Rosa Jimenez-Hernandez didn’t know what to expect when she opened her laptop last week to remotely teach her fifth grade language arts class for the first time.
To her surprise, a dozen of her Sadlowski Elementary students were already logged on, waiting for their scheduled online video conference with their teacher. The next day, it was up to 15 kids.
But Jimenez-Hernandez wasn’t giving them a lecture or a typical lesson — it was scavenger hunt time. Her students ran around their homes for five minutes looking for items their teacher had listed.
“It’s not academic at all. It’s communication, it’s are you alive and well, and let’s have some fun together,” Jimenez-Hernandez said. “If they know that there’s going to be something fun going on, they’ll have more of a reason to join us.”
Like Jimenez-Hernandez, teachers all across the city are trying to come up with creative ways to keep kids engaged and overcome the challenges of teaching from home — including a massive technology deficit — as Chicago Public Schools’ remote learning plan rolls out.
“We’re all going to be behind,” Jimenez-Hernandez said, noting that she’s still trying to reach half her students. “And we’re just going to have to figure it out together.”
Accommodating working students
Educators at Hubbard High School in West Lawn have older students — juniors and seniors — who have picked up work to help support their families. So with those teenagers working fast food and grocery store jobs during the day, some classes have moved to the evenings.
”My teachers, they really know their students,” said Hubbard Principal Angelica Altamirano. “They know what works.”
The principal estimated about 90% of Hubbard students either were able to pick up laptops from the school or already had a device at home. In all, more than 500 devices have been given to Hubbard students.
That other 10% is now the focus, Altamirano said. The school has created a master list of all 1,605 students with their schedules and a checklist of which teacher or staffer has talked to them, how they reached the student and notes on their progress.
If teachers aren’t able to get in touch with a student, they might ask a colleague who leads a club that student is in or the coach of a team they’re on, Altamirano said.
“It’s not about an individual teacher,” Altamirano said. “It’s about the whole school coming together to help our students.”
Chopin Elementary Principal Frederick Williams said his school is using the same type of tracking system and has also already passed out laptops to almost half of the 319 students at Chopin in the past week.
Williams is mostly worried about finding ways to engage Chopin’s students in special education, who make up about one-third of the school’s population, but that’s a work in progress, he said. He’s also focused on keeping kids mentally healthy and praised parents for taking on a major task at home, too.
“Not hearing kids in the building and the laughter and the joy and the questions and everything else that goes into a day, you realize how much you miss that,” Williams said. “It’s really good to see the parents stepping up.”
Some more engaged
Paula Novak, an English teacher at Phoenix Military Academy on the Near West Side, said some kids who didn’t participate as much before are now more engaged and even more likely to answer questions online than they were at school.
“I just love that they’re just kind of taking ownership and that they have ideas and they’re asking if that’s OK,” Novak said. “Our kids really want to do right. They don’t want to mess up, they don’t want to fail in any way.”
Novak also coaches the school’s flag team, where two girls are trying to follow in her footsteps by taking part in a virtual tryout for the University of Illinois marching band’s flag team. Novak said the girls are sending her videos of their practice routines so she can offer tips.
“The weather hasn’t been great, and some of the cold days they’re outside trying to get in 15 minutes of practice,” Novak said. “To see that these two young women are looking forward, whatever happens with the end of high school, they’re thinking positively toward the next thing and trying hard, they’re not just giving up — I’m proud of them.”