Thriving Virtually >> St. Vrain teachers rise to the challenge of online learning

“What is the name of your favorite childhood teacher?” For most, the answer does more than fulfill the requirements of an online security question, it conjures up memories of meaningful connection and lasting impact. Chances are, the teacher that holds that prestigious title does so for many reasons — they fostered meaningful relationships, made content relevant and fun, and exuded a contagious passion for learning. They also might have offered a steady presence during a challenging time in life.

On March 13, when the coronavirus pandemic forced St. Vrain’s buildings to close, learning moved online and, under unprecedented circumstances, teachers were challenged to access those traits that make them great. As they packed up their classrooms and reassembled them on their kitchen tables, teachers rose to the challenge, working tirelessly to maintain a prominent role in their students’ lives. Though classroom spaces were fundamentally changed, what makes a teacher great stayed the same.

Relationships

Theodore Roosevelt once said that “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Lauren Vargas at Mountain View Elementary knows this is especially true for her kindergarten students. In her five years in St. Vrain, for Vargas, it has always been about “relationships—number one; all day every day.”

Most students enter kindergarten unable to read, presenting a pedagogical challenge in and of itself. Maintaining a virtual relationship with a five year old who can’t read is daunting, maintaining thirty of them can seem impossible. But Vargas did not allow the magnitude of the task to dampen her desire to connect with every one of her students. As students submitted their assignments online, she recorded voice comments to give individual feedback. “I commented on every single thing they turned in so they knew I value the work they are doing, so they know it's important for me,” she said. 

Though kindergarten students may be limited in their ability to write in complete sentences or paragraphs, Vargas believes they are not limited in their thinking. She encouraged students to talk to her, to show her what they are thinking through voice memos and videos. She also created interactive events like bedtime video read-aloud sessions and live virtual field trips to the San Diego Zoo, the Georgia Aquarium, and the Butterfly Pavilion.

Vargas also realized the importance of connecting with families. She regularly made phone calls to check in on her students, asking open-ended questions like, “What is working? What can I change? And, how can I better connect with your child?” 

One of the primary goals of early childhood education is to help students fall in love with learning, and peak moments are a critical element of this. Vargas refused to let the pandemic strip away every peak moment, and instead, nurtured relationships with students and families to help ensure both personal and academic success for years to come.

Relevant and Fun Content

Under normal circumstances, Jason Turner’s physical classroom at Sunset Middle School awakens your creativity. Upbeat music buzzes softly in the background, soft lamps illuminate student artwork hanging on every open inch of wall space, and the smell of oil pastels and clay transport you from the adjacent sterile locker bay to an inspiring art studio.

It is natural to assume that for an elective course tied to a physical space and reliant on materials like kilns and clay, no virtual option for art class could suffice. But for Turner, art is much more than a line on a student’s schedule or a room they sit in during third period. “Art is all around, art is literally everywhere, and my goal is to help students see that,” he says.

Sunset Assistant Principal Mary Ellen Graziani was especially impressed by Turner’s ability to build powerful connections with his students and then co-develop projects where they could use their home environment to create amazing art. Rather than assigning traditional art projects revolving around certain physical materials, Turner encouraged his students to find materials around their homes and use them to create art. It is difficult to be apathetic toward art when it can be discovered anywhere around you. 

Turner developed a Quarantine Digital Art Show 2020 to showcase his students’ work, and the site has been viewed thousands of times by teachers, parents, community members, and students. As part of the exhibition, one student organized some of his favorite objects to spell out his name, another arranged objects in her room to create a color scale, and others explored the outdoors for “found object mandalas.” Some students layered objects from their kitchen over top of pencil drawings, while others dressed up to stage recreations of famous paintings. 

An important component of student motivation is understanding the audience for which they create. Turner made sure that his students knew that what they created didn’t just fill their teacher’s crowded inbox, it was displayed publicly to inspire others. “When students are home, it’s more important than ever that what they are doing goes somewhere. I want to push their work into a public-facing product.”

 

Passion for Learning

Nothing evokes more pride in a teacher than when a student walks out of their classroom with more love for a subject than they had when they walked in. For eight years as an AP U.S. HIstory teacher at Skyline High School, Caitlin McGinn has worked hard to foster in her students a deep, enduring love for the subject of history.

“She is just a phenomenal teacher,” raves Skyline Principal Heidi Ringer, “and you’ll hear that from everyone — parents, students, other teachers.” 

In her classes, McGinn masterfully utilizes whole-class debates, socratic seminars, round table discussions, and reenactments to help her students grasp historical content. When schools across the nation closed their doors, the easiest thing to do in an all-virtual environment would have been to pose chapter review worksheets that came with her textbook, and maybe a few YouTube videos for good measure. But McGinn knows that for history to come alive, it must connect to the present. She knows that for students to fall in love with a subject, they must engage with it. Instead, she worked tirelessly to help her students see parallels between different eras of history and current time, creating engaging video discussion boards where students answered discussion prompts through video about the content they had just learned.

McGinn’s students finished the year with extremely high engagement rates and performed well on the AP test. “No one could ever prepare for this, but I feel like it was about as seamless of a transition as you could have.” 

Even while teaching in a totally digital environment, McGinn continued the pattern of growing her students into lifelong learners. More impressively, amidst uncertainty, change, and challenge, she modeled for all of her students that what really matters is unchanging.