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Holladay Journal

Educators find creative ways to connect with students during school closure

May 04, 2020 01:21PM ● By Julie Slama

In Cottonwood Heights, Butler Middle School Principal Paula Logan leads her staff and faculty to parade through the neighborhood to connect with their students. (Julie Slama/City Journals)

By Julie Slama | [email protected]

After schools initially were put on soft closure in response to COVID-19, Park Lane Elementary teacher Susan Homer said she tried and tried to figure out the technology to teach her third graders.

“It was very stressful for me,” said the 30-year teaching veteran. “Teaching online just freaked out an old schoolteacher like me. I left in tears one day.”

That day, Homer knew how to fix her meltdown – reconnecting with her students.

“I emailed the parents and went to the kids. I left them packets on their porch and wrote to them how much they meant to me. Then, I stood back on the sidewalk and saw them. I really, really miss the kids,” Homer said. “I saw their cute faces and I remembered why I do what I do. I saw how much what I did meant to them and that gave me the courage to push forward and go online with new material.”

Connecting with students is a common thread amongst educators as many say they didn’t go into education to teach online. So many of them should get extra credit for finding ways to connect with students.

Altara Elementary Principal Nicole Svee Magann has gone live on the school’s Facebook page with “Magann’s Moments.” The episodes range from reading books to showing students secret places of the school, all the while telling the students that she mises them and all their noise in the halls and that without them in the school, it’s “kind of like ice cream cones without the ice cream.”

“We’re trying to find ways to connect with our students who are isolated and can feel frightened or overwhelmed and just need to see familiar faces and have laughter in their lives at a time like this,” she said. “Our teachers are holding morning meetings and using Flip Grid, where they ask students for responses to fun questions such as what they’re thankful for or what is their go-to song, before they begin their learning. They’re making connections even if they are not physically connecting.” 

Jordan Ridge Principal Melissa Beck also said her teachers were using Flip Grid to communicate with students.

“It’s been good to get feedback in video form that is more engaging instead of a typed response,” she said. “Our teachers are using digital tools to connect with students and parents in more creative ways.”

Butler Elementary Principal Jeff Nalwalker has livestreamed from different locations, challenging his students to figure out where he is – Wheeler Farm, Cowabunga Bay Water Park, or at a cookie store.

“It’s important for students at home to have that human connection to their school,” he said. “For kids, not being able to play with other kids or go to school, is unusual. So, if we’re able to connect with a friendly relationship, telling jokes, reading stories or having fun, it’s a good kind of engagement.”

Nalwalker also challenged for his school to Flip the Switch (a 15-second challenge that originated on social-networking app, TikTok, that typically involves two people instantly switching outfits). With the help of his wife and daughter, he was able to create his video, changing different suits while running. 

Not only have numerous Butler Elementary students and teachers participated, it has spread to other school administrators, such as Park Lane Principal Justin Jeffery, who mastered to Flip the Switch, changing his costumes while at his desk.

“I’ve never done social media, but I don’t think people do well in isolation and if this gives me another way to connect with students, then I’m learning,” Jeffery said. “My daughter, who is in kindergarten, saw her teacher on Zoom and she loved seeing her and her classmates. It was heartwarming.”

Now Jeffery provides online announcements and birthday shout-outs from different classrooms in the building and he’s handed out grab-and-go school lunches in costume.

But that’s not all teachers, administrators and PTAs are doing. Signs in appreciation of teachers, such as from Altara Elementary and Utah Schools for the Deaf and Blind, have been posted in teachers’ yards; they’ve also been posted in the lawns of students in encouragement by teachers, including those at Columbia Elementary, Intermountain Christian School and Murray High, amongst others, recognizing their seniors. Signs of encouragement were posted at Murray High to give support to the school community.

And leaders have given support, such as Canyons School District Superintendent Jim Briscoe providing a YouTube video about distance learning and resources and Jordan School District Superintendent Anthony Godfrey posting podcasts for families.

Several Salt Lake Valley elementary and middle or junior high school staff and faculty, with the help of local law enforcement, have paraded in cars through neighborhoods, giving shout-outs to students and seeing signs of appreciation in return. 

On April 7, Liberty Elementary librarian Emilee Barnett took part in her school’s parade.

“The parade route took us over two hours to drive, but it was wonderful to see the smiles, signs and waves from our students,” she said. “Many elderly and adults without children stood in their doorways to wave and cheer as well. What a bright day!”

Butler Middle School Principal Paula Logan took the lead in her school’s parade.

“We just want to say hi to the kiddos,” she said. “We miss them. It’s been a long time. When they see their teachers and school staff, they can feel special, forge some positive energy and hopefully, we will add some cheer.”

Canyons Board of Education Vice President Amber Schill was there to wish them on their way.

“The parade shows that teachers still care about them during this time of a lot of uncertainty,” she said, adding that her son received a postcard from one of his teachers at the school – one of 1,000 teachers already had mailed to students. “They’re amazing to show how they miss students when they’re busy figuring out how to deliver the curriculum online.”

Summit Academy seventh- and eighth-grade math teacher Natalie Sluga is reaching out to her 100 students, appreciating the online training teachers received weeks before the soft closure.

“I recorded and practiced for a couple hours to know what the lessons would look like, sound like, and then made adjustments to make it better for kids,” she said. “When I introduce a new topic, I want it to be me to introduce it. I feel strongly about it. I have a good relationship with my students and want to continue with that connection.”

Through technology, Sluga still shows students steps to solve math problems and understand concepts, which “bring stress levels down. It’s still my job to deliver lessons. I know my students; I want to keep supporting them and keeping moving forward.”

Indian Hills science teacher Rachel Afualo said that she was lucky to be familiar with the online platform Canvas, although she is still learning “the depths of it.” 

But more than delivering her coursework online, her seventh-grade team held an online spirit week for their students to check in wearing a crazy hat or socks, or even a character costume, when Afualo, herself, became a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle.

“We want to give our kids a sense of community and normalcy in a world that’s not normal,” she said. “We want to show we still care and are still here for them. I miss the kids. I miss what they do – try to get me to talk off topic or talk over me. What I miss most is not watching them learn with those ‘aha’ moments.”

Many schools across the state took part in a statewide spirit week, spurred on by Salt Lake School District. There’s been messages of hope and encouragement in chalk at schools and contests, scavenger hunts and videos posted by high school student body officers, many who will graduate without traditional commencement exercises. 

At Hillcrest High, students used their talents to chalk a portrait of their principal, Greg Leavitt, who had earlier posted a video of himself riding a tricycle down the hall while singing his usual song, “Friday, Friday, Friday is my favorite day.”

“We’re all trying to connect with students in what’s not easy for any of us,” Leavitt said. “There are many reasons, but the bottom line is we miss them.”

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