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Delivering hands-on learning from a distance

John Stroud
Glenwood Springs Post Independent
Glenwood Springs Elementary School third-grader Troy Flohr, center, and Carbondale Community School kindergartener Allison Bate, lower left, are surrounded by screenshot images of students and teachers throughout the area connecting via online classroom chats.
Provided

Bring your pet to school day might have presented some challenges in the pre-pandemic days of in-person classroom learning.

But in the new COVID-19 era of online learning, it’s not only possible, it’s been happening with regularity these days in electronic K-12 “classrooms” throughout Garfield County.

Computer screenshots of students interacting with their teachers and fellow classmates via group conference platforms such as Google Hangouts and Zoom have been filled with almost as many dog mugs, cat tails, favorite blankies and stuffed animals as kid faces.

For Glenwood Springs Elementary School fourth-grade teacher Julie Allen, her regular crew chat hangouts have included several “show-and-tell” sessions, informal science experiments and time for students to share shout-outs, appreciations and personal stories of coping during the current stay-at-home order.

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“It has been fun to think outside the box and get creative with our approach to keeping kids connected with teachers and with each other, and engaging in assignments,” Allen said this week as she prepared for formal classwork to begin.

GSES third-grade teacher Carolyn Glasgow said her students are showing great determination while navigating through this new way of learning.

“Students are becoming ‘masters of technology’ and taking ownership of their learning,” she said, adding her crew team also has been doing “show-and-tell,” along with read-alouds, arts and crafts, origami, and just generally checking in on each others’ well-being.

Come Monday, for students in the Roaring Fork School District, it also becomes very real, as district schools in Glenwood Springs, Carbondale and Basalt roll out formal instruction online that will count toward completion of the school year.

Schools throughout Garfield County and the Roaring Fork Valley — whether part of a public district, state or district charters, or private — have been rolling with online learning in different phases since mid-March.

Some are further ahead than others. Roaring Fork Schools have purposely been taking a more measured approach in an effort to make sure it’s done effectively. Each is trying to learn from the other as the new era of distance learning takes shape.

DIFFERENT STROKES

A shift over the past two decades toward more hands-on, projects-based learning in area schools has made the move to delivering instruction through online platforms a bit more challenging.

GSES and Glenwood Springs Middle School are both now certified as official EL Education network schools.

EL, or expeditionary learning, places an emphasis on projects-based, cross-subject course work, oftentimes involving groups of students working on projects together.

It also typically involves “expeditions” out into the community or on field trips to gain real-life learning experiences. Those types of activities have been canceled for the remainder of the school year due to the ongoing public health emergency that has schools across the country closed to in-person instruction.

The Roaring Fork District’s newest school, the K-8 Riverview School in Glenwood Springs, also uses a projects-based model, but with an emphasis on dual-language development in both English and Spanish.

Area charter schools have adopted similar models with a focus on hands-on, bilingual learning and multi-age classrooms, including the K-8 Two Rivers Community School in Glenwood and Ross Montessori School in Carbondale.

The multi-district alternative Yampah Mountain High School and the district charter K-8 Carbondale Community School take a more individualized expedition approach, utilizing student portfolios built up over the course of the school year as a measure of student success.

And the private Waldorf School on the Roaring Fork near Carbondale doesn’t use technology much at all in its classrooms, but has been working to deliver its hands-on, creative arts-based style of “whole child development” in a virtual classroom setting, as well.

Even the schools that take a more traditional approach to learning have incorporated the various hands-on styles used by their specialized school counterparts.

So, how do you take an interactive, face-to-face, personal style of learning and apply it online?

VIRTUAL CREWS AND TRIBES

“First and foremost, (EL) is all about crew,” said Glenwood Springs Middle School Principal Joel Hathaway. “Our strong crew structure has helped us make connections with each student and reach out in ways unimaginable in a ‘traditional’ school environment.”

The “all-in-this-together” crew approach, which has been adopted in schools districtwide, can help students fight off feelings of isolation, Hathaway offers.

“That should be a schools’ primary mission in a national time of concern and uncertainty,” he said.

GSMS and its partner EL school, GSES, not only have regular student crew meetings, but teachers and staff also have continued to meet several times a week as a crew to connect and work through any problems or concerns, he said.

For the students, while it may be hard to facilitate “outdoor adventure” in an online teaching and learning environment, “We can try to instill the adventure of learning into online content.”

