Distance learning is not one-size-fits-all

Phy ed, music, industrial tech and special education classes present challenges all their own

Trinity Bailles and Mikayla Anderson greet Pequot Lakes High School teacher Joanna O’Neil after logging in from home during distance learning. Submitted Photo

Families by now are growing familiar with the concept of distance learning. Those who don't currently have children in the school system may wonder exactly how distance learning works for classes not held in a standard classroom setting, like physical education, music, special education and industrial tech classes.

As with all distance learning, these teachers have had to find their own jive to make things work.

Kate Davis, Pine River-Backus music teacher through sixth grade, would normally have a room full of kids singing their hearts out and playing instruments most days. That's had to change with distance learning. Typically she would meet twice a week with students.

“I have posted a day-one and day-two assignment for the kids,” Davis said. “Sometimes it's a video of myself introducing what we're doing through the day and trying to keep the same format they had from the music room. Every day we start with a warm up, then we do our activity and if there's time at the end we do something silly or fun, which in distance learning looks like a dance party.”

Davis said in lieu of using xylophones, as some normally would in the spring, she's had to direct her students to use virtual pianos online. For some students in specific classes, however, lessons do translate a little more easily to distance learning.


“We had been right in the middle of a world music unit, moving into jazz and the blues,” Davis said. “I team teach with the high school choir. We have another week of the blues, which is something easy to do in a distance learning situation because it's a lot of giving that information more than singing and interacting in the way I do with some of my littler kids.”

In those cases, her lessons can be like “history of music” type lessons.

Justin Franke, who teaches physical education at Pine River-Backus, likewise has a non-standard classroom that requires a different approach for his classes.

“We have a website we use where we post daily fitness logs for kids to do,” Franke said.

At the end of the week, Franke reviews the fitness logs his students submit to determine if they have been following instruction and how they are progressing.

“On our website we also have many different resources for different games or different activities that involve equipment and some that don't involve equipment,” Franke said. “A lot of that is going to depend on if they have jump ropes or hula hoops or anything at home.”

The physical education department has also made videos to instruct students so the students can see their faces and follow along. Franke is in contact with students every day through Google Hangouts, emails or other formats.

At Eagle View Elementary School, physical education is also being done via videos and online correspondence. Using a system called Seesaw, teachers can send instructional videos to the students, who can in turn respond with photos and videos of their own.


“We are trying to have the kids do a little warm-up and some exercises, then some activities that don’t involve a lot of equipment, because we don’t know what kids have at home,” teacher Lisa Martini said. “We have been focusing on locomotor skills like skipping and jumping and all of those.”

While the fitness activities have to be fairly basic, teachers are doing their best to make them fun.

“We have a game called Letter Fitness,” Martini said. “We have them spell their first, middle and last names and then have them do exercises for each letter - for me, 'L' would maybe be eight push-ups, 'I' would be a wall sit for 30 seconds and so on.”

While it doesn’t necessarily replace the in-person interactions the students are used to, Martini feels using Seesaw is definitely suitable for maintaining a student’s personal health, and has actually made the interactions entertaining for the teachers.

“I’ll look in my account and I’ll have 300 messages. I love going through those - the kids are taping themselves doing the workouts or taking a picture of themselves with a thumbs-up and a big smile. I just found myself laughing. It’s just good to hear their voices and see them enjoying it.

“We are doing the best we can, and everybody is in it together," Martini said.

Industrial technology handles many tools, from hammers, saws and drills to welders, so adjusting to a curriculum that allows students to use the resources they have at hand meant creating curriculum limited but also driven by those students' own tools and creativity.

“Not all kids have equipment or tools at home, so that's a challenge,” said Steve Sandeen, who teaches industrial technology at Pine River-Backus School. “Next week I'm having the kids do some type of project at home. The tool situation has to be pretty lenient; for some it might be putting a new battery in a car or detailing a car or doing a safety check on a car. For another kid it might be building a bird house while documenting steps while taking pictures or video."


