Redefining home work: Traill County teachers adapting to distance learning

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Posted: Friday, April 17, 2020 6:09 am

North Dakota school buildings have been shuttered since March 15, when Gov. Doug Burgum took action to limit the spread of COVID-19.

At the time, the state had only one reported case of the disease, caused by the novel coronavirus. 

Since then, the number of reported cases has grown to 365 across a majority of counties in the state.

As of Thursday morning, Traill County has not had a reported case of the illness, but area teachers are nonetheless adapting to distance learning in a variety of ways across a variety of age groups.

From music videos to art projects to cooking and scavenger hunts, Traill County schools are finding ways to connect with students despite an uncertain future.

The Banner spoke to five teachers from each of the county’s four school districts to see how lesson plans have been forced to evolve over the past month. 

Family-like atmosphere

Despite no in-person classes, Frannie Tunseth has made it her personal responsibility to make sure every kid in her class gets her undivided attention and love.

The Hillsboro fourth-grade teacher said remote learning has been an adjustment, but it’s also forced her to get more creative with the limited amount of screen time she gets to spend with students. 

“We’re trying really hard to create the same classroom experiences through digital learning so that this is a time (the kids) can look back on and of their fourth-grade experience,” Tunseth said. 

Tunseth and fellow fourth-grade teacher Rob Longthorne have set up a range of activities that all 30 of their kids can experience each day.

They have check-ins for kids to identify how they’re feeling and communicate with their teachers if they need anything. 

That can range from one-on-one Zoom video chats, a phone call or a friendly message. 

Following that, Tunseth said, the kids can ask for anything ranging from a friendly message to Tunseth telling them a joke or acting silly with them. 

She said she’ll even draw pictures with students.

“They get a chance to share about some other things that are going on with them. We always leave an open spotlight for anything they want to tell us and that has been really fun,” Tunseth said. 

“We’ve tried really hard to keep that family-like atmosphere.”

Tunseth said they’ve implemented an option of lunch dates with their students to help with inclusion. 

Any kids who want to join can bring their lunches and sit in on a Zoom call with their classmates so they can see their friends. 

“We don’t talk about school things. We just talk about life in general,” Tunseth said. “We’re here for each other and I love seeing the smiles on their faces.” 

She and Longthorne are working on more interactive activities for students online, but playfully declined to provide specifics.

Tunseth wants her kids to be surprised when those activities pop up so she can bring more smiles to their faces. 

“I’ve known I’ve wanted to be a teacher ever since I was a kindergartner,” she said. “I wanted to just be able to help out and I just think teaching is such a rewarding experience because every day I have the opportunity to make somebody’s life better.”

Smooth transition

Kyle Morehart was ahead of the curve when the time came to switch to online teaching. Morehart, a junior high math teacher at Hillsboro High School, had already been using Google Classroom to help teach his classes the last few years. 

“Google has been something we’ve used on a daily basis,” he said. “It has their assignments in there, videos of other instructors teaching the same concept so that way, if (students) don’t understand what I’m doing they can find other resources.

“I usually help them find the videos and post them in there for them to use,” he added. “The transition has not been that hard. We’ve been very fortunate.”

Morehart said the one challenge he and his classes have had to overcome is students not knowing the complete transition of no longer meeting face to face was coming. Morehart said he didn’t have the opportunity to give them instructions in person of how to proceed.

However, he said his classes have adjusted well with just minor communication hiccups, and he gives credit to students’ prior usage of Google Classroom. 

“The school assigned and gave out Chromebooks that we used in our classroom anyway, so the majority of people are doing everything they’re supposed to be doing,” Morehart said. “Overall it was a struggle early on – it wasn’t an ideal situation – but we learn to be flexible. We adapt and overcome. It’s now kind of the routine.”

Morehart has been trying to get out of the mindset of having set hours. 

He prefers to answer emails when come in from parents and students or be available to help explain a lesson when students need help as they work at their own pace.

While he liked having a break after his work day ended at 4 p.m., he finds it less stressful to tackle each task that arises individually than being flooded all at once. 

“There’s no 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. class schedule right now. It’s pretty much 24/7,” Morehart said. “Some kids don’t do their work until late at night and then they ask questions.

“Any time an email pops up, you want to answer it – you want to get an answer back to them quickly,” he added. “It’s more hours. I’d definitely rather be in the classroom with the kids and see their faces, but when you look at the situation, we’ve done a nice job of getting through it.” 

No piece of cake

Nancy Capouch said she feels like a first-year teacher again.