“As an EL school, we always want to consider how we can use every circumstance and opportunity to serve our community and world,” Hathaway said.

GSMS sixth-grade humanities teacher Charlotte Brooks leads a crew of 15 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade boys and girls.

“Kids stay in their same crews all three years, so it’s a nice way to really get to know kids in different grade levels — for the students and teachers alike,” Brooks said.

During the school closure, their virtual crew meetings have had fairly good attendance and success, she said, but the level of participation has already started to drop off.

“Kids seem to enjoy the games and activities, but I also think they just want to hang out and see their friends,” Brooks said. “They really enjoy talking and sharing what they’ve been up to, instead of participating in any kind of formal discussion.”

How that plays out come Monday remains to be seen.

“I think we’re providing them with plenty to do online, and we’ve developed some really rich, rigorous learning experiences,” Brooks said. “But, of course, this isn’t quite the same as being in class, interacting with your peers and teachers.”

GSES Principal Audrey Hazleton believes her staff, students and families have shown a lot of resilience and compassion as they’ve prepared for formal instruction to start Monday.

“We’re all learning new ways to connect, learn and celebrate together,” she said. “We are focused on providing students with engaging opportunities that they are excited to try and able to do independently.”

The “crew hangouts” will continue to be a place where students can share what they’ve accomplished with each other and get ideas on where to go next in their learning, Hazleton said.

GSES fifth-grade teacher Holly Armstrong notes that these next six weeks are rather important for her students to complete their “passage” projects — a reflection of their academics and character strengths that normally culminates in a presentation to the school community.

“Despite school closures, fifth-grade students are still motivated to create such a personal and empowering project,” Armstrong said.

At the dual language-based Riverview School, Principal Adam Volek said his online bilingual “Coffee with the Principal” sessions have been well-attended, and parents have been supportive of the school’s efforts to roll out its online learning platform.

“Our first priority is relationships and ensuring that our kids and our families know that we care about them and that we are here to support them,” Volek said. “Our teachers have provided kids with a variety of opportunities to connect, whether through personalized phone calls, online bilingual crews, or online bilingual office hours.”

Though things will look a bit different in an online setting, “our commitment to a focus on dual-language education continues.”

For instance, through Google Classroom, students are being prompted to communicate in both Spanish and English with one another through email, online discussion boards and hangout sessions.

CREATING ALTERNATIVES

The Waldorf School in Carbondale has something similar to the crew approach when it comes to teacher collaboration.

“We have a ‘tribe’ community page where teachers are using the platform to share curriculum,” explained Anne White, community development administrator at the school.

The platform is still being developed, but will eventually be used to host parent evenings and virtual student events.

“While you won’t find a computer, tablet or e-reader in a Waldorf School classroom, like schools across Colorado, this traditionally technology-free school is putting its flexibility, creativity and problem-solving to the test under the current circumstances,” White said.

The Waldorf classroom approach focuses on “tangible creation,” she said.

Taking that to the home setting, families have been supplied with weekly packets of materials including sewing supplies, jump-rope making kits, wheatgrass seeds and other crafts for students to complete.

Recorded and live videos also are being used to demonstrate activities and engage students, live classes are taking place daily online, and teachers making themselves available for one-on-one support, White added.

Yampah Mountain High School in Glenwood Springs operates as a multi-district (Aspen, Roaring Fork, Garfield Re-2 and Garfield District 16) alternative high school for students who have struggled in the traditional school setting.

“We have been online live with our master schedule for three weeks now, and it’s going great,” Yampah Principal Leigh McGown said.

Advisory, which also is similar to crew in the Roaring Fork schools, students have participated in virtual nature walks, scavenger hunts and made protective face masks from materials at home.

Yampah students have already had one virtual dance party, and they’re planning a virtual prom Friday night, McGown said.

Early childhood teachers in the school’s teen parent program also have been doing online play groups while their parents are doing online lessons, and there’s a student wellness class two times live each day with three of Yampah’s social workers-counselors.

The school also is preparing for a series of virtual “expeditions” in late April and early May, including a college tour, an outdoor ed experience, visits to the zoo and aquarium, science explorations, a vision quest and a “Sound & Skateboards” event, where Colorado rap artist SuperLove and Yampah alumni will give a live online concert for students.


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