Washougal WA — It is 7:45 am and 60 first grade students at Columbia River Gorge Elementary are beginning their school day. At their home workspace, they log in to a Zoom classroom to welcoming music and each is greeted by name. On the screen is a list of materials they will need for the day’s instruction flacked by smiling and waving bitmojis illustrations of their teachers. A five-minute countdown begins at 8:00 am, and at 8:05 am, each student, now prepared for their day, breaks into individual virtual classrooms with teachers Allison McGranahan, Sydney Termini and Taryn Tedford.
“We feel it is important to start our day by having everyone together and greet each student by their name,” explained Tedford. “The bitmojis are just a fun way to represent us and our excitement for what’s to come. For instance, we had them wearing scrubs on the day we were studying the human body. Our morning routine is a small way to build a sense of community and connectivity that is missing in distance learning.”
Once broken out into classrooms, teachers lead an hour lesson. The larger group comes back together again at 9am to meet with a specialist for instruction and activities in art, music, PE and even Library. “It is important that students are able to stay connected with other teachers and continue to learn in these other important curriculum areas,” McGanahan said.
Students then go back to their classroom group for the last half hour of instruction. The remainder of the school day is spent viewing selected pre-recorded lessons and completing assignments.
The CRGE first grade team’s approach to teaching changed some since last spring, when teachers everywhere were asked to turn on a dime to online classes. They began this year by reviewing curriculum and deciding which lessons to begin with for remote learning. “We know that certain topics were okay being recorded and others are more conducive to being live lessons,” explained McGanahan. “We’ve tried to make it so that even if kids aren’t able to be at the Zoom lessons, they are able to engage in the learning lessons.”
Like the K-2 teachers of the Washougal School District, they are using the educational software app, SeeSaw to capture learning during the distance learning. They are able to send video lessons and activities for students to interact with during the afternoon asynchronous learning time.
Teachers set up activity buttons for students to connect to three lessons. One day may include math, a listen and learn activity and a skills practice, such as handwriting or answering questions about a story. There are also activities for the areas of science and even community building. Students can log in at any time in the day to complete the work. “I had a student who had a dentist appointment during class time but was still able to participate easily in the activities,” said McGanahan. “This offers a lot of flexibility for families.”
A good example of Seesaw’s use was a recent first grade unit on folk tales. “The assignment was for students to retell a folk tale or fable in their own words,” explained McGanahan. “They recorded themselves telling the story and even downloaded artwork they created to illustrate it. Then we were able to watch and listen to their work.”
“I am so amazed at how committed many of our families and students are to this whole distance learning process,” McGanahan added. “It is a lot and it is a challenge, but we have had kids show up when the power is off, the wind is blowing, and the smoke is in the air. Kids show up and participate when they are tired and are not feeling well. I have had a kid show up to Zoom because he did not want to miss it, even though his tummy hurt, and he had to leave because he was getting sick. Our students are not giving up just because we are doing distance learning! They are actively engaged and will be able to pick up right where we left off when we get the chance to be back in the building.”
Youngest learners thrive with structure and routine and the CRGE team understands that it is a struggle for students to not be in the classroom. “Even with all the tools we have in place, this is not the same as it would be in person,” McGanahan said. “Sometimes students just need to be near the teacher and talk through a problem without the whole group watching. They need to get up and move and learn in different ways, and that is difficult over Zoom.”
Termini agrees. “It is a challenge for me to not see each students’ process,” she explained. “I don’t see them individually as they work through an assignment to recognize where they may have struggled. I just see the outcome, not how they problem solve and approach the work.”
Another challenge to distance learning is lesson preparation that must take weeks of lead time to gather and distribute materials to families who drive to the school at specific times for pick up. “It was such a treat to see students as they came to pick up bags,” said Termini. “It was good to touch base face to face with our students and their parents to check in on how it is going.”
A benefit that has risen from remote learning is the stronger connections being made with many of the students’ families. “We are working hard to address parent needs as much as we can and support them,” said Tedford. “The partnership we have with parents is so important and is being fine-tuned.”
“We are not able to do our job without family support and I absolutely love the depth of connection with parents I am able to make because of distance learning,” said McGanahan.
“I appreciate how supportive our student’s families have been,” added Termini. “We couldn’t do it without them!”