Grand Erie at Home: The Elementary Classroom Goes Remote

When Kindergarten teacher Adam Lawrence and Designated Early Childhood Educator Melanie McLaren embarked on their careers in education, becoming YouTube stars certainly wasn’t part of the plan. When the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools to in-person learning, however, they had to quickly brainstorm a strategy to recreate the vibrancy and interactivity of their Kindergarten classroom at Cobblestone Elementary School virtually. 

“Our classroom is typically a very busy place, with many student-directed opportunities,” says Lawrence. “If students found worms outside, we brought them inside, built a habitat, and learned about worms; if a child brought in a shark's tooth for show-and-tell, we'd turn it into Shark Week. We wanted to recreate that engaging student-inquiry experience online.”

So Lawrence and McLaren embraced technology and made the best of stay-at-home orders, bringing inquiry and storytelling to life through video content that they uploaded to Brightspace. They’ve gone on “bear hunts” on forest trails, collected materials to build their own beaver dams (one student even utilized the bathtub to build his), and donned colourful costumes for sing-alongs. The results are a virtual classroom that captures the energy and discovery of in-person learning. 

Above: Kindergarten Teacher Adam Lawrence’s YouTube video brings story time to life for his students.

Across Grand Erie, teachers and support staff are working to foster the same welcoming, inclusive environments that exist within their school buildings, even though they can’t be together in person. Grand Erie’s Multi-Year Plan has prioritized technology, building the infrastructures needed to enhance classroom learning, and the pandemic has made those tools more vital than ever as educators utilize them in new ways to support student achievement

Deanna Morrison, an educational assistant at Brier Park Public School, is accustomed to modifying learning activities to fit the needs of her special education students within an integrated classroom. When she can’t be in the same room as her students, however, new challenges arise – but so do the dynamics necessary to overcome them.

“Children with social, behavioral, learning, and sensory needs really require that human connection, and it’s really difficult to substitute that through technology,” she explains. “I’ve been fortunate to work with a great team that is receptive to my ideas. They’ve been amazing, and so creative in making the best of a not-so-ideal learning environment.”  

That’s meant the education team uses everything available to create the same wrap-around supports they normally would. Preparation and debriefing meetings are on Teams, they keep in touch throughout the day via text, and regular phone calls with parents ensure they have a fuller picture to follow up on the day’s activities and address students’ specific learning needs. When virtual class is in session, Morrison works together (but apart) with teachers to ensure the most inclusive learning experience. 

“I play an active role in presenting and modeling for my students during class Teams sessions, and modify activities to adapt to what those students need,” she says. “That might mean using Play-Doh for building letters and numbers, using manipulatives to keep them engaged, and using zone activities for self-regulation.” 

Above: Student Victory leads a physical education activity as part of Sunny Wan’s Grade 1 class.

For many educators, transitioning their teaching practices to the online space has come with a learning curve. Luckily, it’s one that their students can often help navigate. For David Musselwhite, Grade 4/5 teacher at Rainham Central School, his tech-savvy students have been able to share their knowledge to enhance the learning activities in the virtual classroom. 

“I’ve been using a program to make PDF files editable, and initially, student work displayed in an extremely small, almost unreadable font,” he says. “Students were all too happy to stay in the meeting after class to help troubleshoot and figure things out.”

Sometimes the virtual learning experience has brought new opportunities and ways of thinking that might not have come as quickly in the physical classroom environment. 

“I think one of the most rewarding opportunities has come in the form of a different kind of one-on-one support that’s possible in this format,” says Musselwhite. “This has led to other types of collaboration, such as working in documents in real time. For example, I have had students share their Word document in Teams, and have been able to share control so that we can work on edits and formatting together.”

Grade 1 teacher Sunny Wan has been teaching in the Virtual Academy since October and agrees that while remote learning has come with many challenges, it’s also brought new opportunities.

“It’s challenging for kids this age to sit in front of a screen, so we take a lot of brain breaks and incorporate physical activities and scavenger hunts around the house into our days,” said Wan, pointing out how resilient her students have been during this unprecedented time. “They understand why they are learning virtually. Even though they miss their friends and their brick-and-mortar schools, they’ve quickly adapted to online learning and have made new friends in the virtual class. What a unique experience in their lives!”

Photos by Grand Erie Communications

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