In the span of a few short weeks, COVID-19 has transformed our region’s education system. Schools closed, out-of-school learning programs suspended, state-wide testing and requirements waived. Home has become every student’s new home-base for learning.
Learners and their families are slowly carving out a new learning rhythm. The adjustment has been challenging, certainly. But it’s also given us a chance to reassess what’s important and come face-to-face with how education must innovate to ensure learning is engaging, relevant, equitable, and accessible to every student.
In addition to schools and families, out-of-school educators and organizations have faced unprecedented challenges. They are trying to strike the right balance between helpful and burdensome for the already overwhelmed families they serve.
Now, local organizations and schools are sharing their experiences with us: what they’re trying, where they’ve succeeded, where they’ve failed, and what they’re learning along the way.
We call these quick case studies promising practices, and our next round comes from six local organizations that work with youth and educators.
Assemble needed to adapt their space-based programming to accommodate quarantine life.
They started offering one-hour video-based virtual classes to maintain relationships with their students and provide them with some reliable fun. In addition, they posted five-minute videos of STEAM activities families can complete with what they have at home. They used tools like Google Classroom and Instagram Live, capitalizing on the specialties of each. Google Classroom easily organizes information and tracks documents; Instagram Live reaches a wider audience and allows for greater community response, honing in on the accessibility of the mobile app. They are also developing activity kits to deliver to students.
Assemble teachers began using Google Meet for easy interaction and helpful functions like screen sharing for sharing ideas, document sharing for collaboration, and team building. Teachers also pursued professional development in Scratch coding language, Hummingbird robotics kits, TinkerCad 3D modeling, and Makey Makey invention kits.
Assemble has continued to hone, use, and share best practices for online learning and community-building, including:
- Making time for students to see each other and say hello, supporting human connection and social-emotional wellbeing
- Having a set of virtual community rules or agreements similar to those in a traditional classroom
- Thinking about controllable and uncontrollable environmental elements and considering ways to mitigate student distractions caused by noise, connectivity issues, or other interruptions
With families navigating homeschooling, layoffs, and more, the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern PA needed to identify the best way to keep mentors and mentees engaged in a way that was effective and appreciated. They also needed to consider appropriate forms of communication, including specific platforms and issues like access and safety.
The partnership’s programs found new ways to engage mentees using both high-tech and low-tech mediums. Some used letter-writing, while others relied on monitored text apps and virtual mentoring portals like MENTOR in partnership with iCouldbe.org, which hosted qualifying mentors and mentees on their platform for free.
As programs continue to adapt their engagement methods and overcome challenges, the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern PA has supported programs through weekly virtual office hours every Wednesday at 1:00 pm. They’ve also continued their service of offering no-cost technical assistance to qualifying programs to help support their needs related to the pandemic.
Venture Outdoors wanted to keep kids and adults experiencing the outdoors, while remaining indoors, during the quarantine.
The organization added student and family activities directly to their website and coordinated the distribution of activity packets through their partner schools, two services they had traditionally never offered.
Venture Outdoors organized their online activity offerings into a full virtual learning program, complete with different series for young learners, teens, and adults. Each series offers a set of activities, resources, and explanations that can be completed alone or with a group. The youth series teaches kids ages 5-11 the basics of outdoor exploration, including first aid skills and the concept of “leave no trace,” while the series for kids ages 12-14 focuses on outdoor leadership.
In designing their packets for distribution, Venture Outdoors also accounted for multiple age groups and utilized multiple modes of learning.
Forced to temporarily close its doors, SHH wanted to transition afterschool programming online while maintaining as much breadth and depth as possible
SHH began using Facebook, Youtube, and Instagram to bring video content to their audiences, but also planned to launch the Media Lab Presents Virtual Programs, four structured weekly classes with realtime, in-depth interaction on Zoom. Classes included an environmentally-conscious engineering project, an introduction to tabletop roleplaying, an introduction to electronic textiles, and an exploration of augmented and virtual reality. SHH also maintained daily service of grab-and-go meals for their program participants, and they used this time to distribute hands-on learning kits needed for the new weekly classes.
Through their weekly classes, SHH expects to serve 60 youth with nearly 20 hours of structured program time. They will offer their Design Factory class in partnership with PA Cyber Charter; it will guide youth in constructing bat houses using kits provided by Bat Conservation and Management of Carlisle, PA. Instructors will include retired Carnegie Mellon University professor and former President of the Engineers Society of Western PA Deborah Lange, and current Army Corps of Engineers Civil Engineer Sarah Stephenson. Their Introduction to Dungeons and Dragons course and e-textiles course will also be taught by instructors Dean Focareta and by Sophia Bender, a current Heinz Fellow at University Prep. The XR Lab class will welcome Heather Mallak, Creator of Public Studio, to demonstrate augmented and virtual reality using Google Cardboard, CoSpaces, and other tools.
To serve students without internet access, SHH also heavily promoted Comcast’s free internet services within their community. Participants without wifi can still participate in classes that utilize take-home kits.
As a teen media space, the YMCA Lighthouse Project wanted to focus on the connections between their community of volunteers, staff, and teens as they transitioned to an online space.
The project has replicated some aspects of their program schedule in a virtual space and has focused on providing social-emotional support, myth-busting, and therapeutic art-making practices for teens. They are using Facebook, including its chat, video chat, and group functions, to facilitate programs and meet teens on a platform many were already using.
Clubs and programs have maintained their regular cadence. The project’s visual arts and audio clubs typically met on Mondays and Wednesdays, so they now post art and audio making prompts online on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. In response, art students post their visual projects in a Facebook group, while audio students post videos of themselves performing or making homemade instruments. Similarly, the Afro Science Fiction Club met on Tuesdays, so now they host Facebook video chats on Tuesday evenings at the same time.
The project continues to respond to youth voice in a virtual space. Several of their teens expressed a desire to keep up with their Spanish speaking skills, so they created a separate Facebook chat group where members speak Spanish exclusively.
They have also adapted their Monday open-ended cypher to a virtual myth-busting conversation, where students can ask questions and work together as a community to ensure all have access to accurate and current information regarding COVID-19.