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Innovate and Educate

How the pandemic sparked creative strategies for experiential learning at a distance.

By Jennifer Lewington
Photos: Matthew Liteplo

Cesar Da Silva, OCT
Cesar Da Silva, OCT

When COVID-19 upended school life last year, the pandemic posed a unique challenge for teachers of experiential-rich subjects: how to deliver hands-on learning at a distance.

"I realized it was time to take it up a notch," says Valerie Hodowanski, OCT, a sentiment shared by peers across the province. "We need to think outside the box or get a whole new box," adds the family studies, social sciences and humanities high school teacher at Brooklin High School in Whitby, Ont.

In outdoor education, family studies, dance and trades courses packed with experiential learning, teachers tapped new technology, innovative pedagogy, empathy and humour to engage learners in unprecedented times.

When schools switched to remote learning in spring 2020, Hodowanski recalibrated her Grade 10 and 11 fashion classes, challenging students to practise what she called "social ISEWlation." She prepared kits of fabric and sewing tools, mailing them to students to stitch face masks by hand or machine. She posted online instructional videos and adapted curriculum "fashion design challenges" for home study and learning. Students had to analyze their wardrobes and assemble new outfits and looks without shopping for new clothes. Others decoded laundry symbols, with parents recruited to assess their child's performance in managing the family wash and clothing care over a two-week period.

Since students had no obligation to activate their computer cameras, Hodowanski made special efforts to stay in touch. Every Sunday, she sent emails to parents and students about the week ahead. Hodowanski suggested to one of her Grade 11 students that she submit her assignment, a jacket made of used jeans, to the Skills Ontario fashion design competition. The student won second prize.

Amid anxiety over the pandemic, she vowed to stay positive. "I uptalked everything," says Hodowanski. "I never complained when I went online and did not use terms like 'curriculum expectations.'"

Even remotely, teachers embraced the outdoors as a learning tool. At the Toronto District School Board Outdoor Education department's Toronto Urban Studies Centre, outdoor education specialist Kathleen McFayden, OCT, drew on various strategies — including physical activity — to bring remote learning to life for participating elementary students. She created animation, video clips and, at times, composed silly lyrics to demonstrate, for example, how different soil types retain water. All students learned from home, and she encouraged them to stand up and squat down to the floor at the varying speed of water flowing through each sample.

"With the virtualization of programs, I am trying to be very conscious not to have them be passive consumers of information through a flat, one-dimensional screen," says McFayden.

With in-person field programs cancelled, she opted for virtual field activities via her phone. For example, she visited the University of Toronto campus so students could investigate rock types used in building construction. Watching from home, students recorded observations, worked with resources the centre provided, and chatted in real time to each other and McFayden.

"It is very much like taking them on a field program; it's in real time and interactive though they are at home," she says, emphatic about connecting students, even remotely, to their outdoor environment. "We are engaging them and making the learning accessible in a virtual learning platform."

During the pandemic, some teachers increasingly moved outside to enhance learning.

An elementary teacher with a passion for math and arts, Elisabeth Heathfield, OCT, already incorporated nature-based activities before COVID-19, but in September 2020, she increased the time her Grade 1 and 2 French Immersion students at École Hepworth Central Public School in Bruce County spent outdoors — rain, snow or sun — in a forest on school property. "They have become so close to each other, helpful and calm in solving problems, and more confident and resilient" she says of their experience. "It is incredible."

Heathfield, who created videos and other online materials, says the outdoor experiences proved invaluable when schools again closed in January 2021. In scavenger hunts and other backyard activities for math and reading, she says students "saw themselves as 'nature children' and they were used to it. They needed that outdoor component of learning."

Other teachers found learning outdoors invaluable for student mental health. "If their well-being is not taken care of, they will not learn," says Julie McLean, OCT, a math, reading and outdoor learning lead teacher at École élémentaire et secondaire publique Rivière Rideau in Kemptville, Ont., on the more than 600-acre site of the former Kemptville College. "That relationship with our students and their well-being is much more important [during] a pandemic," says the long-time outdoor learning advocate whose school partners with the non-profit Child and Nature Alliance of Canada.

For her Grade 5 students, McLean provided them with supplies (notebook and pencil, magnifying glass, measuring tape and other tools) to explore nature in their back garden or from their apartment window.

"With the virtualization of programs, I am trying to be very conscious not to have them be passive consumers of information through a flat, one-dimensional screen." — Kathleen McFayden, OCT

Outside, when she read virtually to her students, they asked why she had so many birds in her garden. The discussion led to a class project on what birds eat and, with parental support, student-prepared recipes of suet and birdseed "cakes." A follow-up assignment had them count what birds showed up in their gardens.

"What we are doing is really, really authentic so the kids are engaged in what they are doing," she says. Their learning, she adds, "is more lasting because they want to learn it and see a purpose in it."

Throughout the pandemic, McLean and a colleague with Conseil des écoles publiques de l'Est de l'Ontario produced resources in French,including Facebook videos and webinars on authentic, outdoor learning.

