As thousands of students in Rocky View County adapted to learning from home this term, online teachers came up with creative ways to keep them engaged.
While there are challenges to teaching and learning online, the platform also provides a myriad of benefits and possibilities, according to Katherine Marshall, a Grade 6 French immersion teacher for Rocky View Schools (RVS). Marshall is one of more than 300 RVS employees teaching online this year, with her students hailing from middle schools in Airdrie, Cochrane, Chestermere and Springbank.
“I think what we’ve tried to do is make it as normal of a regular classroom as possible,” she said. “Obviously, with it being online, that’s a little difficult. Fortunately, I am a drama teacher by background, so I have a little experience drawing kids out of their shells, which has helped with my class.”
In addition to regular lessons, Marshall said she organized a variety of interactive projects this year, including the dissection of owl pellets. She said staff delivered the pellets to each students’ home so they could perform the dissections together on Zoom.
“It was awesome – they were so excited when they would find a skull and they’d show everybody,” she said. “It was great to have that hands-on experience, even though they’re online. It’s great for the parents to see them actually learn and be students, which is not something they’d usually see. That’s been a nice byproduct of the online program.”
Marshall also invited guest speakers to share their expertise with the class. According to Marshall, an ecologist from Reno, Nev., spoke to the students about the importance of aspen trees and how they revitalize ecosystems.
“The kids loved seeing that what we’re learning is actually used in real life,” she said.
Another RVS teacher who adapted to the online format is Jennifer Brousseau, a Grade 6 teacher who normally teaches at École Edwards Elementary School in Airdrie. This year, she is teaching a mix of students from Airdrie, Cochrane, Chestermere and Springbank.
She said some of the activities she organized this term included digital escape rooms, virtual field trips and presentations from guest speakers. A highlight, she said, was a virtual field trip to the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum in New York, N.Y.
“We were doing astronomy, so that was one of the things we linked in to,” she said. “It was really cool because they have replicas of artifacts from different missions and explained to the students what those missions were about, and [students] got to see the artifacts live.”
Linking with the Grade 6 social studies unit on democracy and government, Brousseau said Airdrie Mayor Peter Brown came online to talk to the students about his role with the municipality. As well, she said two RVS trustees ran a mock meeting so the kids could see the process is organized.
She said spotty Internet connections have been the toughest challenge of teaching online.
“Definitely the technology is still sometimes a little iffy for some students,” she said. “At first, we focused on building those relationships with the kids, so much of September was spent forming those bonds and walking them through the process....of the routine. Once we overcame that, it went really well.”
While there are challenges to learning from home, Brousseau said the vast majority of students enjoy the independence of online classes as it provides them more freedom to schedule their day around their classes.
With schools now on winter break until Jan. 4, 2021, Brousseau said she has ideas in the works for other interesting class activities in January, including another guest speaker, and she is trying to book a virtual field trip to the University of Alberta’s observatory.
Above all else, Brousseau said, online schooling has been an opportunity for the students to see that learning can occur outside the classroom.
“I know a lot of my students enjoy being able to go at their own pace,” she said. “They have their assignments and if they need a couple of extra days, they can take a couple of extra days. If they get it done rapidly, it’s done and they have a chance to focus on enrichment.”