WORTHINGTON — The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of people to make adjustments, not the least of which are teachers and students. Changes from in-class learning to a hybrid model to distance learning have forced educators to switch up lesson plans and engage students through the most impersonal of means — a computer screen.
David Blanchard, a 28-year veteran visual arts teacher, is quick to admit the technology curve is still a struggle from time to time. He’s had students direct him on occasion on how to use that technology — one going so far as to say with COVID-19, it feels like teachers are making things up as they go.
Blanchard laughs about it. In all honesty, there have been times when it’s been a challenge.
“We’re practicing education and trying to figure out what works best with our students,” he said. “COVID-19 has been the longest technological in-service I’ve had in my life. For someone who used to be called the technological Neanderthal of the building … I still might be in the Mesolithic period.”
Along the north-south hallway at Worthington Middle School, Blanchard is flanked by Family and Consumer Sciences (FACS) teacher Katie Klosterbuer — in her first year of teaching in District 518 — along with industrial technology teacher John Hubbard and fellow visual arts teacher Janelle Doyle.
Together, the four have forged a strong working relationship as teachers of hands-on learning classes they say provide students with a mental break from the rigors of math, science and language courses.
But how do you teach woodworking to students who don’t have the tools or materials at home? How do you encourage kids to create when you can’t put a lump of clay in front of them and let them work with it? How do you teach cooking and baking when students are absent from the school’s monitored kitchen lab?
For these teachers, it was about being prepared for whatever learning model the district was forced to enact based on community spread of the novel coronavirus.
It wasn’t exactly easy.
“For tech-ed, that was a nightmare,” said Hubbard. “Just about 100% of my projects are hands-on and group-based, and all rely on the equipment I have at school.
“I teach roughly 34 kids per class and I have to have them grouped,” he added. “I scrambled to try to figure out how to give the kids projects to do at home.”
When the pandemic first hit in March and students were sent into distance learning, teachers weren’t prepared. Knowing that students wouldn’t have the ability to do woodworking or robotics problems at home, Hubbard had students do a lot of paper-related building. They’d build paper towers and participate in paper airplane challenges by testing added weights, knowing they should have access to paper at home.
“This year, having the summer to think about it — and thankfully the district gave us two weeks at the beginning of the school year where we just planned — I was able to work through some stuff,” Hubbard said.
The FACS, arts and industrial tech teachers prepared by creating take-home kits for students in the event they moved to full distance learning. That happened with one week to go in the school’s first quarter.
“In the second quarter, I had 180 students I had never met before,” shared Klosterbuer. “It was overwhelming and scary.”
Klosterbuer, though, felt relief in knowing her students would have some of the basic supplies needed for labs. Her take-home kits included a piece of fabric, needle and thread, a potato and some basic ingredients they would need for learning to cook and bake.
Thus far, her students have made a healthy breakfast of instant oatmeal, a plate of macaroni and cheese, cake in a mug and, from that potato in their take-home kit, French fries.
From the fabric and thread, she taught them a basic running stitch and other stitches. Now, if they have a rip in their jeans or a whole in their shirt, they at least know how to repair it.
“When I do labs, they have to turn their cameras on — I have to see their hands, not their face,” Klosterbuer said. “I can see them working on my computer.”
The visual arts teachers included colored pencils to create color wheels and aluminum foil to use for making sculptures in their take-home kits. These took the place of making masks and pinch pots in the classroom setting.
“We wanted to send some hands-on things to take away the excuse that kids don’t have these things at home,” Blanchard said.
Hubbard sent tower building kits, plastic cups and sticks home for his students.
“For my kids, I’m trying to focus more on following instructions, problem solving and just plain old life skills that they’re going to need anyway,” he said. “They may not understand why I’m having them stack cups and sticks together, but their brain needs that break from core classes.”
In addition to building three different types of towers, students will build an incline plane and test it, taking photos and demonstrating it via Zoom for Hubbard.
Their last project included using found objects at home or leftovers from their take-home kits to create an arcade game from a cardboard box. A report, complete with pictures and an explanation of how the game was constructed and materials used are then submitted for grading.
Between the four teachers — and lots of help from paraprofessionals and other teachers in the building — 606 take-home kits were assembled for fifth- through eighth-grade students. They planned one drive-thru distribution day and, at the end of it, roughly half of the kits had been picked up by students.
Klosterbuer, who put about 40 hours of personal time into preparing her take-home kits, said the teachers did what they could to get the remaining kits into the hands of their students. Creating a spreadsheet, they sought help from paras, fellow teachers and counselors to personally deliver kits.
“EL (English Learner) teachers are very committed to their kids — they visit them a lot,” said Klosterbuer.
“The counselors were happy to have an excuse to do a health check,” added Blanchard.
It was completely a team effort, they acknowledged.
Six weeks into the second quarter, the life skills teachers are now Zooming with students every day or nearly every day.
“I found that seeing the kids every day made me feel better, emotionally,” said Klosterbuer, who appreciates any and all feedback from students about how she can better demonstrate skills via technology.
“You look out at an empty classroom and it’s hard,” she said.
“With hybrid, I felt like I was doing two things poorly,” noted Blanchard of teaching 25% of students in class and the remainder online.
“I feel more connected in distance (learning) than I did in hybrid,” added Hubbard. “(The students) are on a schedule. Sitting in an empty classroom is depressing, though. I work from home.”
The second quarter ends Jan. 22, and it remains to be seen whether teachers will actually see their students in the classroom by then.
“I think a lot of what we’re learning is empathy for our students,” said Blanchard. “I’ve heard stories of kids taking care of other kids all day and still keeping their grades up.”
While a lot has changed through this period of distance learning, one thing hasn’t — the "aha" moment when a teacher realizes a student has learned a new skill.
“I see that — the glimmer in their eye,” Klosterbuer said. “They seem to get very proud of what they’ve made.”