Atlanta Teachers Innovate To Keep Students Engaged Remotely

Nov 16, 2020 by

Atlanta Public Schools students have been learning remotely since March. Teachers, like North Atlanta High School’s Tamara Irving are coming up with creative ways to keep kids engaged.
Credit Catherine Mullins / for WABE

Atlanta Public Schools will continue with remote learning through the rest of 2020. That means students will spend the first half of the 2020-21 school year online. That’s caused teachers to try to come up with creative ways to keep their kids engaged.

One Step At A Time

Tamara Irving teaches dance at North Atlanta High School. Like every other teacher in APS, she’s teaching remotely this semester. Her advanced students are rehearsing for two upcoming performances. Irving shows them the steps via Zoom, and they repeat them. They do it without music at first and then add music once they’ve rehearsed a bit.

Of course, these students are used to rehearsing together instead of in their homes rehearsing via Zoom. However, Irving is confident they will do fine when they have to perform.

Dance students at North Atlanta High School are rehearsing remotely for two upcoming performances. Their teacher Tamara Irving says they’re experienced, but learning dance moves remotely isn’t easy. (Catherine Mullins/ for WABE)

“This class has been dancing together for at least two years,” she says. “So, I know that they’ll probably click.”

Even so, she records herself for students to watch and imitate. Then the dancers record themselves so she can make sure they’re not confusing one foot with the other.

“When you’re learning virtually, sometimes you reverse things,” Irving says. “It probably will happen because it’s difficult.”

Irving said when she learned APS would begin the year remotely, she changed her approach to teaching this class.

“I’ve kind of shifted this year to more of a production-based class, as opposed to a technique-based class,” she says. “There is only so much we can do and also trying to keep students motivated.”

Motivation seems to be key to successful online learning. At the same time, Irving says, it can be a challenge because she’s not physically in front of her students.

“It’s really hard for these kids to actually get out of bed to attend class,” she says.

Sing, Sing a Song

Elementary school students may have more energy than high schoolers, but keeping them engaged in class can also be challenging.

Emily Backus teaches music at Mary Lin Elementary School. Obviously, it would be easier for her to teach in a school building equipped with musical instruments and good acoustics. But Backus comes up with activities her students probably wouldn’t do if they were in a school building.

“We’re going to do a musical scavenger hunt today,” she tells a third-grade class. “The first thing I would like you to find is something blue.”

Her students run to find their items. Backus has them describe what they found through song. She sings:

“What do you have, Stella?”

Stella sings back, “I have a marker.”

“Traditional music teaching is all about communal music-making happening at the same time, and Zoom makes that pretty impossible. So I’ve started to lean into opportunities to share. They all get really excited about sharing their ideas.”

Emily Backus, Music Teacher at Mary Lin Elementary School

Backus sings back and forth with a few more students, then asks the class to find more items. They add yellow, red, and green objects to their collection. They make patterns with the colors, then add percussion. Backus calls on them to play the rhythms they’ve created. She has no shortage of volunteers.

Backus says the shift to online learning has changed the way she plans for classes.

“Traditional music teaching is all about communal music-making happening at the same time, and Zoom makes that pretty impossible,” she says. “So I’ve started to lean into opportunities to share. They all get really excited about sharing their ideas.”

APS teachers will continue to navigate remote learning until January, at least. The school district says the earliest it will resume in-person classes is January 5. (Nick Nesmith/WABE)

Backus says it has also been easier to get her students to sing out loud on Zoom than it might be in person.

“I’ve been really impressed by how willing and excited they are to sing by themselves,” she says. “Sometimes that’s difficult to get kids to do, especially as they get older. But I think on Zoom, because there’s not the self-consciousness of, ‘Everyone’s here, and they can see me.’ It’s been kind of a strange benefit of teaching online.”

A Figure Of Speech

One of the biggest challenges of virtual learning seems to be keeping kids interested in school while they’re in their homes.

Fifth-grade teacher Krystal Wells makes sure her kids participate in class by having them answer questions in Zoom’s chat feature. During a lesson on figurative language, she asks her reading class at Tuskegee Global Airmen Academy to identify similes and metaphors. (They compare two things. Similes use the words “like” or “as.”)

Wells, who has decorated her Zoom screen like her classroom, shows her students several examples from a book they’re reading in class called “One Crazy Summer” by Rita Williams-Garcia.

“Let’s look at [this] example,” Wells says to her class. “’The rain felt like small kisses on my face.’ Simile or metaphor?”

Krystal Wells teaches fifth grade at Tuskegee Global Airmen Academy. She uses Zoom’s chat feature to check her students’ comprehension. (Jonathon Kelso/ for WABE)

They type either ‘s’ for simile or ‘m’ for metaphor in the chat feature. As the answers come in, Wells responds.

“Yes! Simile! Yes,” she says.

The class goes over why the phrase is a simile: the rain is being compared to kisses, using the word ‘like.’

Wells says using the chat feature helps her check students’ comprehension.

“When you’re in a classroom, [students are] like, ‘Oh, pick me, pick me!’” she says. “Then you have the shy one…in the back, like, ‘Don’t pick me because I don’t want to get a wrong answer.’”

 Wells says, for some kids, this can be an advantage of online learning.

“It’s almost like it gives an opportunity to kind of step out of that comfort zone and participate and share their voice and their opinions,” she says.

APS teachers will continue to navigate remote learning until January, at least. The school district says the earliest it will resume in-person classes is January 5.

Meanwhile, some nearby districts like Fulton, Cobb, and Gwinnett counties have resumed some form of face-to-face learning.

A note of disclosure: The Atlanta Board of Education holds WABE’s broadcast license.

Source: Atlanta Teachers Innovate To Keep Students Engaged Remotely | 90.1 FM WABE

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