One week the play-based challenge was to create a post office, something the students had done at school for Valentine’s Day.
“So now we had them build a little mailbox at home and they could put stuff they’ve created in there, and their parents could as well,” says Benoit, “and at the end of the day they could deliver it, so there’s reading and there’s writing.”
When Principal Karlo Cabrera heard about the theme, he suggested the school send postcards home to each of the 80 kindergarten students. That’s about as analog as it gets.
“I thought, why not make their learning purposeful?Feed two birds with a seed - model an actual mail delivery addressed to the students, and connect with families,” he explains, “especially those who our team members may not have yet been able to connect with. The post card made double sense.” He got back several grateful family letters…by email.
Grade 6 teacher Glen Barbeau of Samuel Hearne Public School also tries to encourage students to get outside during this lockdown, so he gave them a mission to go back to the school garden and snip chives.
For some students, it’s enough of a challenge to get out to visit the garden, he says. For others, he can build some curriculum into the outing. Since they’re studying biodiversity, he asks them to see what other perennials have sprouted in the school’s native pollinator garden, and explain why it’s important to have plants bloom at different times in an environment.
Yet, while it’s important to have students do non-screen activities, the main link with learning these days remains a computer screen, and many teachers are finding ways to make this more personalized. One technique that’s becoming wildly popular is making an animated image of the classroom, with the teachers themselves as cartoon characters who invite students to touch items on-screen that will link them to learning activities.
It’s much more engaging than getting your homework by email.
Special education teacher Cale Zimmerman at Portage Trail Community School created such a “Bitmoji virtual classroom” to make online learning more user-friendly for his three young autistic students in Grades 1 and 2, some of whom aren’t able to read.
His virtual classroom features an avatar of himself (with beard and favourite sweatshirt) which he created using the Bitmoji software. He’s sitting on a chair beside the blackboard message: “Welcome to our ‘classroom.’ Click on a book cover to listen to a story, a poster on a wall or any other objects to lead to a fun activity.”
There are images of four books on a shelf, including Curious George Rides a Bike, and Click Clack Moo, Cows that Type. Touch one and it brings up a YouTube video of someone reading the book aloud.Touch the calendar on the wall and up comes a kids’ YouTube video about the month of May. Touch the image of the clock, and up comes a lesson on how to read an analog clock. Touch the image of a basket of markers, and up pops a breezy instructional video about how to draw a dinosaur from simple geometric shapes. Touch the image of the student meditating, and you get a kids’ yoga video set to nursery rhyme tunes. Another image links to a guided dance to the song “Baby Shark.”
Literacy and numeracy curriculum is embedded in this touch-screen classroom too. There’s a box labelled Language Choice Board, which brings up the week’s array of literacy activities. Students are asked to try two each day. Same for the Math Choice Board.
“From the feedback I heard from parents, it was helpful to have the kids be able to actually choose something themselves because some are non-readers.” They may not be able to navigate the Choice Board without help, but they can choose a book off the book shelf and click on it, and listen to the story.
For Zimmerman, who had found it difficult to connect with his students “live,” this lively virtual classroom was a way to add a personal touch to his assignments.
“I know I’d been missing my kids’ faces, so I wanted to create this, where they could somewhat see my face and feel like they’re ‘in the classroom’ and they get to pick and choose from the toys and stuff we have in our (real) classroom. So the (virtual) toys that I put on the floor are some of their favourite toys.
“It kind of gives the sense that we’re all in this together.”