MFL MarMac teachers continue connecting with students through school closure

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Even though MFL MarMac is closed for the remainder of the school year due to COVID-19, teachers are still connecting with students and offering optional learning opportunities. Here, third grade teacher Jennifer Wilwert connects with her students through the meeting app Zoom.

Pam Havlicek shares a story with her first graders.

Middle school science teachers Dawn Colsch and Twila Converse have started a weekly video conference with students. “Our conferences have included many discussions, both general and scientific, and a couple games of Kahoot and scavenger hunts,” Colsch shared.

Middle school math teacher Lindsey Fisk asked some of her students what they missed the most during the pandemic. “The students are working very hard mentally and physically,” she said.

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“I’ve had people ask, ‘What are you doing with all your free time?’ But I don’t really have any free time.”

Like other staff members at MFL MarMac, teacher and curriculum director Eliza Philpott hasn’t taken a break since COVID-19 forced the school to close last month. Shortly after the initial closure, she and the school’s instructional coaches, Jess Peterson, Brent Pape, Heidi Meyer and Melissa Haberichter, set to work gathering optional learning opportunities for students.

Within a week, teachers had developed a list of resources, ideas, links and essential questions that were placed on the district website. At the elementary level, this was done by grade level. For grades 6-12, including specials like P.E. and fine arts, resources were organized by content area.

“We had to figure out how to get information out to the families that we have these things for students to do,” Philpott detailed. “Then we had to make sure everyone has access, that no one feels left out.”

“It was almost like developing new curriculum,” said high school principal Larry Meyer.

In addition to the resources available online, many MFL MarMac teachers have reached out to their students individually.

Middle school math teacher Lindsey Fisk emails students and families every Monday and Wednesday with challenges they can complete during the week. Some of the challenges included recorded lessons of Fisk teaching topics students haven’t covered yet. 

“I encourage my students to share their work with me so I can give them feedback,” she said. “I also encourage them to contact me with questions and concerns they might have.”

Fifth grade teacher Shauna Lange sent handwritten letters to her students, and has emailed reading guides to lay out a plan for reading at home. High school Spanish students have gotten videos and stories to help them converse in Spanish, and high school science teacher Cheryl Drowns is emailing science experiments for students to try. Middle school teacher Brandon Burke poses current events questions to engage conversations, and the physical education department is encouraging kids to engage in Bigger Faster Stronger workouts at home. Special education teachers also wrote letters to their students, and have continued with any individualized education programs, or IEPs.

Middle school art teacher Natalie Campbell has received pictures of artwork students have completed.

“When planning activities, I tried to think of what they might have at home that they could use for an art project,” she said. “Many of the learning opportunities use basic supplies like pencil, paper, crayons, markers, watercolors and oil pastels.”

Pam Havlicek said the first grade team has distributed reading and math worksheets that hit several content standards that are necessary for students to master by the end of first grade. She even hand delivered packets to student homes.  

“The first packets I delivered had a fun post card I wrote them and a fun wooden project for kids to paint/color that I had purchased from a local vendor and they were too heavy to mail. It took me about two hours to drive to each household and deliver packages, but it was so fun to see students waving at me from afar and smiling,” she said.

She also shares emails and posts in her class’ private Facebook group to keep parents updated. They’ve used the platform to recognize the “Star of the Week,” a weekly activity where students could share about themselves by bringing in items to display in the showcases outside the classrooms. At the end of the week, students would write a letter to the Star of the Week about things they liked or questions they had about the showcase. 

“Since I knew I would be missing several students that were scheduled during all of this, I came up with a plan to have them get all their things together and take pictures of them. Then I organized them into photo collages and display them on our class Facebook group,” Havlicek explained. “Students and families comment on the pictures throughout the week and then students are writing their letter for the Star. I have collected letters from students’ homes when they leave them out for me, I have an inbox on my front porch for deliveries and even have had some emailed to me. It’s been a fun way to continue this tradition, and no one is getting left out.”

Third grade teacher Jennifer Wilwert emails her students one to two times each week, and has encouraged them to try a new online math program, Splash Learn. 

