Finding Fun Ways to Stay Connected

Door County schools settle into a new, virtual normal

Gibraltar teachers wish their students a happy Monday. Photo layout by Gereon Methner.

Since Gov. Tony Evers made the call to close Wisconsin schools on March 13, teachers and staff have been working diligently to create a new normal through remote learning. Then when Evers extended the Safer at Home order to May 26, teachers – like most people across the state – took a deep breath and began to settle in further to the routines they’ve created for themselves and their students.

Door County teachers have been finding creative ways to provide lessons. For Justin Burress, an elementary teacher and varsity boys basketball coach at Gibraltar, that means using his daughters’ stuffed animals as a stand-in audience for his virtual lessons instead of teaching to an empty room. It also means giving lessons in a dress shirt and sweatpants, testing out six different “offices” in his house and trying to participate in staff meetings while one of his daughters tickles his feet under the table.

He even filmed a video of himself delivering a lesson, pretending to get interrupted by students filing into the room or asking to use the restroom.

“The kids definitely like when you throw jokes in there or riddles once in a while, just to try to bring a little bit of ourselves into the daily routine,” Burress said. “Otherwise it can get pretty dry.”

In the “classroom,” teachers at Gibraltar are getting creative with online programs such as Seesaw, Google Slides and Google Hangouts. Burress said it takes much longer to prepare a virtual lesson when you have to film yourself – which might be new to most teachers – or type out detailed yet concise instructions.

“It’s like planning for a substitute teacher times 10, when you think about how specific you have to be for somebody else to teach a lesson plan, but now you’re trying to deliver this instruction through a computer,” Burress said.

He uses Seesaw for his lessons with elementary students and has a Hangout with his entire class every Friday. 

During those hangouts, students are able to catch up with their classmates and do an activity such as reading a book together. Burress estimates that they’ll increase Hangout meetings to two or three times a week now that the Safer at Home order has been extended. Hangouts are also used on an individual-student basis.

Teachers at Gibraltar are required to have a minimum of two contacts per day. Burress does both a morning and end-of-day video on top of his daily lessons.

He’s also working to keep students engaged athletically. He created a basketball challenge – the Viking Norse Course Championship – that started on April 17 and was open to both students and the community until April 24.

Other Door County teachers are practicing similar methods of staying engaged with their students. Sevastopol Elementary Principal Aaron Hilts said teachers are touching base with each student personally – whether that’s through phone calls, video chats or email (depending on the age group) – to make sure students are still feeling connected to school. 

That human connection is especially important for students with learning disabilities, English Language Learners and students with different academic, emotional and behavioral needs, said Melissa Marggraf, director of pupil services at Sevastopol. The staff is working hard to ensure that their students know they are missed and cared about.

When it comes down to it, teachers miss their students, and Door County teachers have found fun ways to make that known and stay connected.

Southern Door English teacher Brett Hanson created a video of students and teachers dancing to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” both as a way for his students to practice being behind the camera for an upcoming assignment, but also as a way to encourage them to be creative. Sunrise and Sawyer staff members in Sturgeon Bay shared videos featuring words of encouragement from teachers to their students. Sevastopol School is having a district-wide virtual race to stay fit. And schools are using Facebook to share news of their seniors’ future plans, to have virtual Spirit Weeks, feature staff members and share the different ways in which people are staying active.

This article would be far too long if we featured every video, post and picture that schools are sharing, and there simply aren’t enough words to explain how resilient and flexible teachers have been in accommodating different modes of learning during this time. 

Melissa Marggraf said it best: “Somehow, we’re all going to come out at the end of this as better educators and better connected between home to school because we’ve gone through this together.”

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