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In internet age, not even a global pandemic can cancel school

Thousands of students log in from home, but science lab dissections a disappointment
Seventh grader Jordan Meininger takes possession of her family’s dinner table to participate in online classes at Mountain Middle School. In-person classroom sessions have come to an end until at least April 30 to help limit the spread of the coronavirus, COVID-19.

If history had to repeat the experience with plagues from the fifth century B.C. Athens to the Spanish flu of 1918, perhaps we’re all lucky it happened in a world that has the internet.

Durango students, parents and teachers seem to have adapted to online and at-home learning with little drama in the coronavirus era.

“We don’t get to see our friends and stuff as we’re learning. And that (seeing friends) is kind of what makes school one of the more enjoyable things for me,” said Jordan Meininger, 13, a seventh grader at Mountain Middle School. “And so because I don’t really get to see anybody, it’s harder for me to be engaged. Some of the stuff we cover is kind of dry, and I guess, because there’s no one around, like it’s not as fun, right?”

Jordan has found some aspects of at-home learning liberating and enjoyable.

She picks her own time to step away from schoolwork and enjoy a little free time.

“I can pick what I want to do and when I want to do it,” she said. “I like ending my day with humanities because I think that’s more fun, and I can do that with online books.”

Jordan said she also can eat when she wants, wear comfortable clothes and maybe take a break in the middle of the day, then work longer than she would at school.

Travis Meininger, 6, takes a break from online lessons to do one of his favorite activities – roller hockey in the family garage. Deven Meininger, Travis’ mother, says he isn’t shortchanged on physical education during at-home schooling.

Deven Meininger, Jordan’s mother, said remote learning is working “great right now.”

But she worries teacher-student interaction that can’t be replaced with video conferences and lectures will be exposed in standardized tests.

“I mean, that’s really my concern for everybody, not my kids specifically, all kids, especially at Jordan’s age. You know, when we all get back together, how far behind are we in our core standards and the curriculum?” she said.

The Meininger family is well-situated for distance and at-home learning. Deven said she and her husband, Jason, have flexible work schedules and can be home during the day with Jordan and her younger brother, Travis, who is in kindergarten at Needham Elementary School.

“We have the time to be able to spend, just making sure that these guys are doing what they need to do, and it has worked well,” Deven said.

Travis Meininger says he is working hard to perfect his letters so his kindergarten teacher, Gina Preszler, will be proud of him.
Travis Meininger says he’s working hard at home on perfecting his letters so his kindergarten teacher, Gina Preszler, will be “really proud” of him.

Deven’s been particularly pleased with the greater interaction she’s had with the learning of her kindergartner, Travis.

“It’s been really fun to just hear all of the cues and the ways that he’s been learning how to do his reading and writing,” she said. “From school he comes and repeats those things, the cues, as we’re going through his letter writing and it’s been really enjoyable to just feel a little bit more a part of it.”

Josh Fix, Jordan’s science and math teacher, said the seventh grade team organized its at-home learning strategy with one guiding principle in mind: “How are we going to be as consistent as possible with the kids?”

“As a team, we stepped back and said, ‘OK, let’s not add anything crazy new. Let’s just try to keep doing the type of things that we do on a daily basis at school, but let’s just switch it over to online,’” he said.

Teachers also tried to look at every situation parents might face – some families might have had a parent at home, some families might now have a parent at home after a job loss, and some families still might not have any parent at home. The goal was to make at-home and online learning work for all families in all situations.

Gina Preszler, Travis’ teacher, is a 25-year veteran teaching kindergarten.

“After 25 years, it’s really challenging for me to do this online,” she said.

She credits the team effort among kindergarten teachers at Needham for transferring lessons from classroom to homes.

“We’re collaborating, the kindergarten team that I work with at Needham, and that is one thing that is getting us through this. We’re able to do this all as a collaboration. So those of us that are not tech savvy, like myself, you know, we’re getting some help from those who are,” she said.

Jordan Meininger says her physiology lessons lack something that can’t be replicated online: the lab work in which students dissect animal brains.
Jordan Meininger says daily school lessons can sometimes be dry, but working with friends often makes the task more pleasant.

Preszler said the teams are working to keep a balance – sending enough materials home so kids’ skills remain sharp and they remain engaged in learning. At the same time, teams are trying to keep from overwhelming parents, who serve as stand-in teachers.

