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Teachers, Families Creatively Prepare for Remote Learning

District administrators and principals throughout Illinois are stressing to students and parents that this is fall is a whole new situation compared to what schools were dealing with in the spring.

by Steven Spearie, The State Journal-Register / August 31, 2020

(TNS) — Allison Acker delivered Aaliyah Sanders her brand new car Wednesday.

Sanders hasn't even started first grade yet.

The "smart car" was really a souped-up U-Haul box that Acker fashioned with headlights made from paper plates. It included a vanity license plate that read "Aaliyah."

"There you go, my dear," Acker said to Sanders, checking out her new ride. "Remember getting your lap desk? That fits perfectly in here, so the desk goes here and you can sit inside of (the car). You can keep all of your stuff together and you won't lose it."

Sanders even got her own driver's license.

"You're going to need that," Acker told Sanders, giggling through her mask.

The car, Acker explained to Sanders and her parents, Kandance and Earl Sanders later in their living room, is her "designated learning space" as School District 186 heads into remote learning Monday.

First-graders need to be in their cars with their iPads and lap desks when Acker starts her daily sessions on Zoom, she said.

"When we meet," Acker explained, "I'll say, 'Is everyone loaded up and ready? We're going to go on an adventure today,' then tell them what their adventure is going to be, what we're going to learn and what we're going to see."

Teachers like Acker are trying to engage students and make learning as entertaining as possible.

"Kids will do a lot more," Acker said, "when they're having fun."

Acker has also leveled the playing field a bit. No matter what students' houses look like, the focus of the learning spot the "smart car" is the same.

Acker made red, yellow and green folders for students' work assignments.

By doing their work, coming to Zoom and being on time, Acker added, students could earn points to buy items in a store Acker has set up, including key chains and bumper stickers for their cars.

"I like my car," Aaliyah professed, after Acker had left, though she was already trying to figure out how to wash it.

"Don't give her any ideas," Kandance Sanders told her 11-year-old daughter, Azariah Craig, nearby.

"It's scary at first, but once we get started and learn everything, we can get through it," Sanders added about remote learning. "I'm excited and thrilled all at the same time to see how it works out.

"Aaliyah knows what to do."

District administrators and principals are stressing this is a whole new ballgame from last spring when it was forced to go to remote learning. With the surging spread of COVID-19, Gov. JB Pritzker on March 13 mandated that public schools close, which would eventually last through the end of the spring semester.

The District 186 school board voted to go to remote learning for most students on Aug. 13 when numbers spiked in Sangamon County. The board had adopted a hybrid/blended model earlier in the month, but even proponents of the model said they wouldn't implement it unless it was safe for students.

The decision left some teachers, like Acker, disappointed that they couldn't be with their students.

"A lot of us," she said, "cry ourselves to sleep thinking about our kids."

Because of the shift, Littia Brooks said she would be playing the role of "Team Grandma," helping out her two grandchildren and her niece.

"I'm excited," Brooks admitted, "because I'm going to learn and they're going to learn as well."

Donna Carson is relying on her 21-year-old daughter, Breanna Davis, to help out with her two sons because Carson has to work during the day.

"She loves her brothers," Carson said. "I depend on her. She depends on me. It works out good."

School board president Scott McFarland initially voted for the hybrid/blended model, but he consistently said that schools wouldn't open to students if the numbers didn't indicate that it was safe. He later voted for a remote start to the year.

"There are more incentives for students to be involved (than in the spring)," he said. "Attendance is going to count. Grades are going to count. So I think we're going to have more buy-in from some students now that it's going to be a normal year of school."

Tech support line available

The district continued its technology rollout into Friday, with iPads for younger students and Chromebooks for older students.

It is fully utilizing Canvas, a learning management system, with which the district has an agreement for training and support.

Superintendent Jennifer Gill likened Canvas at a recent school board meeting to "a suitcase" that allows teachers to put "all their tools and materials that they need for the distance learning journey."

That "suitcase" will include Zoom, which will allow teachers and other personnel to go "live" with their students.

Peggy Cormeny, family and community engagement coordinator for the district, said personnel will be doing "porch visits" for families struggling with technology. The district is also setting up a support hotline, she said.

"This transition isn't going to be perfect," Cormeny acknowledged.

Parents, she said, teachers and students should allow themselves and one another "latitude and grace in these times."

Nicolette Harris, a fifth-grade teacher at Owen Marsh Elementary School and a technology facilitator there, said she embraced the capabilities of Canvas last spring during the remote session.

Harris was part of a task force that helped revamp curriculum and make things work on a remote level. She did tutorials for her building staff, but they quickly spread throughout the district for other teachers to use.

Harris led a few of the "Return to Learn" sessions for teachers preparing this past week to navigate the remote learning model.

