick’s Day run – they’re part of how districts throughout Michigan and the U.S. are scrambling to keep their students learning while schools are shut down to limit spread of the coronavirus. As of Tuesday, 39 states had decided to close their schools, according to Education Week.  

Online education is shifting into higher gear to help reduce the learning lag. For instance, Rockford Public Schools on Wednesday rolled out a bundle of online learning resources for families called “RPS Engage and Explore,” including suggested K-12 learning activities, tech support and counseling contacts. Grand Rapids Public Schools Tuesday launched a platform of optional online resources for enrichment, including learning tools such as Scholastic News and Khan Academy.

‘It’s just an opportunity for kids to feel a little bit of normalcy in an abnormal time.’

– Rockford elementary principal Mindy McGinn

However, even in districts like Rockford where all students are issued devices, some families live in areas with poor Wi-Fi reception or can’t afford to pay for it. GRPS reported Comcast, Charter Spectrum and AT&T are offering free internet during the closure, and is offering summer print materials at Sibley Elementary and Ottawa Hills High School.

First grade teacher Suzzy Post is one of the Brown Elementary teachers reading stories to students on Facebook

‘Challenging, but We Can Do It’ 

For now, Suzzy Post, Mindy McGinn and other educators are doing what they can to reach as many students as they can now that the hallways are empty.

At Byron Center’s Brown Elementary, staff is communicating and bouncing ideas around to stay connected, Post said.  

“We’ve created optional enrichment activities to parents, posted on the website. All grade level teams met and came up with three weeks of activities in reading, writing and math.

“We are kind of trying to wrap around each other in the community and help each other out,” she added. “It’s challenging, but we can do it.”

Post, mom to third grader Kensley and 2-year-old Easton, said she is being flexible with their time at home, but enforcing an hour a day of reading plus some math activities.

On the first day Rockford schools were closed, McGinn promptly uploaded herself reading “Rhyming Dust Bunnies” on the Lakes Facebook page. She told her students it was “kind of like a snow day” — which was when she originally planned to do online story time. She reassured them, “I think things are going to be just fine.” 

“It’s just an opportunity for kids to feel a little bit of normalcy in an abnormal time,” McGinn said. “Kids, as much as they might say they don’t want to be at school, they want to be at school with their friends and teachers. They want to be where they’re loved and cared for.”

Cedar Trails Elementary School in Cedar Springs provided free school supplies for its pre-K to first grade students

Emotional Time for Staff 

At Comstock Park’s Stoney Creek Elementary School, Principal Tiffany Jackson suggested teachers read a book to their students on the school’s Facebook page. Kindergarten teacher Alli Ulrickson enthusiastically chose “My Father the Dog.”

“I was reading and trying not to laugh. It’s a very funny book,” Ulrickson said, adding she received plenty of positive feedback. “It really warmed my heart to know that my students listened.”

As it happened, she had just taught her students a lesson on germs before school shut down. “They all seem pretty aware,” she said. “They had a good idea of the severity of what is happening.”

In Kenowa Hills, Zinser Elementary Principal Ross Willick said his kindergarten team is “knocking it out of the park” by providing materials and books for pick up and drop off, and making daily videos to stay connected with students.

‘During this time more than ever, we want to reach out to our students.’

– Byron Center first grade teacher Suzzy Post

Teacher Jamie Black said all kindergarten teachers have a Facebook page to post videos such as book reading, greetings and mini-lessons. The school’s Facebook page also has suggested daily schedules including academic time and outdoor activities.

“I have also continued a tournament of books in March Madness style that we started before school closed,” Black added.

In Cedar Springs, Cedar Trails Elementary Principal Beth Whaley said principals have shared at-home K-5 Ideas and 6-12 Ideas through SchoolMessenger and Facebook. During Monday’s food distribution day, Whaley said, Cedar Trails offered their families supplies such books to keep, notebooks, paper and pencil and crayons. 

For teachers and principals, it’s been an emotional time without their cheerful children, McGinn said. 

“We miss them. They’ve become parts of our lives. We connect with kids every day, and when they’re not there it’s just not the same.”

Cris Greer, Karen Gentry and Morgan Jarema contributed to this report

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Charles Honey
Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio or email Charles.

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