Really distant learning: Plainview students analyze national news, tour faraway destinations as school year nears end

Michael Smith
Patrick Hyland, a coordinator between University of Oklahoma and the National Weather Service, speaks to Terri Cloyde’s sixth grade science class over a Zoom meeting Wednesday. Next week the students will take a virtual tour of the Georgia Aquarium.

Keeping students engaged while practicing social distancing was an abrupt challenge thrust upon teachers and parents nearly a month ago. Regardless of the challenges, area teachers are still trying to make the most of distance learning by using established technology, current events and creative offerings.

At Plainview Middle School, sixth grade science teacher Terri Cloyde is used to bringing in special guests to help teach her lessons. Even with her classroom closed, she has still managed to have guests speak to her class with video conferencing.

Her students on Wednesday were able to have a Zoom meeting with a National Weather Service meteorologist, and students have also been able to video conference with an area television meteorologist. Next week students will take a virtual tour of the Georgia Aquarium.

“The assistant director there is going to Zoom with us...and talk to the kids about the lessons,” Cloyde said.

Considering her lesson plan for this part of the year is about biomes, or the weather and life of natural environments, Cloyde said she was looking for unique ideas to help teach the lessons without a traditional classroom.

“As I was researching and looking for different places, that one just kept coming back to my mind,” she said about the Georgia Aquarium. “Since we couldn’t go to a zoo this time, I thought the aquarium is really cool, has a really neat website. Let's see if she has time to talk to us.”

For eighth grade English language arts students at Plainview Middle School, current events are helping with lessons in rhetoric and speech. Teacher Stephanie Barker said analyzing the speeches from leaders about coronavirus offer examples of how words use data or emotion to make certain points.

“I found an example online and thought ‘see, this is real-world stuff and you’re going to need this someday,’” she said.

Plainview Public Schools has relied heavily on technology during distance learning. In 2014 the school began issuing laptops to students in sixth grade and higher. When distance learning was first announced last month, Plainview households were asked what technology would still be needed.

Principal Tim Parham said the district then ordered about 85 wireless internet hotspots to offer students internet access and all have been issued to families. He said a single hotspot can provide internet access for multiple students in a home.

Cloyde said that hands-on learning is still a preferred method of instruction but added that distance learning with technology also has its place in education.

“Kids all learn so differently and they really enjoy mixing it up, so some days it's nice to go on the computer and relax and be individuals and quiet so they can work by themselves. And then sometimes it’s great when they’re all working and moving around. It’s just really nice to break it up,” said Cloyde.

For Barker, digital games like GimKit would be used sparingly in the classroom to supplement her education plan. With distance learning in effect, the game that offers credits for properly answered questions has turned into a weekly event.

“I’ve had a lot of kids turning in assignments and I feel like they’re getting some good content,” said Barker.

Communication with and between students remains one of the bigger challenges for teachers. Cloyde said she receives upwards of 40 messages from students each day which has resulted in regular notifications from her cell phone and computer. With little face time with her students, gauging a student’s questions or responses can prove difficult.

“Writing the lesson plan is easy, the connection with kids is the hard part,” said Cloyde.

Barker said her English class is still working through assignments albeit at a slightly slower pace. “I’ve probably had to slow down a little bit. Not having that personal one-to-one contact, it’s hard to throw out anything new and just spend a day on it. I’m not there to see a face and a reaction,” she said.

Both teachers separately agreed that one of the most difficult things about distance learning, however, is the lack of social interaction between students in the hallways and cafeteria.

“Most of them miss the other kids. They enjoy being home...but they miss being with everybody else,” said Cloyde.

“When I’m reading some of these responses, a lot of them just miss their friends, the interaction, the social part of coming to school,” said Barker.