"I think we've done an amazing job of working together to ensure we're ready for Monday," Harris said. "Educators have been learning a lot about different tools and ways to adapt to what we're doing. Between the task forces that have been working on the curriculum level and all our internally-led sessions with the conference, I think we are as prepared as we can be going in."

The uptick of digital learning, Harris added, is that teachers "no longer have walls to our classrooms."

Before the pandemic, for instance, Harris surveyed her fifth-graders about future careers they wanted to pursue. She reached out via Twitter and other platforms and landed Zoom sessions for her students with Krystal Joy Brown, who portrayed Eliza Hamilton in the Broadway show "Hamilton"; former National Basketball Association player Bo Outlaw; National Geographic photographer Annie Griffiths and professional makeup artist Melanie Licata.

Harris said the remote learning is an invitation to build stronger relationships with families "now (that) every single family is going to have a front row seat to the learning that is happening daily with our students."

Springfield Education Association president Aaron Graves said it's been a steep learning curve for teachers. The SEA is the teachers union with about 1,300 members.

"The bar has been set really high," Graves admitted. "But a lot of people still don't know what they're doing, truthfully. We're figuring out this job. You're tossing software to people. You're tossing concepts to people, how to redo everything.

"We're just talking about the structure of things and the planning of things and the coordination of the day. We haven't even gotten into teaching yet, the management of the classroom."

"A lot of these programs are super new to us," Acker, the first-grade teacher, said. "We're barely understanding our side of it and to have parents call and say, 'I don't know what to do,' it's going to be hard for teachers."

Acker added she advocated for in-person learning because school is a place where kids interact.

For some, Harvard Park became a sanctuary, she said.

"The environmental risk factor for COVID-19 is not near as much as a lot of other things that will knowingly be in their path this year," Acker said.

"I tried. I advocated, but I'm going to do my best (teaching remote). We made the cars. We gave them a space. I have plans to meet with (students) Mondays and Fridays. Is it good? No. Is it the best I can do? Yes."

"There's no doubt," said Harvard Park principal James Hayes "that for a lot of kids this was their sanctuary. Coming to school here, having these adults become champions of their lives. That's probably the biggest thing that worries a lot of us, especially our kids. The achievement gap is already so prevalent.

"Some of our kids could benefit from being in school, but then you start weighing the pros and cons and people get deathly sick and this makes sense for the greater good. It's unfortunate, though, because it does hit those less fortunate harder."

Create their own space

Brooks said she is setting up her grandsons, Jamahrie Newsom, a pre-kindergartner at Harvard Park and Jayden Swope, a third-grader at Ridgely Elementary, and niece Maria Spruill, a fourth-grader at Fairview Elementary, at her dining room table, with partitions, when "Team Grandma" is in session.

"To be honest, I would rather them go to school, but with the pandemic going on, I feel more comfortable with them doing the all-remote," Brooks said. "That way, I don't have to worry about (them getting sick)."

Carson admitted that she was fortunate to have her daughter look in on her sons, Willie Drew, an eighth-grader at Jefferson Middle School, and Donavan Drew, a kindergartner at Feitshans.

"I know other families aren't in that situation," Carson said.

Even last spring, she said, her sons' teachers "were on it. I appreciate how they have it all set up and I think it's going to be a great year."

Carrie Dippel works remotely for AT&T. Her husband Tony is building their daughter Madison, an eighth-grader at Jefferson, a work station right next to hers.

"Remote learning is no different than going to school for us," Dippel said. "So accountability is a big thing. To me school is a job. That is their job the first (18 years) of their lives."

Cormeny, the district's family and community engagement coordinator, said students might want to move toys and pets out of their space when they are on live Zoom sessions. Parents may want make sure the camera is focused on the student and be aware of anything else in the background.

Students having their own spaces puts them in the mindset of academics, Hayes said.

That's what Acker was trying to do with the smart cars, he said.

"What she's creating here," Hayes said, "is something cool and fun for the kids, but realistically the best part of this is that she's created (for them) their own space."

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Contact Steven Spearie: 622-1788, sspearie@sj-r.com, twitter.com/stevenspearie.

Remote learning do's and don'ts

Come properly dressed. "(Students) don't need to wear their uniforms, but it's a really good idea," said Harvard Park Elementary principal James Hayes. The uniform consists of khaki, black or blue pants and a solid color polo or Harvard Park shirt.

Students won't be allowed to participate in remote learning from their beds. The district recommends a set up at a table or desk.

Peggy Cormeny of District 186 advises parents and students to keep devices charged, especially if you are sharing outlets.

Use headphones to help block out distractions.

Avoid distractions, put those toys and pets and anything else that will divide a student's attention in other rooms.

Parents and students should check out to see what's on camera. What else is in the picture? Students can create virtual Zoom backgrounds; some are downloading pictures of their classroom to duplicate the experience.

©2020 The State Journal-Register, Springfield, Ill. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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