Teachers in District 220 find creative ways to teach virtually

At-home ceramics kits. Ring lights to video-record anatomy dissections. Interactive Bitmoji classrooms.

While their students remain at home, teachers in Barrington Area Unit School District 220 are back in their classrooms - and finding all sorts of creative ways to teach classes on Zoom.

The first day of school was Aug. 18 and virtual learning in the district will be in place through at least Oct. 16. The district already had a blended learning model - which allowed students to do some online-based independent work outside the classroom - and had equipped all students with iPads, plus some with MacBooks for things like computer science.

While that made the transition to virtual learning somewhat easier, teachers said, they still spent time this summer figuring out how to better and more effectively teach remotely in the new school year.

Caroline Milne, who teaches biology and honors human biology at Barrington High School, set up her desk in her classroom with a ring light for shadow-free illumination, her laptop and a stand for her iPad so she can share her screen with students while she does things like examine a cow's eye. She prerecords videos of herself doing dissections and then watches them with students, who can also watch them again if they wish.

"It's so funny, I feel like a blogger," she said.

Milne said she misses seeing her students in person - not only are they faces on a screen now, but some of them keep their cameras off, perhaps to keep their home environment private.

One unexpected advantage, she said, is that she's learning their names much faster because she sees them written on her screen daily.

Jennifer Siegel, a second-grade teacher at Grove Avenue Elementary School in Barrington, is complementing her Zoom classes with a virtual, colorful Bitmoji classroom that she learned to set up by watching lots of YouTube videos this summer.

Jennifer Siegel, a second-grade teacher at Grove Avenue Elementary School in Barrington, complements her Zoom classes with a virtual Bitmoji classroom. Courtesy of Jennifer Siegel

The customized cartoon classroom will be a resource hub for her students, she said. It will be updated daily with agendas and morning announcements, and comes with lots of "clickable" features like a "word wall," an ongoing list of words the students learn, and a "book room," with recordings of Siegel reading book chapters during Zoom class.

Siegel even tried to make the virtual classroom look like the real thing, with similar furniture and a photo of the classroom's actual calendar. So far, students have been responding really well, she said.

"Technology is great when you sit with a child and guide them through it, but when you are trying to teach them remotely and they are little ... the more streamlined, the better."

Barrington High School ceramics teacher Jason Burke came up with giving each student a plastic tub with 10 pounds of clay and a kit with ceramics tools, glazes, spray bottles and canvas to make sure their furniture at home doesn't get dirty.

Jason Burke, ceramics instructor at Barrington High School, set up at-home kits for his students, each with 10 pounds of clay and a variety of tools. Courtesy of Barrington Area Unit District 220

Burke said he adjusted the curriculum to have only hand building because the students don't have pottery wheels at home. In a few weeks, the students will be able to drop off their clay work at the school, so it can be hardened in the kiln, and then pick it up, he said. All of it will happen without contact.

Burke said many of his colleagues in the school's fine arts department also made at-home kits for classes like jewelry, music and woodworking.

"Our department chair and the administrative assistant spent three weeks putting all these together," he said. "I could not believe it."

No matter their dedication, teaching virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic can be tough, also because they can't interact with each other as they used to, the teachers said.

"I cried on the first day," Milne said. "I really miss the human connection."

But she and the others said they are doing their best to make the most out of the situation.

"People are definitely finding creative ways to make our kids feel like, even though you're at home, you're still in school," Siegel said. "We are doing everything we can to make this a good experience ... despite the fact that it's odd."

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