“This program reviews all the math concepts third graders would learn in the school year. So far, we’ve had positive feedback,” she noted.

Like Havlicek, Wilwert has offered to deliver items to households while maintaining social distancing and minimum contact. So far, she’s made five book deliveries.

Middle school science teacher Dawn Colsch said Google Classroom has assisted her with home learning connections. Online meeting applications, like Zoom, have also been a popular tool.

“[Fellow science teacher] Twila Converse and I have started a weekly video conference. Our conferences have included many discussions, both general and scientific, and a couple games of Kahoot and scavenger hunts,” Colsch shared.

Middle school language arts teacher Stephanie Jones has held several virtual book club sessions through Zoom.

“Reading and talking about books are the most valuable activities my students engage in when they are in my classroom. I didn’t want them to lose the lifelong reading habits and passion for reading we’ve been developing over the years,” she said. “Sharing book talks strengthens so many speaking and listening skills for students, including the ability to use summarizing, synthesizing, inferencing, visualization and more. All of these skills lead to stronger comprehension, which, in turn, results in more enjoyable reading experiences and further developed writing abilities.”

During Zoom sessions with her fourth graders, Lange said students share what has been keeping them busy and play games.

“I really enjoy working with my students face to face,” she remarked.

Wilwert’s third graders also have an opportunity to share, and listen to her read a book, at their 30-minute weekly Zoom sessions. Of her 19 students, 12 to 14 regularly participate.

“We’ve also done a scavenger hunt and answered ‘Would You Rather’ questions. The kids love to make faces with each other in the video camera, so I save time at the end of each session for them to do that,” she said.

In addition, students have been invited to participate in a book club. They’re currently reading “Balto of the Blue Dawn” by Mary Pope Osborne.

“We are reading two to three chapters at a time and then having Zoom meetings to discuss it,” Wilwert said. “The book is about the diphtheria epidemic in Nome, Alaska, in 1925. The town is under quarantine, and medicine needs to reach the town, but there is a blizzard. The characters are going to try to help to get the medicine. I like how the book can be related to our current situation.”

Havlicek, a first grade teacher, said it was initially hard to determine how many resources to provide and how often to communicate with families.

“No training has ever prepared us for anything like this,” she reflected. “It’s been a challenge trying to find the right balance about what to do.  You don’t want to send parents too much, but want them to know you are able to give them resources and ideas if they want them.”

“It’s also difficult to do some technology things with kids this age because they aren’t capable of doing some things on their own yet,” she added. “Most kids this age don’t have their own Facebook accounts or emails. So when planning things, I have to take into consideration the mix of families and what times best meet their needs.”

While this interaction is valuable, the teachers admitted they miss in-person interaction with their students.

“Teaching is more than just the class work, but actually connecting with the students,” Campbell said.

“The kids have commented that they want to come back to school, that they miss it,” Havlicek added. “It was heartbreaking to hear them say that because, at their age, school is their life, it’s how they get to socialize and interact with others. It’s a security for them. This made me miss them even more.”

Fisk said she’s been impressed with how many students are contacting her. 

“They are contacting me for various reasons such as just checking to see how I am, sharing their work and asking questions,” she said. “The students are working very hard mentally and physically through this epidemic. The parents have also been very supportive as well. We are truly in this together, which has been a great feeling and sense of relief that this will end and we will be OK.” 

In some ways, Colsch imagines the pandemic will have a positive impact on students.

“Many students have shown an increase in appreciation, empathy and awareness,” she said. “In the end, we will be more unified than ever before.”

Philpott said it will help teachers too.

“It will help them think about what they cover for students to move on to the next year—what they need to know from fifth to sixth grade or eighth to ninth grade to move on,” she stated. “They’ve also learned different ways of teaching with digital media.”

“We are trying to have meaningful conversations to come out of this situation better and stronger than ever before,” added the instructional coach, Melissa Haberichter. “What we can’t salvage out of this year, we’re hoping to strengthen for next year.”

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