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Local teachers bust out of their comfort zones to adapt to virtual lessons

'Teaching music online is a big challenge ... so I work to make things fun and exciting for them,' said Harriett Todd teacher

Steven Saad gets up at 6 a.m. most mornings. He pours himself a cup of coffee, has breakfast, catches up on the news, does a workout and showers.

If it’s a Friday, he may put on a tuxedo before he “goes live” at 9:20 a.m.

Saad is one of many teachers across Simcoe County who have had to come up with out-of-the-box ideas to keep their virtual classrooms engaged throughout the pandemic. From starting their own YouTube channels, to playing virtual games, creating coding challenges and running school-wide virtual contests, many teachers have flexed their creative muscles and have lent a helping hand to each other to keep kids learning and happy throughout the circumstances that COVID-19 has brought.

Saad is a teacher at Goodfellow Public School. He teaches students with learning differences in language and math from Grades 4 to 8.

One of the ways the Innisfil teacher keeps kids engaged is by implementing Formal Fridays in his virtual classroom.

“I’ll put on anything from a tuxedo to a suit, or a top hat and white gloves. We’ve got kids who are rocking gowns and necklaces to class. It maintains that energy, helps the machine run smoother and offers some sense of normalcy in the most un-normal days,” he said.

Saab also does Newsday Tuesdays, Why Wednesdays and Thankful Thursdays with his students.

“My creative process involves looking at the month and the season, but also what my kids’ interests are,” he said. “As educators I think we need to be doing that now: figuring out where our kids’ interests are then and then teach to that.”

Saad creates YouTube videos on a variety of subjects for his students to enjoy.

“That’s why I did the YouTube channel because they’re all there already,” he said. “Right now it’s called ‘edu-tainment,’ and I think it’s more necessary than ever. The feedback I’ve received is, ‘It’s bizarre, it’s unusual... but it’s working!’”

Jasmine Svanda teaches music for students from kindergarten to Grade 8 at Harriett Todd Public School in Orillia.

“Teaching from kindergarten to Grade 8, you have to be creative to begin with because the age range is so drastic,” said Svanda. “Teaching music online is a big challenge. It’s hard for kids to look at a screen all day, especially in the younger grades, so I work to make things fun and exciting for them.”

Svanda uses a variety of virtual games to keep kids engaged that she has aggregated through her own website. For the primary lessons, Svanda uses puppets, dances and singalongs. She’s heard of other teachers using the video game Among Us with students to teach lessons, which she has also tried, and says went over very well.

“One lesson I did this morning was on beats. We used bouncy balls. We practised what a whole note feels like, or a half note, or a quarter note. Just trying to use things they have in their immediate surroundings,” she said.

It’s been challenging to do music with students through a virtual format as there is typically a delay and the audio quality can suffer, however Svanda has overcome that by using a website called Flipgrid where students can record video and send it to her to compile together.

“It’s not ideal, but we’re trying to make the best of it,” she said with a laugh. “The students are so resilient. We don’t give the kids enough credit.”

Tamara Hillyard teaches Grade 3 at Lions Oval Public School in Orillia.

Recently on the public school board’s Facebook page, an assignment from her class was shared where she asked students to re-create famous paintings using found objects in their homes.

“It came to me quickly, and I thought I could draw it into the curriculum by including the elements of design and using it as a jumping off point to create other works of art,” she said. “It resonated with them and also with my colleagues in other grades, as it can be done in any grade. The kids loved it and I got a lot of feedback from the parents.”

Hillyard has been a teacher for 23 years. She says she works hard at creating a community of learners, which she said she has tried to adapt to the virtual community.

“So, it’s not just me sitting there filling their brains with information. I wanted to make it about them sharing too,” she said.

Hillyard shares that one of her students broken her wrist over the weekend. The normal rite of passage for such circumstances would be for her classmates to sign her cast, but as that isn’t possible right now, she, again, got creative.

“I made a slide deck of a cast and inserted shapes so all the students could ‘sign the cast.’ At least, she’s still getting that feeling of community,” said Hillyard. “I’ve had to re-think everything I’ve done over the past 23 years so I can make this as ‘real’ as possible.”

On the secondary side, teachers are also trying new things to keep teenagers interested, which can be extra challenging due to the quadmester format being used at both boards.

Craig McLaughlin, a communications and technology teacher at Holy Trinity Catholic High School in Bradford, says trying to teach new technology through technology is ironically difficult.

“Normally, we have really great resources in the building. We have a great computer lab and a sound room and all kinds of fantastic equipment. Since we’re at home, it’s different,” he said.

McLaughlin’s curriculum includes animation, video production, graphic design and 3D design.

One example of his COVID-safe creative lesson plan McLaughlin did with students before Christmas involved coding and long-exposure photography.

“We used programmable robots called Spheros where you can program these balls that will follow a route you program into the ball. The balls have LED lights,” said McLaughlin. “I had them program a route that would spell out their initials, or HT for Holy Trinity. I set up a camera in the studio while they were at home... it would take a picture through a long-exposure that would show them the resulting image of what they coded.”

“It was a neat way for them to be in control of something that was in my room while they were at home,” he said.

A major component of McLaughlin’s curriculum prior to COVID-19 included the live broadcasting of sports games, which cannot occur now as sports are all on hold.

“There’s nothing happening. So we don’t get the chance to learn how to do this. We had to cut out film and video to a large extent this year, which is typically one of our highlights,” he said. “To me, that was disappointing.”

To fill in the gaps, McLaughlin has put a heavier emphasis on 3D design, where students are designing restaurants in a virtual space.

“Doing remote designs is something new that helped fill in,” he added.

Serena Macfie teaches science at St. Joan of Arc Catholic High School in Barrie.

Back in September Macfie started a competitive Science Bingo game, with classrooms competing against each other. Since all learning has moved to remote, she now does the game completely virtually from her basement, renaming it Science Basement Bingo.

“We were really trying to keep the classrooms cohorted and separate. It was something the classes looked forward to on Wednesdays,” said Macfie. “We continue to do things like science challenges as group competitions.”

“I think a lot of students feel isolated, and that this year was just going to be cramming five hours a day of science into their brains. We really wanted it to be more enjoyable. This is totally bizarre for them to be in this scenario,” she added.

One aspect of concern for Macfie is that, as time goes on, fewer and fewer students are willing to turn their cameras on. She said she finds the Science Basement Bingo makes them more willing to actively participate, with cameras on.

“I’m an old-school, chalk-board kind of girl,” said Macfie, with a laugh. “The challenge is... getting the kids, when they can just have the camera off, to still get that connected-ness. I’ve been really trying to focus on that.”

Jessica Owen

About the Author: Jessica Owen

Jessica Owen brings 12 years of experience to her role as regional reporter for Village Media, primarily covering County of Simcoe matters, education and features.
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