A Michigan school's assignment: Teach kids without classrooms

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

West Bloomfield Township — Teachers across West Bloomfield's public schools spent Friday learning a new lesson: how to provide instruction to 5,700 students at home for the next several weeks.

After Gov. Gretchen Whitmer shuttered all K-12 buildings until April 6 due to coronavirus concerns, educators and support staff in the Oakland County school district spent the day meeting with district leaders, trainers and colleagues to build a new framework to educate students online, an unprecedented action for an unprecedented event.

Its work could serve as a model for districts attempting to teach children outside of the classroom with a 21st-century mindset.

Lorig Bishop, language teacher (foreground), William Bishop, from left, Andrew Paniagua and Nuri Bye, all language teachers, prepare their online classes and lessons for their students at West Bloomfield High School on Friday.

"Our staff is really pulling together, and we are trying to develop a plan where we can have education ongoing in a sensible way during these times," West Bloomfield schools Superintendent Gerald Hill said. "We are aware of all the anxieties that students and staff have."

At West Bloomfield's high school, where classrooms and hallways were empty of students, educators spent Friday building "cloud learning schedules" for every class and for every hour for students in grades 9-12 using Google Classroom, an online web service for creating, distributing and grading assignments in a paperless way that already exists at the high school.

Teachers used a checklist to ensure all aspects of a typical school day could be replicated online. Items included taking attendance, class assignments, office hours and more.

"We're intending to have school online and from my perspective that counts as a school day," Hill said. "We want to make sure we have approval of the governor's office and state department to recognize what we are doing as long as have evidence to show that the learning continued."

Ellen Herget, an art teacher, prepares her online schedules and classes for her students at West Bloomfield High School.

Inside the high school's media center, more than 100 teachers and another 40 support staff such as social workers met Friday morning to hear of the district's plan to move education from classrooms, labs and art rooms into the homes of students.

Eric Pace, an assistant principal at West Bloomfield High School, told educators he hopes the day-long training eases worries about moving lesson plans into uncharted waters.

"Hopefully, you are starting to feel a little less anxious — and it's more manageable — about how we are going to deliver online learning," Pace said. "We are going to get to resources for your classrooms you can post, some videos or if you want to create something that you can record on your computer."

Pace told teachers one goal is to make online learning manageable for families, who might be sharing one computer among multiple siblings.

"Because if we overload them, they aren't going to do anything," Pace said. "And that's not beneficial to anybody."

Teacher John Hepper, who had experience teaching an online class in another school district for three years, gave his colleagues some advice about online learning and teens: teens can use their phones to take a screenshot of work, and brevity is best when it comes to educational videos.

"I taught math and for all of you who are going 'How in the world do I take my content digital when I need a lot of pencil and paper stuff?' My first advice to you is have kids take pictures of pencil and paperwork and upload it to Google classroom ... and make sure their names are on each page," he said.

Teachers thinking about recording lectures should know students who sit still for a 30-minute lecture will not watch a 15-minute video, Hepper said. He suggested breaking videos into three to five minutes with key points, he said.

"Kids like short chunks. The shorter you make it, the more likely they are to watch it," Hepper said.

Social studies teacher and department chair Aaron Avery spent the morning with teachers setting up an online platform that will be accessible to both students and teachers and developing a system to take attendance, direct instruction and assignments to make sure kids are still engaged while at home.

"This modified the current platform so it includes parents and we will be engaging with students more frequently on it than we have before," Avery said.

Attendance in social studies will be taken by asking a student to answer a social studies question within a certain period of time at the start of class to be marked present.

"Attendance will be a whole new thing, and it really requires students and parents to take an even greater responsibility for their own education because they are not here," Avery said. "Now they are active participants and have to be responsible. It's a learning experience for everybody."

Three art teachers from the high school built their cloud learning schedules together on Friday, trying to decide what a "check-in" task online would mean for students.

"Like what questions do you have. That would be what do we do in class, is when a kid comes in, what problems are you having, what don't you understand," fine arts and photography teacher Molly Marshall said. "So we are checking in with their progress. Those are the discussions we have in class, and we will do them online now."

Marshall said she plans to create video demos so students can work at home. Students can photograph drawings and send them into teachers, she said.

Margaret Squires, the school's ceramic and jewelry teacher, said she will be using Google Chat for office hours which allows students to chat via email. Squires said her students will not be able to do hands-on work on ceramics or jewelry at home.

"The things we are giving them at home are the things they would have gotten in school from us," Squires said. "So now we are taking the things that would have been split up, in between hands-on projects, and are delivering that. When they come back, they can get the hands-on."