Yet another student project has included building a chicken coop.

“I've had some kids really take advantage of the time to do some projects they probably wouldn't have done,” Sandeen said. “Kids have vehicles they're working on. One kid sent me a video of welding on a trailer and working on an ATV. The kids are resilient and resourceful. A lot of kids have taken advantage of the new learning style to be able to do some things.”

The challenge in this case has been having students capture the process so he can monitor how they are doing their projects for the purpose of grading. For his class, one of the biggest challenges has been addressing troubles with technology, whether that be difficulty with programs or applications or dealing with poor internet connections.

One thing that's certain is that music and physical education both depend somewhat on the honor system.

“I can say, 'Hey, find a stuffy or a beat buddy at home and use that to practice a steady beat,' but whether they actually do that or not, I don't have any way of really following up on that to know if they are actually doing that,” said Davis. “A lot of that is trusting that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing and checking in on attendance on Schoolology just to see that they've actually logged into class.”

Davis said she didn't consider it practical for every student to do a video recording of their performances and send them in, though some students do send videos voluntarily. Likewise, physical education has the same limitation.

“Obviously we're on an honor system,” Franke said. “So we're hoping they will be doing that and turning it in at the end of the week.”

It may be slightly easier in this respect for industrial tech, as there is physical evidence of student progress.


“The biggest thing for me is getting kids to take advantage of technology they have on their phones or computers to do pictures and video of what they are doing,” Sandeen said.

Special education has also proved to be challenging for teachers. Sara Crabb-Erickson in Pequot Lakes has utilized Google Hangouts. For her students who struggle with reading, it gives her the opportunity to read aloud to them, while also letting the students see her face and hear her voice.

“That’s the best I can get for one-on-one time with them … We’re trying to add some real life to their day, with walks and helping around at home. We are not allowed to go into students’ houses and they are not allowed to come into school, so it has been really, really tricky," she said.

Like many other educators, the special education department at Pequot Lakes felt a great deal of pressure in the first few days of distance learning, but feel as though things have smoothed out a bit in recent weeks. Crabb-Erickson said she felt students were feeling the same, as have the parents who now have a greater responsibility for their children’s education.

“I think I think parents are alright with it. I think a lot is falling on parents if kids aren't responsible or independent with it … so they have to assess their kids a little bit more. I think parents are overwhelmed, and I think students were overwhelmed last week but are getting used to it now," she said.

Many teachers have certainly expressed how much they miss their students.

“I think the hardest thing is missing the kids and that interaction with the students,” Davis said. “I think I can speak for most teachers. The highlight of being a teacher is how you share your subject with kids and to not have that engagement, physically, that we've had in the past is very challenging.”

For Franke, changing course so quickly was likely the most challenging aspect of adjusting to distance learning.


“In about eight days we were basically scrambling to get our curriculum and content and make it accessible and understandable for those online when we couldn't necessarily talk to them in person about it first,” Franke said.

He echoed what Davis said.

“We definitely miss them all and we want to see them back in school soon,” Franke said. “We obviously hope they are all doing well.”

Crabb-Erickson feels the same sentiment.

“It’s a big adjustment, and we're all just really missing the students. I think everybody's just working really hard and trying to make the best of a situation that's really unique and a little unpredictable," she said.

Sandeen said he was surprised how much his students likely miss their teachers as well.

“I think some of the kids really enjoy school, even though they would never admit it prior to this and maybe they didn't even realize it because it was second nature,” he said. “The number of kids that are really missing the interaction and social piece of just seeing their friends and teachers - suddenly that's been taken away and I think there's new appreciation for that piece.”


Travis Grimler began work at the Echo Journal Jan. 2 of 2013 while the publication was still split in two as the Pine River Journal and Lake Country Echo. He is a full time reporter/photographer/videographer for the paper and operates primarily out of the northern stretch of the coverage area (Hackensack to Jenkins).
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