EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the fourth in a series examining how local school districts are handling instruction in the era of COVID-19. The fifth story will appear in next week’s edition.
Imagine driving through an African jungle on safari or the foothills of Utah in search of dinosaur bones. Or just enjoying a drive-in movie.
Second-graders at Maple Grove Elementary are able to do just from their own jeeps.
The desk design is the highlight of Tamra Peck’s classroom this year.
“Last year, I didn’t have desks at all; I had the small tables and they sat on the floor. They had flexible seating,” Peck said. “I always do a lot of hands-on kind of things and of course, this year ‘6-feet apart, you can’t let the kids mingle,’ and we weren’t able to do that. And they were so looking forward to it from first grade — they’d come by and peek in: ‘Oh! I can’t wait to do that!’ ”
But that’s not possible in the year COVID.
So Peck got desks and turned them into jeeps, creating a contained space for each student.
She saw the idea on Pinterest by a teacher who was doing a safari unit in the classroom.
“My units in science are on mammals and fossils, so we take little safaris and trips. It just all fits together with my curriculum. And it’s something different. This was a way to make desks more interesting and fun,” Peck said, noting her students have taken the idea outside. “At recess, they’ll play like they’re driving their jeeps outside. There’s a tree out there with a limb and they’ll put a stick in it and drive.”
Creating the desks was a family affair with her husband Charles Peck, and parents, Loren and Brenda Crockett, lending a hand. Her dad even researched different ways to make the clear surrounding. In the end, they went with clear shower curtains, fastened to PVC pipe, which was screwed into the desks. A swimming noodle creates the light bar at the top. Poster board continues the facade, which is complete with a personalized license plate for each student. Crates beside the jeeps provide trunk space for storage as students now have to have their own supplies for what used to be common classroom items like dry erase markers and erasers.
“The kids love it. I think it gives the parents a little more comfort knowing there’s that added barrier,” Peck said. “I’ve had a lot of comments. I’ve already found ways to make them better or build on it. It’ll be an ongoing thing. Hopefully, it’ll be for fun and not necessity.”
Peck is marking her 30th year as a teacher at Maple Grove. She began in Title Math, then Title Reading, then fifth grade for 13 years. When her aunt Bonnie Eime retired from Maple Grove with 35 years as the second-grade teacher, Peck filled the position 15 years ago.
“I love this age,” Peck said of the second-grade’s 7- to 8-year-olds. “They learn a lot, but I can do it in a fun way. It’s easy to come up with different ways to teach something. I can throw lots of activities at them and make it fun, and they get excited. At this level, while we do a lot of learning, I want them to like school. That’s another way I can get them to want to come back and encourage them to try hard. And even though something may be hard or challenging, they can figure out different ways to do it.”
Put those challenges and Peck’s love of kids together and that’s why she became a teacher. “I like the light bulb going off. You always hear a teacher say that makes it all worthwhile, but I really do. You can just see those kids, ‘I got it!’ And they’re so excited. I just love that feeling. And I really like to help people. It seemed perfect.”
So how does a teacher of 30 years who can teach her planned out year with “my eyes closed, in the dark” handle instruction in the era of COVID-19?
“It’s been a transition,” Peck said. “It’s taking a lot of learning on my part — I could do Word and email — but I’ve learned a lot. The kids have helped me.”
And that began in March when life went into lockdown and school doors were shut but education had to continue. “It took me a while to even believe it was happening. I try to stay as close to my kids as I can. That was a challenge because I felt like I wasn’t doing my job,” Peck said. “I learned how to do YouTube videos and did about 80 from March to May. The kids would sign in on their own time and watch, so I was still able to teach, just not the way I’d like. Once every couple of weeks, I went to their homes and delivered their stuff to them, talked to the parents, talked to the kids. It was quite a challenge.”
With the new school year, “we were were normal with masks” going five days a week. That schedule changed two weeks ago to a four-day week with Wednesdays off to allow teachers more time plan and “find better ways to help those kids” who are on remote learning. Peck has a total of 15 second-graders this year, four of whom are currently doing remote learning.
“The school has been wonderful with anything we’ve needed. On Wednesdays, some are teaching remote with the whole class. Some have remote learners come in. I do the packets as a review of what we’ve had the last three or four days. I contact all my kids at home, make sure they’re on track with what they need doing, if there’s any testing they need to come in and do. The administration has left it up to us how to do it; that’s been nice.
“The parents and kids have been just as good. The kids who came back were just as excited to back in school,” she continued. “Every morning when I come in, I have my four kids sign on and I put them on my Promethean board. They interact with us on the computer and are doing the exact same thing we are in the classroom. They’re watching me teach, asking questions. They’re right there with me. It’s a lot better than I had anticipated. I was really concerned. It’s been good, but not as good as it could.”
But by having that interaction with their classmates, the remote students “feel a part of everything,” Peck said. “On Friday afternoons, I send home the work we’re going to do the next week so they’re right on track with us and do exactly what we do. If we’re having an experiment in the classroom, they’re having the same thing at home. If we get a treat, they get treat. If we do a play, they have a part. I try to keep it as equal as possible. It’s been good for them and for us.”
School wide, “the remote learners come in for testing to see how they’re doing, what progress we’ve made, do we need to work on something else. There are some teachers who have them come in for extra one-on-one so they do get to come into the building and feel a part of all of it. That’s been nice administration has allowed us to do that,” Peck said.
Zoom and the Promethean board have now become the doorway for longtime classroom visitors. Tiffney Stewart with the University of Illinois Extension office “came” last week for her annual Organ Wise presentation on healthy eating, healthy living, the different parts of the body and what organs do. The board also provides a forum for students to see mouth patterns for correct speech.
“With our masks, at this level, they need to see how we say our words — how our mouths look when we say them — so we’ve recorded our phonics-based lessons,” Peck said. “When you record it, they can see it, and you can pause it and point out different things. They need to see our mouths, and the videos are really helping. The kids like it because it’s like a drive-in movie.”
These first weeks of the school year, Maple Grove teachers are spending much of their lunch time collaborating and sharing ideas of how to teach in their new classroom situation.
“Somebody asked how long I’d been here and if I was ready to move on,” Peck recalled. “I said no. Even with the new teachers, it’s like family here. I love this district. It really is home. I try to do everything I can to make it fun. This finding new ways to do things is big.”
And while instruction this year has had its changes and challenges, Peck hopes her kids this year walk away the philosophy she’s had for all of her previous classes.
“I hope at the end of the year, the biggest thing they come away with is they can do anything they set their mind to,” Peck said. “There’s a lot we have to learn, but I want them to know they can do it. I want that positive self-esteem built up. I don’t want any challenge to overcome them. I want them to push forward and know they can do it.”