Innovation amid separation: How three suburban teachers keep kids engaged

With e-learning, teachers are reinventing how to engage and inspire students using new tools since the COVID-19 pandemic closed schools.

Three suburban educators share their online teaching techniques, demonstrating why teachers rank among the unsung superheroes of this pandemic era.

Digital building blocks

Engineering, architecture and construction - possibly the most hands-on classes students take in high school - don't easily translate to an online setting.

Yet, Jeff Robinson found a way students could learn and apply key concepts through a popular game most already know - “Minecraft.”

“It's like the new Legos,” said Robinson, 29, an applied technology teacher at Conant High School in Hoffman Estates. “You just have basic blocks and simple colors and you can make whatever you want.”

Robinson teaches 75 students computer-aided drafting, civil engineering and architecture, and geometry in construction using “Minecraft's” educational edition - an immersive game-based learning platform that promotes creativity, collaboration, and problem-solving.

“I wanted to come up with something that would be exciting for them ... something that would feel more like a game,” he said. “Our job is to keep these kids sane, to keep them mentally healthy, not create too high expectations.”

Students can't draw architectural floor plans, elevations or sketches, but they can design and build houses in microclimates that offer different environments and materials to play with.

“The landscape changes from mountains to beaches, jungles, deserts, arctic ... I had a kid build a house on top of a waterfall,” Robinson said. “This just kind of took a new spin on architecture and 3-D modeling for us. I ask for a house, they send me back a village. We are actually building an entire city together on 'Minecraft' each day.”

Beth Thomson, seventh-grade social studies teacher at Carpentersville Middle School, engages her students through Zoom calls, frequently using the SpongeBob SquarePants backdrop, and hooks their interest with educational games on Kahoot or Quizlet Live where students compete against each other. Courtesy of Beth Thomson

Games and quizzes

Beth Thomson engages her 95 seventh-graders with live lessons through Zoom video conferencing and educational games played on Kahoot or Quizlet Live.

“They love to compete against each other,” said Thomson, 47, a social studies teacher at Carpentersville Middle School. “We play a game that hooks them into showing up for the lesson. And the kids that need help stay afterward.”

The main goal of the sessions is for Thomson to explain what lessons students will be working on their own, and for them to connect with classmates.

“A lot of the kids just want to say 'hi' to each other because they miss their friends,” Thomson said. “We've done a pet parade.”

She also creates step-by-step instructional videos taking students through entire lessons the way she would guide them in a classroom.

“It's a big shift to make the kids not only responsible, but to have to self-guide through a lesson,” she said. “They are still learning organizational skills.”

Thomson is able to give immediate feedback using an interactive video platform that has questions and answers embedded.

“The kids have given me feedback as well as to what works,” she said. “Most of us are just really trying to do the best we can and learning by trial and error.”

Lauren Brzezinski, a teacher at Hawthorn Elementary South school in Vernon Hills, records videos of herself reading-aloud stories and instructions for skills students need to acquire in first grade.

Emphasizing connections

Reading stories aloud daily on YouTube is one way Lauren Brzezinski connects with her students, since conducting live sessions with twenty-five 6- and 7-year-olds would be too chaotic to navigate.

“Just being there for my students as much as I can” is what works, said Brzezinski, 27, who teaches first grade at Hawthorn Elementary South in Vernon Hills. She added, first grade teachers have been doing voice-overs for lessons so students can see their faces.

Brzezinski posts assignments on an online platform, which collects students' feedback. She records under-5-minute videos explaining skills they need to master in first grade. Three-fourths of her students can read, while the rest are beginners.

“We hit phonics every single day. We also have daily math and science lessons, alongside a reading skill lesson,” she said. “It's the biggest year academically for growth. We are trying to pull from the curriculum that we've done already and modify it so it is more applicable to remote learning.”

Brzezinski said students have been engaged throughout with help from parents, who play a crucial role in holding them accountable. She sends out weekly learning plans so parents can help their children stay focused.

“Especially now with remote learning, they are basically the next teacher that their child has,” she said.

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