To make online learning work, Jefferson County teachers get creative

Jeffco elective, elementary teachers brainstorm activities during remote learning period

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Every year at Arvada's Drake Middle School, students taking family and consumer science look forward to the cooking unit above all. So, when teacher Kristina Herrin learned that the unit would coincide with Jeffco's weeks-long period of remote learning, during which school is taking place completely online, she began to brainstorm alternatives to keep the kids from missing out.

Already, the list of potential projects is extensive. During week one, students created videos and digital books about kitchen safety and in the weeks to come, may create videos showcasing their kitchen knife skills using home utensils and Play-Doh, Herrin said.

If the teacher can coordinate with families and the principal, students may also be able to submit a video of their home-cooking — “At the very least, I'm going to make them do dishes,” Herrin said.

MORE: Here's what remote learning looks like in Jeffco

As Jeffco Public Schools has adjusted to the ongoing public health crisis created by COVID-19, which has forced widespread closures across the state and country, including closures of Jeffco's school buildings, teachers and administrators have spent hours to take school online.

For all teachers, and especially for those who rely heavily on an in-person environment — like Herrin and other elective teachers, elementary school educators and after-school club sponsors — the transition has required some outside-the-box thinking.

“It's pretty amazing. We all had to completely alter how we deliver our instructions overnight, and we just did it,” Herrin said. “I didn't hear from any teacher `I can't and I won't do it.' We're making the most of it.”

Learning becomes `interesting and different'

Jeffco held its first week of online learning March 16 through 20 and following the district's Spring Break, March 23 through 27, continue online instruction for at least three more weeks, as mandated by state officials. Based on the state's direction, remote learning could potentially extend throughout the remainder of the school year.

Upon learning that the new system would last through April 17 or longer — the district had originally prepared for just one remote learning week — many Jeffco teachers, like Sarah Lundie at Lasley Elementary in Lakewood, sprang into action to reevaluate their plans.

“We had thought this one week was going to be the only week, so we just did a review with the kids,” she said. “Now we're starting to teach new content because we realize this is not a short-term thing. We're using our standards we normally would.”

With a focus on keeping her second-graders engaged enough to master new content, Lundie has been finding ways to keep the learning exciting, she said.

One strategy that worked well the first week was a `virtual field trip' to the San Diego Zoo, through which students could explore the zoo through videos on the zoo's website.

“Some of them got really creative and dressed up. I'm trying to keep it interesting and different for them,” Lundie said.

At Weber Elementary in Arvada, some of the biggest challenges have faced the school's specials teachers, who teach classes like art, music and PE. However, the teachers have more than risen to the task, said parent Janesa Lockhart, whose daughter Bella is a Weber fifth-grader.

“For PE, she's doing Zumba videos. For music, they've been talking about doing a song parody (video), and they've been researching a song for that,” she said.

Staying social

Meanwhile, Bella's classroom teacher has focused on making sure students get into the swing of learning new material and don't feel as though they've lost a connection with their teacher. To help, the fifth-grade teacher uploads daily 20-minute videos of herself reading a book aloud.

“She gets to watch her teacher read and she loves it. I know the biggest thing she misses is socializing,” Lockhart said.

Similarly, Lundie has worked to stay in touch with her students in a number of ways, such as by providing feedback on students' work through audio recordings, as opposed to simply writing her comments out.

At the high school level, students are also feeling the social impact — and it's more than just their in-person classes that have moved into the digital world. After-school clubs have also had to figure out whether, and how, to continue, said science teacher Sam Long, a sponsor of the Gay-Straight Alliance at Westminster's Standley Lake High School.

“We have students who want to be in school because they don't have positive experiences at home. This situation doesn't change existing family dynamics,” he said. “For those students, it may be an entirely different life at school and at home.”

Hoping to continue to give students an outlet, the club has organized for two weekly video chats over online platform Zoom so students can stay connected, Long said. “This is a way to check in and share stories.”

He added that the club and the school at large are prepared to adapt and add new digital tools when necessary, particularly now that they have a week of remote learning under their belts to help them evaluate what's worked well and what could be done differently.

And Herrin agreed: “Teachers are very innovative and adaptable. We're just going to continue to be creative,” she said. “We'll figure it out day by day.”

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