Relevant content is also a priority for francophone high school teachers.

Kathleen McFayden, OCT
Kathleen McFayden, OCT

"There's lots of material from France online," says Antoine Labbé, OCT, a transportation and manufacturing technology teacher at École secondaire catholique E.J. Lajeunesse in Windsor. "In Windsor-Essex, our French is special and like nowhere on the planet ... and I can't bombard them [students] with words they don't understand."

Labbé and his brother, Daniel, OCT, who teaches construction trades at Lajeunesse, adapted YouTube instructional videos by adding their voice-overs in French.

Without in-person field trips, the brothers simulated the experience. Antoine Labbé arranged for one of his former students, now an aircraft mechanic, to give students a virtual tour of a plane inspection at Toronto Pearson Airport. "I got a lot of good feedback from the students," he says.

Daniel Labbé used a board-supplied live video-chat service to link students to a local construction industry spokesman who discussed demand for graduates. He contacted a local building renovator who gave a virtual, real-time tour of a project. "We are bringing the world to the kids," he says, at no risk of injury to students.

Still, the pandemic tested teacher ingenuity to replicate the classroom experience.

At Bishop P.F. Reding Catholic Secondary School in Milton, Ont., transportation technology teacher Cesar Da Silva, OCT, borrowed the school's 360-degree camera to produce a virtual tour of the auto shop. For an assignment on safety, students clicked on the image, moved around the classroom virtually to identify essential equipment, and uploaded their answers to Da Silva.

He created short tutorial videos, such as how to rotate tires on a vehicle, attaching QR codes to each video for students to scan the session to their cellphones. He strapped a camera to an old welding helmet to live-stream demonstrations as students observed and asked questions from home.

"The richest learning experience can be had in person alongside a skilled professional," says Da Silva. "However, teaching in a pandemic has had us constantly learning and adapting to something bigger than any of us."

Stephan Szeideman, OCT, a transportation technology teacher at Christ the King Catholic Secondary School in Georgetown, Ont., took advantage of his skills as a freelance screenwriter to produce five videos on topics such as vehicle heating systems. Depending on the grade level, students completed eight or 10 assignments for virtual assessment. In the fall of 2020, for a class of students in person and remote, Szeideman used his portable computer camera to demonstrate how to change oil in a car. Like those in the classroom, home-based students could ask questions too, in their case virtually raising their hand.

He took advantage of his school board's learning platform to add real-time grading, a motivational spark for some students. "We had to roll with the COVID punches," he said. "I am not a real computer savvy tech guy, but I have to be; there are no excuses — I can't let my kids down."

Still, trades teachers acknowledge there is no substitute for face-to-face learning.

Last spring, Holy Cross Catholic Secondary School in Strathroy, Ont., collaborated with a local builder to deliver a new semester-long experience for 24 Grade 11 and 12 students to earn co-op education and construction credits by working, socially distanced, alongside skilled tradespeople to build residential homes.

"It is tough to teach specifically tech courses online," says Holy Cross construction teacher John Drahushchak, OCT, who, with department head Michael Stevenson, OCT, and principal John Marinelli ,OCT, arranged the "Home Build" program with JF Homes. "So, when we can go to the opposite end and have [students] in the most immersive hands-on experience you can provide while still being in school, [it] is a fantastic opportunity."

Coached by his teacher and the builder's employees, Grade 11 student Leo Austin spent his first week learning about plumbing, framing and drywalling. "In school, they teach us what to do but they can't teach us what it is like on the job site every day," he says. When half of the class builds houses, the other half studies remotely.

Arts teachers had their own challenges. When the Toronto District School Board's Virtual Secondary School published teacher timetables last September, Sheri Talosi, OCT, had four days to prepare for online dance classes in Grade 10, 11 and 12, with students of varied skill levels in creative movement.

A teacher of dance, math and drama for 12 years, Talosi knew students would be reluctant to share their screens with each other.

"How do I make this work [when] I know the kids are not going to turn their cameras on?" she asked herself, immediately sending them a welcoming email about the course and inviting questions. "I wanted to let them know that someone is out there for them."

She opened every class with a "Ms. Talosi monologue," a chatty warm-up with fun questions to build rapport among students and with her.

Talosi was always on camera for her students, rarely seeing them live and only virtually when they uploaded assignments. She made a point to modify the curriculum to inject time for students to reflect, collectively, on what they were learning.

"Leaving space for the kids is so important right now," she says, of the pandemic's emotional toll on students. "If anything, this year taught me as a teacher that you have to slow it down."

Without face-to-face instruction, Talosi was unable to assign students to perform in front of the class. She became the sole performer, initiating movements that prompted students to offer variations that she then performed for the class.

Rarely, when some students shared their work online, Talosi says she was struck by the "supportive, encouraging and positive" responses of their peers.

"We are finding some beauty in all of this chaos," says Talosi, "We find a way to make it work."