Thinking outside of the Zoom-box, Anchorage teachers get creative

A man dressed up in a santa costume standing in front of a festive fireplace
Bill Pugh, a P.E. and math teacher at Aquarian Charter School in Anchorage, dressed up in different costumes once a week to help keep his students engaged on classroom Zoom calls. (Bill Pugh)

It’s not easy teaching a class of fifth graders about double digit multiplication over Zoom.

“I can’t be over my students’ shoulders, I can’t be grabbing that pencil. I can’t be showing them exactly what to do,” said Bill Pugh, a P.E. and math teacher at Aquarian Charter School in Anchorage. He said the beginning of the school year felt like an almost insurmountable learning curve.

“It was extremely difficult and frustrating for everybody.”

Because he was limited to activities that would be visible on Zoom, Pugh said he taught his P.E. students yoga — they learned about 25 poses. And when they got tired of yoga, they juggled. But for his fifth grade math students, Pugh said he needed to think outside the box.

“I just thought, you know what, we need to have some fun here,” Pugh said. “You’re just staring at me in a Zoom class for an hour. While I’m trying to teach math, you’re trying to stay awake. We got to change this up. I got to make these kids laugh, smile.”

That’s where Freaky Friday came in. Pugh dressed up every Friday with a different theme to get students engaged. He asked students and their parents to get into it, too.

“The first one I did was a Hawaiian theme,” Pugh said. “No one can see it in the pictures, but I took everything outside. I taught the entire class outside — it was 37 degrees. I’m in shorts and a short sleeve shirt with sunglasses on and everyone thinks ‘Oh, that’s cool.’ No, I was freezing.” But Pugh said it was worth it.

He’s grateful for the end of quarter because, after 10 Freaky Fridays, he’s starting to run out of ideas and outfits.

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Online teaching is not ideal, Pugh said. He’d much rather see students in-person.

“But my kids are troopers, they’re still smiling. They’re still getting good grades, and they’re learning,” he said.

Another teacher who has been thinking creatively about online learning is Misty Nelson. She’s a librarian at Lake Otis Elementary.

Nelson brought her library to the curb so students could check out books during distribution days — the only times during the week families can pick up supplies from school.

One of her favorite activities from the winter has been “Lunch with the Librarian.” Twice a week, Nelson sets up a Zoom room where she reads popular stories out loud. The entire school, including staff, is welcome to join. There are even some door prizes.

Pre-pandemic, students could eat lunch in the library and have a safe space to relax during the school day, Nelson said. So she wanted to do something similar on Zoom.

“I read to them, and they’re encouraged to bring their lunch. Like today, there was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, there were noodles, there were Lunchables,” Nelson said. “And they just sit there and we talk about being mindful of our Chromebooks, but it’s lovely. It’s the closest we can get to what we would have done, and it’s great.”

Nelson said she’s gotten good feedback from families.

Because some elementary students will be returning to in-person learning and others will not, Nelson will retain many of the protocols she currently has to keep students as engaged as possible, with books in hand.

Most middle school and high school students will continue learning online. And Ben Walker, a science teacher at Romig Middle School, said the virtual environment has largely been working.

“No one is pretending that this is successful for everybody,” Walker said. “But when you get to the high number of people it is successful for, there’s no reason to throw that out or pretend that didn’t happen simply because we still have work to do.”

While some teachers felt constrained by the virtual environment, Walker said his classroom expanded.

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“We did a biodiversity project where kids went out and mapped,” Walker said. “They went on Google Earth, and they made some markers where they found different organisms around Anchorage, and then did some research and put the information on that on a map. That would be really hard to do in a classroom.”

One student, Walker said, went hunting with their family and did their project while on the hunting trip.

Walker said in the new year, he hopes to double-down on the freedom and flexibility that students have gotten used to.

“It’s not just the kids that were going to succeed anyway that are succeeding. Now, it’s many kids who are now able to find how they work best,” Walker said. “I think they’re learning a lot about themselves, too.”

Walker said he hopes students and teachers will take the lessons learned from the virtual experience with them into the next chapter of the school year.

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