When Coronado Middle School sixth grade math teacher Melissa Miller learned that she was selected as the next Kato Family “Innovation in Education” Award winner, she immediately deferred to her close colleague, Cara Hetrick. “So many of the adaptations, challenges, and triumphs of distance learning we have worked through and figured out together,” Melissa explained. “It seems like a great opportunity to highlight the awesome teamwork that is taking place.”
When schools were shuttered last March, this dynamic duo immediately sprung to action, collaborating and communicating on a regular basis. They began sharing notes on what was working well, and what needed improvement, and quickly realized that new methods and technologies were required. “We’ve designed our entire distance learning program so that it closely mimics exactly what we would be doing in the classroom,” Hetrick stresses. “We spent the summer planning ways to engage our students in distance learning, while also making it a seamless process for when it is safe to return to our classrooms.”
While Zoom may be the technology used to connect, this creative pair researched myriad options to make their classrooms more interactive and ensure real time engagement with their students. Walking through a typical class period, they explained how they use the inventive Kahoot! technology to introduce their daily lesson. Kahoot! is a game-based learning platform that employs user-generated multiple-choice quizzes that students access from each teacher’s Powerschool page. Students compete with one another on this warm-up activity, typically designed to introduce the lesson or concept being discussed that day.
From there, each teacher launches into the daily lesson, typically utilizing the cutting-edge Desmos platform to present complex concepts. This suite of math software tools is used annually by millions of teachers and students around the world, and is completely free to the user. With Desmos, Miller and Hetrick take problems from their classroom textbook and turn them into interactive slides that students access from their home device. “Students work in real time,” Hetrick explains. “We can actually see what students are doing in their own homes. We can see what they are writing, and what they are thinking, then we’re able to give them real time feedback.”
Another technology these teachers employ is Pear Deck, an innovative presentation tool used to actively engage students by combining slide presentations with interactive questions. Frequently they break into smaller groups of three to four students, working collaboratively on problems with both teachers viewing their students’ work in real time on their screen. Using the Zoom chat feature, both teachers send personal notes to students, providing the real time feedback students would normally receive in the classroom.
“We are working our hardest to make sure our students get everything they would receive inside a classroom,” notes Hetrick. “Our number one goal is to make sure that our students learn the things they need to learn in sixth grade math that will prepare them for next year.”
Miller explains, “I’ve been able to dive into new technologies and platforms and use technology in ways that I would never have imagined. That’s been very invigorating for me.”
According to Hetrick, “This year has stretched me in new ways, and completely opened my eyes to new ways to engage students. It has really challenged me to rethink what education can be for our students, whether we are together learning in a classroom or virtually.”
When asked about the impact this has had on students, Miller notes, “These are sixth graders, and they’ve had to learn communication and problem-solving skills that most students their age don’t have.” According to Hetrick, “I have so much participation in my classrooms. There is a camaraderie in our Zoom classroom that is remarkable, and a lot different than what would happen in a real classroom.”
“Our students came into school this year somewhat overwhelmed,” Miller notes, explaining that they had to adapt to new technologies, new devices, and new methods of communicating and interacting they’d never experienced before. “They should be so proud of themselves, from where they started to where they’ve come. The amount of growth we’ve seen is remarkable.”