Deven said communicating with Jordan’s and Travis’ teachers has not been a problem.

Jordan and her parents get a calendar online that’s updated daily. It helps, Deven said, that Jordan’s responsible and self-directed.

“She’s engaged and highly motivated on her own to get work done. So it’s been sort of minimal action on my part, just making sure that she has whatever materials that she needs in the time that she needs,” Deven said.

“Everything that they do at Mountain (Middle School) was already through Google Classroom and Google Docs and things like that. So, I don’t feel like there’s been a huge transition from what they were already doing. Other than, of course, the fact that they’re, you know, doing it from home and then having to do video conferencing with their small groups and things like that, but it’s been very seamless.”

Communication with Preszler also is relatively unchanged.

“I was emailing with her yesterday just to give her an update, and I wanted to tell her a cute comment that Travis had said, which is that he really ‘wanted to do his best writing so that when he gets to see Ms. Preszler again, she would be really proud of him.’

“So, I just sent her a little update, because it was so cute. But if we had issues, I feel like everybody is very readily available. We just haven’t needed to use that, thankfully,” she said.

Travis Meininger says he is working hard to perfect his letters so his kindergarten teacher, Gina Preszler, will be proud of him.
Travis Meininger jumps with excitement while completing an online lesson for his kindergarten class, which has been moved from Needham Elementary School to his living room.

Jordan never imagined she’d miss her teachers, but she said she looks forward to joint class meetings on Zoom, where she gets to see her teachers and friends all in one place, albeit online.

“We had a class meeting in one of my classes, and we did like a Zoom. And we talked about what was going to happen this week,” she said. “And those are really nice because you get to see everybody’s face, and we get to talk, and it is not all about school. We can talk about what we’re all doing, we can show our dogs and stuff. That’s fun.”

Jordan’s science class is studying physiology now, and she does miss labs, where they were working on dissections of animal brains. That’s something that can’t be replicated online.

“We’re doing dissections, and we are going to dissect pigs. And we’re going to dissect brains and stuff,” she said. “And because school’s been canceled, we actually can’t do that stuff. And an online display of dissection isn’t the same. Like, it’s not as fun to do it online, when at school you can actually get your hands on it and really see it up close.”

The best teachers, Fix said, find ways to inspire students and impart the joy of learning.

“What makes a middle school teacher, a middle school teacher? It’s their ability to get the kids engaged, to encourage them, to guide them,” he said.

Finding the pathway that opens the wonders of learning remains the same online or in school, he said. Sometimes, inspiring that engagement, Fix said, involves “the little tricks of teaching” – fun, friendship and group learning.

“Next week, my co-teacher, Alec, the humanities teacher ... we’re gonna make a frittata, like in front of the kids during the video,” he said. “Just to be silly and do something different – to get the kids in there engaged talking to us.”


Student-teacher trust counts both online and in person

Jessica Thompson, who teaches sixth grade social studies at Escalante Middle School, is particularly thankful she enrolled in five hours of professional development last week to familiarize teachers with online learning tools.

She’s using Nearpod in conjunction with Zoom to go beyond streaming her classroom to create video chatrooms for students during the social distancing of the coronavirus outbreak. It’s an effort to make the online world more interactive, like a classroom experience.

“There’s a feature where you can create quiz games, you can put in survey polls so you can start to have students thinking and responding in real time on a digital platform,” she said.

It’s hard to replicate the real-time perception of a teacher, who can tell when students are in sync or when they’re struggling. That’s where tools like Nearpod can help,Thompson said.

“It’s a cool way to kind of bring (online learning) to life. I’ve been experimenting with that a little bit. I would say it’s one thing that I have found successful so far,” she said.

A big part of teaching is being with students in the moment and understanding the feel of the classroom. Any technological tool that can maintain that immediacy is valuable, Thompson said.

“I want to provide students the ability to be successful with regular, rigorous learning. But without me being there. It changes a little bit,” Thompson said.

But whether that learning comes through Google Classroom or a real classroom, Thompson said, it’s relationship building with students, that counts.

“You know, of all the pieces that underlie the philosophy of teaching, so much comes from being there in person. It’s that relationship piece. It’s creating excitement. It’s reading a student in the moment to understand what they’re getting, what they’re not getting and how to help them grow,” she said.

Any tool that helps build teacher-student trust and relationships, she said, will be valuable not only during the forced school closures but when regular classrooms resume as well.


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