Randy Backman's Westwood math class waves to each other online

There are 1,973 Spring Lake Park Schools students at all grade levels who have been learning in the SLP Extended Flexible Learning (distance learning) model this fall. Teachers, students and families are sharing their experiences with a learning model that’s come a long way from the spring.

From more live interactions to creative ways to engage students to more and personalized feedback, teachers are going the distance to keep learners learning from home.

Getting to know you

Randy Backman, math teacher at Westwood, was nervous about starting school without meeting students in person, so he got creative. He and his students created virtual lockers.

Randy Backman sits at his home desk and a visual of the virtual locker bays

Randy Backman’s “classroom” looks a little different this year. He’s gotten to know his students through their “virtual lockers” and they’ve bonded over things like mutual love of Starbucks, favorite candy, teams and shows.

“Students filled their ‘lockers’ with things that represent them – sports, food, media,” says Randy. “They did a recording explaining their locker and submitted it. I got to know them and make connections. Then we made a “virtual locker bay” so everyone could get to know each other.”

Getting students to feel comfortable engaging with him and with each other online is a big focus. He’s using a new feature, virtual background, to help students feel more comfortable.

“Today was beach day...everyone set their virtual background to the beach,” says Randy. “We were all hanging out at the beach doing Geometry. It got students to turn on their camera and connect. If we’re all at the beach, background doesn’t matter.”

Melissa Gustafson, who teaches first grade, was nervous about relationships, too.

Teacher Melissa Gustafson with her rainbow backdrop for virtual meetings

Melissa Gustafson made a colorful rainbow backdrop for her home classroom to make it a little more fun.

“But I didn’t need to be,” she chuckles. “I know SO MUCH about these kids. I’m meeting pets, siblings – I mean I REALLY know these kids. And, because we have a lot of live lessons, all day long, we have opportunities to talk.”

First graders are a little different than high schoolers. Des Anderson teaches quadratic algebra to 9th graders and works hard to find ways to connect with each student. High school teachers work with up to 150 different students across their classes. Connecting with each student can be challenging.

“In some ways the relationships are really great this year – and beyond what I’d have normally because we are spending more time one-to-one, but that’s not all students,” says Des. “For kids who haven’t volunteered the time yet, I just keep reaching out – emails, phone calls.”

Live interactions

For Des and her 9th graders, live interactions each day are an important way to make connections. They are also the biggest difference between the experience last spring and this fall.

Des Anderson works from home

Des Anderson works multiple screens as she connects with students and works to create engaging math lessons from her workspace at home.

“’Live’ for us is often WebEx meetings three days a week. The whole group will come together for a little while then split up and do next steps,” says Des. “Sometimes ‘live’ is checking in on Schoology and interacting there in real-time or working with other members of the class. I’m also doing a lot more one-to-one meetings.”

Des says the WebEx connections seem to be the most appreciated. She’s been pleasantly surprised that students want to show up and participate in the class time, even when it’s at 8 a.m. That is certainly true for 9th grader Whitney Lawrence-Msuya.

“I’ve learned that I best learn with live WebEx meetings with the teacher explaining whatever material...it can be more helpful than just reading it off of the assignment,” says Whitney. “This year, teachers are trying to make our virtual classes feel more like real life.”

Andrea Redder in her learning space at home

Andrea Rehder, 6th grade, in her learning space at home.

Andrea Rehder’s 6th grader, Donna, is in one of Randy’s math classes and has noted the increased emphasis on live interaction.

“I appreciate as a parent that Donna has been meeting with teachers every day,” says Andrea. “I’ve been impressed with how often she is online with them and how available they are.”

Melissa also is logging a lot of live time with her first graders.

“We are putting forth a full day of curriculum with live morning meeting, core reading and math – all live. Brain breaks are built in and afternoons are small groups,” says Melissa. “It’s a full day program focused on aggressive growth forward.”

Engagement, learning, feedback

This model of learning – and teaching – requires a different set of skills and a whole lot of creativity. Teachers have been experimenting to inspire more engagement and deeper learning.

