Brie Donnally at Boulder’s Eisenhower Elementary knew she wanted to continue project-based learning even as school buildings shuttered in mid-March and the school district transitioned to students learning from home.
Working with her fourth-grade team, she came up with an improve-your-living-space design challenge that incorporated math, persuasive writing and reading research.
“We’re in this situation,” she said. “We looked at what we can do to make this meaningful.”
With the school year wrapping up this week, teachers in both the Boulder Valley and St. Vrain Valley school districts are celebrating successes in engaging students during remote learning. Some found ways to continue ongoing projects from home, while others developed new projects or found unique ways to connect to students or deliver content.
For the Eisenhower project, Donnally asked students to focus on their rooms, taking measurements and then scaling those measurements to paper. Architect and designer guest speakers talked to them remotely, offering guidance and ideas.
Interior designer Karly Geist, whose sister is Boulder Valley Innovation Director Kiffany Lychock, talked to the students about how to improve their home learning environments, focusing on how they could create different zones — a learning/focused zone, a fun zone and a quiet reflection zone — to improve their focus and reduce stress.
Other guest speakers talked about color, light and sounds in design.
After hearing from the speakers, the students created and presented three options for layouts for their room. They received feedback from the professionals, then made their final choice. They wrote a persuasive script on why they should rearrange their rooms, made a video and presented the video to their families.
Making actual changes to their rooms wasn’t required, but those who did make changes were asked to find creative, no-cost options.
“Some of them have really taken off and made it way bigger than I’m asking them to,” she said. “They’re really enthused.”
Fourth-grader Rebecca Frankel said her room is perfect the way it is, so she created a 1:6 scale model of her room using Legos and cardboard.
“The walls, ceiling, doors, the furniture and even my window and shade were sized to fit inside of a cardboard room I measured and cut,” she said. “My dad and I spray painted the cardboard walls to look the same color as my real room. We printed out paper to look like wood floor, too. I love my scale model room. I thought it was cool to see my room as if I were a giant.”
She said remote learning “wasn’t going that well” because the work “was very easy and it took me only an hour to finish my work every day.”
“I was very bored and making the scale model was more fun than I had been having with school work,” she said.
Classmate Sydney Donnelly made a nook for her room using pillows, blankets, clothespins, yarn and tape. Her other ideas for improvements included a main color instead of her current mix of colors and more organization since “usually I have to find stuff in a sea of papers on my desk.”
“I learned that if you actually measure and look at your room from a different perspective, there’s a lot more you can do to it,” she said. “I thought it was a really good math project with measuring and scaling.”
Many history teachers found ways to incorporate current historic events.
At Frederick High School, U.S. history teacher Adam Wellington was part of a St. Vrain Valley blended learning group for two years.
“With my blended background, this online format has opened up for a more project-based approach, so I have had students create some amazing videos, presentations and even a Lego animation,” he said. “Probably what I am most proud of is students documenting their experiences with coronavirus.”
He gave students two journal prompts each week, asking them to choose from keeping an ongoing shared Google document, writing their responses in a notebook or even create a vlog, or video blog.
“I teach history, so we deal with a lot of primary sources to understand our past and figured, hey, why don’t we create the primary sources as we live through this historical period,” he said. “The students have really taken off with it and have given a lot of amazing insight.”
Teran Sittner, who teaches seventh and eighth grade social studies at Boulder’s Horizons K-8 Charter School, scrapped her plans for the last two months at school and instead focused on a living history project.
She first asked students to journal about their experiences, then had them look at historic artifacts and sources from the 1918 pandemic. Finally, they created an artifact representing life during the coronavirus for a virtual museum, including a video log highlighting essential workers, a newscast and a scrapbook of daily life.
“I am so incredibly proud of the work my students are creating,” Sittner said.
Seventh-grader Annabelle Gochis took pictures of changes she saw related to the pandemic, including teddy bears in windows and closure signs on playgrounds. She titled the collage: “When You Walk Around Town Being Constantly Reminded of the Thing You Want to Forget.”
Eighth-grader Lauren McKenzie created a painting titled “Bird in a Cage,” which shows a girl wearing a mask sitting in front of a caged bird. Next to her is a window with faraway people, an empty computer screen and a clock.
“The bird in the cage represents feeling trapped inside, in all manners of speaking and not feeling free,” she wrote in her author’s note. “The window where people are outside is how we interact with people nowadays, through thick masks or glass and not being able to touch one another. The computer screen represents that life now revolves around technology, school, friends, entertainment … and the clock represents the fact that no one knows what time it is or day of the week as well as the time I have before leaving for high school and not seeing my friends or teachers again.”
Troy Yanel, who leads the Autism Intensive Learning Center at Lafayette’s Centaurus High School, said his team of paraeducators and specialists had to be creative to provide therapies and schoolwork remotely to their 10 students.
He said they needed to meet the students’ social and emotional needs while also working toward their learning goals and providing the services in their IEPs, or Individualized Education Programs.
Plus, he said, the students had “a huge need for human connection.” Some also weren’t able or willing to spend much time looking at a computer screen.
To engage students, one teacher started a West African dance class every Friday. Others took part in a virtual concert series and a virtual storytime, reading everything from picture books to chapter books. Lafayette open space gave a remote presentation on area birds.
They also set up a “cool kids club,” giving kids about 30 minutes to hang out virtually each day, much as they would have done during school lunch.
“We’re really trying to mimic what the school is able to do,” Yanel said.
At Boulder’s Centennial Middle School, teacher Debbie Valette works with students learning English as a second language. With her eight-student U.S. history class, she worked with the “Adopt-A-Native-Elder” organization on a project that she continued during remote learning.
First, the students learned about Navajo history, including the “Long Walk” forced removal of Navajo people in 1864 from Arizona and the experiences of Navajo children sent to boarding schools. Then they presented what they learned to the Parent Teacher Organization, which gave them the $500 needed to adopt an elder.
They wrote Navajo elder Louise Reed a picture of their class and a letter, sharing about the project and asking questions. They also mailed her essential items, including toilet paper, disinfecting wipes, toothpaste and beef jerky. Through the program, Reed will receive a spring and a fall food box, food certificates, yarn and firewood.
“Our students, through snail mail, helped her feel cared for and connected,” Valette said. “It has been very rewarding for the students to know they have helped someone else, especially at a time when they and their families are struggling.”
She read Reed’s letter back to them at a virtual class meeting, as well as talking to them about what they liked about the project.
Valette said student Yadira Cerceda de Santiago shared that “it really made us proud how Louise and her family know that we are here for them. Even though they live in a remote area, they know they’re not invisible.”
Classmate Quetzaly Cruz-Zavala told Valette that she liked that “we are helping a person who has gone through a lot, and we are making her life a little better.”