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Cohorted specials usher in ‘a new kind of community’

Cedar Springs — As an elementary music teacher, Kym Davis never expected to be wearing two pairs of pants, three layers of shirts and a couple of coats to school every day. Art teacher Herb VanderLugt never thought he’d be leading kids in song and dance. 

But this is a year unlike any other, with the COVID-19 pandemic prompting many changes to the way school is traditionally run. At Cedar Trails Elementary, the school’s “specials” teachers — art, music, physical education and literacy and technology — have joined forces to create one outdoor recreation program. Weekly, they put together a lesson plan that incorporates each of the specials, and then work together to teach cohorts of classes the same activity or lesson.

Oh, and they do it all outdoors, (almost) every day.

“When we first heard about it, I was just thinking, how is this even going to work?” VanderLugt said. “But once we got outside and got going — wow, it was really great to see the kids engaged and enjoying the classes. It was pretty exciting just jumping in and really making a go of this.”

Added Davis: “The nature of being a specials teacher is that it’s always a flexible position, and so we’re used to having changes and we just rolled with it. This is a year of adapting, and I think we’re lucky to have a team that works really well together.”

From left: Kindergartners Rider Kimble, Kenzie Brewer and Ellie Van Arnam go on a nature hike during Friday outdoor recreation class (courtesy)

Learning Cohorts

Besides Davis and VanderLugt, the outdoor recreation team includes physical education teacher Chris Rypma, and literacy and technology teachers Laurie VanDam and Sadie Gallagher. In a “normal” year, students would attend each of these four classes separately. But this year, to limit exposure between teachers and students, each student cohort has been assigned one specials teacher. The combined outdoor recreation curriculum, then, ensures students still receive instruction in all four specials despite only having one of them as a teacher. 

At the start of each class period, the four cohorts gather in their designated spaces, set off by cones in the field behind the school building. They start class with a combined “meet and greet” activity led by all four teachers, and then break off into their separate pods to work on the day’s lesson, which has a focus on one of the four specials. On Fridays, they add a nature walk around the property to finish the week. 

Davis said each teacher has been able to pull out what she calls “power standards,” from their respective curriculums and adapt them to create lesson plans that work for everyone. On physical education days, Rypma demonstrates how to run the game before the cohorts go their separate ways. For music days, Davis pre-records the song so her colleagues don’t have to worry about getting it right. And with most activities, VanDam and Gallagher are able to incorporate literacy lessons like rhyming or vocabulary.

“Without us working together there would just be something lacking,” VanderLugt said. “Chris is the expert in phys ed, Kym has so many things in her bag of music tricks — that kind of stuff is hard for somebody like me to just recreate. So when we come together and share what we do, it’s like we are able to fill our own bag of teaching tricks.”

‘A New Kind of Community’

While Cedar Trails does have classrooms set aside for outdoor recreation to use in case of inclement weather, the teaching team’s goal is to remain outside as much as possible — even with impending snow. The open air is better for reducing aerosol spread of the virus, and the teachers have already gotten used to layering up for full days of Michigan weather.  

Plus, they’ve all seen a benefit in the way their students have responded to outdoor education at this pre-K through first-grade school. 

“Being outside just brings a different energy to education, when we’re all dancing around or being super goofy together,” VanDam said. “I think what we are able to do together as a team is amazing, but the best part is that the kids are able to bring themselves and their personality to the lessons. In a time where joy and fun is kind of hard to come by, we are being very intentional about it.” 

The outdoor recreation program has also had an unexpected role in bringing the Cedar Trails community together in an otherwise socially distanced year. Since each student is learning from the same modified specials curriculum, they’ve all learned the same songs and games. Davis recalled a recent class during which she noticed other students across the field, on their recess break, dancing along to the song she was leading in class.

“In a sense, it’s given our entire school like a new kind of community, because everything we’re teaching, everybody knows,” said Davis. “In a time where we’re all separated by screens and social distance and masks, that’s something these kids all have in common here at Cedar Trails — they all have outdoor rec.”

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Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell
Beth Heinen Bell is a reporter and copy editor, covering Cedar Springs, Godfrey-Lee, Grandville and Lowell. She is an award-winning journalist who got her start as the education reporter for the Grand Haven Tribune. A Calvin University graduate, she later returned to her alma mater to help manage its national writing festival and edit and write for enrollment communications. Beth has also written for The Grand Rapids Press, Fox 17 and several West Michigan businesses and nonprofits. She is fascinated by the nuances of language, loves to travel and has strong feelings about the Oxford comma. Read Beth's full bio or email Beth.

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