Students at Ridgecrest Academy are used to starting the day with a peaceful routine. Four days a week, they walk into homeroom, where they are welcomed with calming music, participate in a mindfulness activity and get in touch with their feelings. When they are prepared and ready to learn, classes get going. This year’s remote learning days disrupt that normal procedure.
Teachers Erin Mitchell and Ali Buchanan are collaborating to find a solution. Mitchell, who teaches ELA, math, science and more in grades eight and nine, and Buchanan, an educator specializing in health and social-emotional learning, have created virtual homerooms with many of the same familiar calming activities their students have come to depend on. Now, on remote days, students can access these from home, along with their assignments for the day and all their learning resources.
By starting with the basic Schoology virtual learning environment and combining it with fun, brightly-colored Bitmoji avatars and graphics, the teachers created an online interface that is friendly and easy to navigate. With help from CaTS instructional technology specialist Mike Neumire, they also found innovative ways to integrate Microsoft OneNote (a multiuser collaborative note-taking program) into the teaching mix.
“OneNote is so versatile,” said Mitchell. “Support staff members or I can remote in and help a student with an assignment in real time before they get frustrated. If a student has problems with typing, they can dictate their answers. If they need something read to them, they can use the immersive reader function. It’s fast and stress-free for them to add photos, screenshots or documents to their reports.”
“OneNote gives my health classes an easy way to do confidential journaling,” said Buchanan. “I can check on how they are doing while they are doing it, and write back to them.”
Students use the platform even on in-person learning days. “Everything they need is organized and explained for them. I don’t have to spend valuable class time on directions,” Mitchell said. “I can answer more complex questions, have individual, in-depth conversations, and build relationships.”
Both teachers said their students are doing well with the online learning platform and actually like working on a computer as long as it’s easy and things work as they should. Their challenge is finding ways to cut out any computer frustration for their students. “It requires a lot of trial and error as you see what works and what doesn’t,” said Mitchell. “You have to really believe the effort is going to make a real difference for your students. So far, the benefits have made the work all worthwhile.”
Feature photo: Erin Mitchell’s Virtual Homeroom with links to social-emotional learning (SEL) activities.
Inset: Ali Buchanan’s Health site with daily assignments.