Des’ classes have played the game “Code Names” using algebra concepts. In the game, two teams compete by each having a "spymaster" give one-word clues that can describe multiple words or concepts on the game board. In Des’ class, students split up into teams and describe core concepts of algebra to deepen their learning through a dose of friendly competition.

Randy Backman's Westwood math class waves to each other online

 “One of the biggest surprises is how much fun we’ve had online,” says Randy, as his class gets a little goofy.

Randy is experimenting with emerging technologies. He’s used the EdPuzzle program for a lesson on absolute value that uses a game show format with pauses to ask a question before proceeding.

“It’s more interactive….it engages students more,” he says. “I’ve also learned that if any video I make is more than five minutes, it won’t get watched. My videos are now about 2-3 minutes long. Very crisp. . .and views have gone way up.”

Randy is also using breakout rooms to get students talking to each other and learning collaboratively.

Even Melissa’s first graders are meeting in breakout rooms to connect and learn together. She also thinks her first graders truly believe she is just talking to each of them when she’s live on WebEx so they show her what they know.

“I am getting more writing right now in their notebooks than I did in the classroom,” says Melissa. “They are so excited to share their work with me, and I’m giving more feedback and more personalized feedback to the work.”

Isaiah Wilburn in is Melissa’s first grade class. His mom, Taisha Mikell, has noticed a big change from the experience in the spring.

“Overall, it's much better organized. Teachers do a great job engaging with students given the limitations,” says Taisha. “As a parent, I've enjoyed and been surprised to watch the learning development in my student.”

Isaiah's at home workstation and a reading lesson preview

Isaiah Wilburn, along with his peers in Melissa Gustafson’s class, are impressing her with the amount they are writing. Melissa taught summer school to increase her skills over the summer. “This experience is making me a better teacher” she says.

For Isaiah, the best part is "The breaks!" He enjoys working at his own pace. Melissa can get behind that.

“I want to be more of a coach – than a teacher,” she says. “I want students to take the path on their own and coach them along the way. When we use fall leaves to talk about what a scientist is and does and how they make observations, students are not having isolated learning but applying it to everyday life. Because of this model, I see them becoming more self-motivated and choosing to explore on their own.”

What the year is teaching

No one really wants to be doing full-time distance learning. But, many are finding silver linings in a challenging situation.

“This year is teaching me how much my kids know about technology and how independent they can be” says Andrea. “With the technology they’ve learned, they have been able to adapt and do more than what I was expecting.”

While she appreciates all of the improvements, she wonders how teachers can really assess what her kids are learning and she worries about all of the online time.

“Sometimes my daughter gets overwhelmed with the amount of meets they have each day," says Andrea.

Across the district, there is acknowledgement that there is always room to keep improving. There is ongoing and broad support for teachers to keep trying new things and finding the right balance for each learner.   

Learning is not just about showing up for class. That’s become really clear for Des as she’s experiencing what it means for her students to really learn and show something.

“It’s students taking ownership of their learning,” she says. “When we take away the ‘seat time’ requirement, learning and teaching becomes more about what a kid individually needs.”

This is true even for first graders. As a parent, Taisha is figuring out what her son, Isaiah, needs.

I am learning how to balance helping Isaiah learn to follow instructions with letting him be creative/free to guide his own learning,” she says.

Finding that right balance for each student is when success in this model becomes possible. After his experience this fall, Randy truly believes learning effectively in this model is possible.

“If we had to keep learning this way our students would be totally prepared for college as long as we all show up – teachers and students - and do our part,” he says.

While learning is possible online, nothing replaces being at school.

“This year is teaching me that we are all capable of learning online,” says Whitney, “but it also shows what school really gives you - friends, interaction, happiness, and confidence.”

It’s for those reasons, everyone hopes the spread of this virus can be contained and everyone can get back to learning at school soon. When they do return to school buildings and classrooms, these teachers and students will be taking what they’ve learned through their experiences this fall to make that experience better.