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Districts ponder how to keep students learning, engaged

West Middle School history classrooms typically bustle with movement. Normally, students work in groups, play games that spark thinking, participate in lively debates and role play historical figures.

Eighth-grade history teachers Becky Debowski, Devin Purdy and Allie Burkhardt have created a curriculum that’s based on interactive learning. Students impersonate and learn about historical figures and accomplishments like Harriet Tubman helping slaves escape to freedom and Elizabeth Cady Stanton advocating for women’s right to vote. It’s anything but sit-and-get content delivery.

Now the teaching partners face the challenge of keeping their style of instruction intact with students who are socially distanced due to the coronavirus pandemic: at desks six feet apart and, often, not in the school building at all.

“We are so hands on normally, so collaborative, so discussion-based. We don’t want to lose that; so we are trying to figure out: how can we move some of those conversations online?” said Debowski, whose students’ state test scores are among the top in the state. “How can we have students with the hybrid model start practicing how to have discussions online so that if we do end up shutting down, how do we continue those?”

Byron Center Public Schools began the year Aug. 31 with a hybrid schedule– half of students are in person at a time two days a week, with each group attending alternate Fridays. The task for teachers there is delivering instruction face to face with extensive safety measures in place and keeping students engaged online while they work from home.

“Being forced to try new things that might actually work really well in the long run because of this pandemic is really exciting.”

— Allie Burkhardt, eighth-grade history teacher, Byron Center Public Schools

West Middle School Principal Jeff Wierzbicki noted the challenges involved, but is optimistic that most learning can still work well — just differently.

“We are excited to figure out how kids can still collaborate from six feet apart, how they can still do labs six feet apart, and making sure we hit all the safety protocols while offering the best learning experience possible,” he said.

Teachers participate in training at West Middle School, in Byron Center Public Schools

Real Connections 

Teachers across the globe face the demands of modifying instruction to fit the needs of students during the pandemic, when various safety protocols are required and many students are learning off site. Big-picture questions include: How can classroom learning, discussion and dialogue occur when the norms of collaboration have shifted dramatically? How can students remain engaged without a physical classroom environment?

“The hardest part about all of this is that school districts are set up to be a social environment, and trying to rapidly transition to an online environment is very difficult,” said Kent ISD education consultant Ron Houtman.

The key is using the many tricks teachers already have up their sleeves and translating them into digital language. Houtman and other consultants are doing that. They have trained about 200 educators in Remote Instruction Bootcamp, on topics spanning everything to cover a unit– from making sure students are equipped and ready to learn to testing online. They work to reach teachers who have a range of knowledge about virtual tools.

“There’s an assumption everybody knows how to use every technology, and that is very untrue,” he said.

Teachers Trained in Tech Tools

Still, there’s a lot to choose from when it comes to teaching tools. Kentwood Public Schools began the year training through Remote Learning Essentials, sessions in which teachers connected with trainers from the company Communication by Design. They learned about tech tools and were challenged to develop a full unit for their classrooms. Teachers led remote instruction from their school buildings for the first two weeks of school before an in-person start Sept. 8. (Students also had the option to continue remote.)

“We want to give teachers a level of confidence with the tools they have at their disposal, and give them other people they can go to for support if they need it,” said Evan Hordyk, executive director for secondary education at Kentwood Public Schools. 

In Kentwood, teachers led remote instruction from their school buildings for the first two weeks of school. Kentwood Public Schools education technologist Brooke Storms popped into teacher’s classrooms as they connected with students online.

“It’s awesome when you get to witness the hard work of teachers who participated in the PD and are using what they learned. It’s pretty powerful,” she said.

Teachers already know how to make instruction interesting, she said. Having the tech tools to do that digitally will serve them now and in the future, post-pandemic as well.

“One thing we really stress is that best practices around good instruction continue to be the same, but there is a different skill set when it comes to remote.”

Storms sees the evolutionary potential of arming teachers to blend tools like Google Classroom and Google for Education, Flipgrid and Padlet. Teachers can have the best of both worlds for in-person and digital instruction, she said.

“One of the things we have talked about is focusing on the positive. Look at the amount of learning each of us has done in a short amount of time,” Storms said. “I encourage them to think as they learn new tools, ‘what can you continue to use beyond these two weeks?’”

Byron Center Public Schools eighth-grade history teachers Becky Debowski, Allie Burkhardt and Devin Purdy plan to use several tech tools to keep students engaged in their interactive curriculum

Flipping, Zooming, Moving Forward

In Byron Center, West Middle School’s 35-teacher staff participated in three days of professional development centered on blending online and in person instruction. It was part of training held district-wide. 

“Flipping” classrooms is one strategy the teachers are using. Students at home watch video recordings of lessons and work on assignments. In class, teachers deliver instruction in more of a lecture format — which may not be as fun as small-group projects and hands-on games, Wierzbicki acknowledged, but necessary during a pandemic.

Debowski already has favorite tools she hopes will hook her students into history, whether it’s from their desks or their kitchen tables. Flipgrid allows students to post and listen to one another’s recorded responses to discussions and debates. That platform, she explained, still allows Harriet Tubman and Elizabeth Cady Stanton to come back to life, since students can speak as those figures on the platform and listen to each other role play. 

“We are so hands on normally, so collaborative, so discussion based. We don’t want to lose that, so we are trying to figure out: how can we move some of those conversations online?”

— Byron Center eighth-grade history teacher Becky Debowski

Zoom Breakout Rooms is another tool she’s excited about. The Zoom option allows breakout, small-group sessions ideal for one-on-one discussions and small-group work. Teachers can pop into the smaller Zooms as well. 

Debowski sees engaging computer tools as second-best, but a good backup.

“If we are in school we will try to do discussions and hands-on (activities) and have all of those discussions socially distant, but I am anticipating we are going to be using more of the online resources.”

She and her teaching partners, Burkhardt and Purdy, envision students trying new things as a result. They will head outside for class some days, spend a little more time on standards rather than tests, and end having grown from the experience.

“Somedays I kind of mourn, but some days I am excited,” Burkhardt said. 

“We can try projects we’ve never had time to try… Being forced to try new things that might actually work really well in the long run because of this pandemic is really exciting.”

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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is managing editor and reporter, covering Kentwood, Lowell and Wyoming. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013, and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio


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