Wednesday, June 3, 2020
Teaching Through the Coronavirus
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Fourth-grader Kobi Bilbro has enlisted his pet dog in learning about Pi.
 
Thursday, April 23, 2020
 

BY KAREN BOSSICK

Scott Runkel says he and his students have found one advantage to online learning during the coronavirus pandemic: They can roll out of bed 10 minutes before class starts.

But, he says, it’s been a challenge trying to conduct chemistry experiments via a laptop computer.

Still, Sun Valley Community School teachers and students used to project-based learning seem to be adapting to the virtual classroom.

 
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Tricia St. George, pictured here before the lockdown, says she’s been in awe with how well her students have adapted to virtual learning. PHOTO: Amanda Rene Photography
 

“If it had to happen, the timing was ideal,” said Tricia St. George, “Because I know the kids and their parents really well. It would have been harder to start the school year this way.”

Tricia St. George and her 20 second-grade students start their day by muting the microphones on their laptops as their pictures pop up on one another’s screens via Google Hangouts. They note that it’s day 140 of the school year and that—fun fact--140 acres of Niagara Falls State Park is underwater.

And they debate their “Would You Rather?” question of the day: “Would you rather be stuck in a dark warm place or a cold light space?”

“It gives them a chance to engage with one another,” said St. George. “I’ve found that what they’re missing most right now is their connection with one another. Last Friday we had crazy hat day—just something to get excited about seeing one another.”

 
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Second-grader Sofie Tempest finds her St. Bernard makes a pretty good reading pillow.
 

St. George was a little nervous about distance learning at first since it involved a new way of teaching. But Google Hangouts has allowed her to see pictures of her kids’ drawings, allowed them to keep writing in the journals they were using before quarantine and it’s allowed her to correct their math and send it back.

Some of the students work independently while St. George talks book plots and characters with groups of five. And a half-hour before school ends at 1 specialist teachers join in to offer science, art or music projects.

The kids had planned to learn about local geography on a field trip to Craters of the Moon National Monument this spring. Instead, they’re learning about map making by drawing a map of their backyard, including trees and other landmarks.

“The academic time is not less. We still give 30 minutes to each subject. For this age group, that’s a lot of work for them to do at home without a pause,” said St. George. “In a normal school day it would be broken up with a 25-minute recess and 45-minute lunch.”

 
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Kristen Barr says it’s all about the kids, whether you’re teaching at the front of the class or via a laptop computer. PHOTO: Amanda Rene Photography
 

Kristen Barr starts her fourth-grade class off in similar fashion, challenging her students to ponder such questions as: Would you want to travel to the moon or the deepest part of the ocean—and why?

“Last Friday everyone got to introduce their pet, so we were introduced to cats, dogs, lizards. The student who didn’t have a pet introduced his sister,” she said. “It’s a way to connect, and that’s one of the most important things for kids right now—to feel a personal, human and genuine connection.”

Barr delivered copies of “My Side of the Mountain,” about a 14-year-old boy who moves upstate from his New York City apartment to test the survival skills he learned in library books, to her students. They’ve had to postpone a trip to Yellowstone National Park, but they have taken virtual tours of national parks via computer.

And they’ve created 3D models of how they would redesign a playground as they’ve learned about things like area and perimeter in math.

 
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Scott Runkel laments that the older students may miss out on some rites of passage, including taking a field trip to Moab and senior prom. PHOTO: Kristin Cheatwood
 

This week they used fractions in a Bake-Off, creating video TV shows of their efforts for their fellow students.

“I’m trying to get them off the computer as much as possible,” said Barr.  “There’s not a lot we’re not doing that we would have been doing in class. What we’re missing are the day-to-day fun things to do, like playing together on the playground.”

Scott Runkel has taught school for more than 30 years but this new approach has made him feel like a brand new teacher.

“I could videotape myself and my students could watch it and learn. But I’m realizing now how much give and take there is,” he said. “It’s been difficult not to be able to see everyone’s faces easily so I can see if they’re getting it.”

Teaching chemistry has been challenging without petri dishes, beakers and test tubes. In their place, Runkel has had his students make barometers using Saran wrap, a straw and a glass. They’ve used chemistry as they’ve baked popovers. And they’ve experimented with dilution to understand how   greenhouses gases are measured in parts per million.

Runkel’s biology class was going to participate in a kestrel banding program this spring. Instead, each student has gone out on solo birdwatching trips.

“It’s been interesting in that one student’s in Vancouver, B.C., and another in Bozeman. So, we’re seeing birds from all over. Still. while it’s fun, it’s different than we had imagined,” Runkel said. “I asked my students what their favorite part of online learning was and they had a hard time coming up with anything except for the fact that school starts at 9 now instead of 8. One student said, ‘I’m in my room all day and it’s hard.’ No doubt the kids are learning. Its just not as fun.”

Barr said the mere act of being able to return to school, however different, was a boost to her psyche.

“I’ve been really grateful to have a job and structure and knowing that I’m providing a service for the children. The children are learning quickly how to navigate a computer. And I think they really appreciate the time they get to spend with each other right now, even though school’s on computer.”

St. George laments that she can’t give her students big hugs every morning as they walk through the door of the classroom.

“Looking at them I’d be able to read whether they’d had a good night sleep or whether something was bothering them. And I would get to see their “A-ha” moments,” she said. “I haven’t sensed they’re fearful. I’ve told them, ‘We know this is very strange, but we’re trying to do everything we can to keep you safe and healthy.’ ”

Editor's Note:

Ryan Waterfield says the Sun Valley Community School tested its tech systems on a practice day just as Blaine County was locked down. The school had already had some practice with remote learning as a way of serving athletes who travel extensively through programs like the Sun Valley Ski Academy.

Faculty and staff cut spring break short by a week to return early and revise remote learning at every division. All but one residential student has returned home and they are participating in remote learning.

"As a parent of two elementary school kids, I have first-hand experience with how creative and responsive the faculty has been and how relevant and meaningful the remote learning has been," she said. "Certainly, it's difficult juggling working and having two young children at home, but the school's approach has been very helpful and flexible."

 

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