Olentangy Schools teachers get creative with distance learning

JIM FISCHER
editorial@thisweeknews.com
Olentangy Schools third-grade teacher Donna Laughlin created a bitmoji selfie and classroom she used for the first day of school.

On the first day of school, Olentangy Schools science teacher Kaylee Boyer's high school chemistry students watched Boyer eat a candle.

At least, that's how it appeared to Boyer's students as they watched on screens, participating in the district's Committed Distance Learning attendance model.

The "candle" actually was a cheese stick with a partially burned almond pushed into one end. The oils in the almond will light, giving it the appearance of a flame. And Boyer took a bite, on camera.

"Science is about observation and inference," Boyer explained. "The lesson was that inferences aren't always correct. That was the end of class."

When Olentangy Schools officials made the decision to offer full-time virtual learning to families in response to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic, they knew they also would be asking some teachers to deal with a different kind of classroom.

Administrators knew it was possible, if often uncomfortable, given the experiences of this past spring, when schools were shut down with little to no notice for students, families and teachers.

Committed to offering, in the words of chief academic officer Jack Fette, "an authentic, albeit new, Olentangy experience," the district set out to find teachers willing to provide instruction in a virtual setting for the approximately 5,400 students who had opted for the district's CDL model.

"An Olentangy experience is an Olentangy teacher-driven curriculum with almost daily interaction," CDL lead administrator Jennifer Furey said. "Committed Distance Learning students are receiving an Olentangy education, as Olentangy teachers are creating the content being taught (and) forming significant relationships with the students. The students therefore are connected to the quality curriculum."

Boyer expressed an interest in CDL teaching early in the process. Not all teachers at the high school and middle school levels who did so were placed in CDL.

Although Boyer had led a "flipped" classroom -- a "blended learning model in which traditional ideas about classroom activities and homework are reversed," according to schoology.com -- in the district's STEM program for several years, she had no experience teaching in an online setting, other than the final part of last school year.

Likewise for third-grade teacher Donna Laughlin. Her extensive background in technology, working for CompuServe in the nascent days of the internet, gave her a level of comfort with some aspects of online instruction. But her 19 years of teaching -- 17 in Olentangy elementary schools, including Indian Springs, Freedom Trail and Liberty Tree -- had included only the closing months of last school year online.

"I was prepared to come back to the classroom, wear a mask and shield and gloves, fully committed to my team, but as I saw more and more students signing up (for CDL), I felt my background in technology might be beneficial," Laughlin said.

The district provided training specific to its CDL teachers in the weeks leading to the start of the school year, aiming to develop a program that is "flexible, reflective and collaborative," Furey said.

Boyer said she has embraced the challenges of finding new ways to communicate ideas.

"Discussions and assessments are different in person," she said. "A test on paper has worked in every school district I've worked in. But how to do that in an online classroom has been something I've had to learn."

Of particular concern to teachers, students and parents has been the lack of an in-person lab experience for Boyer's chemistry, honors chemistry and AP chemistry classes.

"Science requires 'messing around,' exploring topics. So now we need to explore those ideas across a computer screen," Boyer said. "I feel like this is giving me a new perspective on things I wouldn't have had otherwise."

"I don't think you can replace the classroom, but I think you can provide a creative learning experience using technology," Laughlin said. "There is still some experimenting going on, but there is such a commitment to be successful from our teachers, administration and our technology team and from our students."

Furey said teachers have not been asked to replicate the traditional classroom experience.

"We want the teachers to meet the needs of the students and use all the tools at their disposal to do that," she said. "They are finding ways to take what they did in the physical schools and incorporate it into CDL."

Laughlin acknowledged CDL teaching is, at least early on, heavy on such things as web design and tech support. Boyer added that slideshows, videos and Schoology (the district's communication and distance-learning delivery platform) can necessitate altered lesson plans, if not the purpose of the lesson itself.

But both said an early challenge of CDL hasn't been with lessons and assignments but rather relationships.

"If you're not in there, you might not realize how much you take in from people when you're seeing them," Boyer said.

"Things like, if they play soccer, they wear their jerseys on game days, or who they're walking to class with, so you don't see who their friends are."

"I love the kids. All teaching has that connection with children in common," Laughlin said. "(In CDL), we're just creating that same community, that foundation of support, but through things like digital citizenship, by having each student create a slide with their picture and what they think is their best characteristic, by having a discussion around the questions of how are we all going to get along?"

Boyer typically is assigned to Olentangy Berlin High School but is teaching students from all four high schools in CDL.

"Those are kids I would have never met," she said.

And who never would have seen their chemistry teacher eat a candle.

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