The MayPort-CG FACS instructor, now in her sixth year in the position, said her hands-on lessons with sewing, cooking and baking have had to be reinvented for distance learning.

Without having a classroom setting to work in, she’s instead embraced a more hands-off approach.

“I don’t want to just throw them busy work, so I’m trying to be creative and doing things that are their choice,” Capouch said. “I sent them a Bingo sheet that had 25 things like making their family a meal.”

Capouch also offered students the task of rearranging their rooms along with cooking and baking efforts.

She joked that, without being able to physically watch meal preparation and taste the food, her grading on baking and sewing has had to be relaxed.

As long as students send photos of their completed work, they score high marks. 

“If it doesn’t burn – if I don’t see smoke,” Capouch said with a laugh. “I can tell from a picture if it turned out.”

Students receive their assignments online through Schoology and are able to pick up materials from the school as needed for a project.

For example, students will be working on sewing with a packet of cloth, patterns, thread and a needle Capouch has provided for them.

“We’re doing a dish towel – something they can use. They can make a mask out of it later,” she added with a laugh.

Capouch said that students being forced to stay home and adapt to family living is in the “wheelhouse” of her FACS class mission.

“These kids are going to say, ‘Remember when we had to stay home and it was difficult to stay home?’” she added. “I just think it’s a neat thing that we’re getting our time to shine.

“I think people are finding out that (FACS) is very valued in family life and getting along,” Capouch said. “Going forward, the kids who are doing this are going to be glad they had this class.”

Musical mayhem

Stephanie Britton’s students have been asked to step outside their comfort zones.

While daily group practices have been a staple of the Central Valley School music teacher’s classes, distance learning has shifted the curriculum toward weekly one-on-one instruction.

That includes a mixture of in-person lessons along with video recitals.

“It’s been a lot of going back to the basics,” Britton said. “We’ve kind of done an assignment every week.”

Students check in with her every two weeks for a 15-minute, in-person practice, but the video lessons have forced students to listen to themselves.

Britton said the exercise has  helped students develop an ear for their musical tone.

“Some of them have never really listened to themselves play or sing,” she said.

“But it gives them an opportunity to critique their own sound.”

She said she feels bad for percussionists, who aren’t able to bring the school’s drums and bells home.

Instead, they’ve had to improvise.

“When we do recordings of instruments, we have to figure it out by clapping or banging on something that’s not going to make their parents mad,” she said with a laugh.

Britton added that this time of year would normally involve final preparations for spring concerts and music competitions.

While work is still being done to perfect students’ small-group performances, those performances may be done in front of Mom and Dad rather than for judges this spring.

“We’re hoping they can at least perform it at home and record themselves performing for their family so that work doesn’t go to waste,” Britton said.

Getting funky

Teaching second-graders remotely has meant a huge adjustment for Krista Roder.

But the Hatton Eielson School instructor said she and her colleagues have tried to make things as lighthearted as possible for students.

“We created a music video for ‘Corona Funk,’ a song I made up that goes with the beat of ‘Uptown Funk,’” Roder said. “We had various teachers do it when the virus first started to put some smiles on kids’ faces.”

Roder has a YouTube channel that features art projects for students and she provides kids with homework packets on a weekly basis.

One project involves graphing with M&Ms, and Roder was able to find worksheets specifically made for using them. 

She also meets weekly with her 14 students over Google Meet, a video conferencing app, to connect and interact.

One idea she has is to conduct a scavenger hunt with her kids from their homes.

“I might ask them to find something blue, and then see what they come back with,” Roder said. 

“The hard thing is when you’re talking to 14 students on a Google Meet session, everyone starts talking,” she added with a laugh.

Distance learning has been more difficult than Roder anticipated, however.

While the students and parents have been great to work with, she said it’s been tough to shut off her mind from thinking about the kids and how they are doing.

She still goes to the school throughout the week because that’s where she wants to be.

“My heart belongs with children,” Roder said. “Before, I’d get off work and I’d feel like my job was done when I got home, but now I am constantly looking out for ways I can reach out to families or get lessons across better.”

Hatton’s teachers held a parade around town Wednesday afternoon so they could see students and wish them well while they are stuck apart.

Roder, who will be moving to a kindergarten teaching position at MayPort-CG next year, said she remains hopeful that in-person classes are able to resume by the end of the school year. 

When she said goodbye to her students on Friday, March 13, she never thought it would be the last time she’d get to see her class in her classroom.

“I really hope we get to go back to school,” Roder said. “If for some reason we don’t get to, I’d love to get together with my class this summer for some closure.”

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