Todd MacArthur has been a teacher at Winthrop High School for over a decade, but when schools closed due to the coronavirus and distance learning suddenly became the new norm, he said, “It’s been like I’m a new teacher all over again.” 

Winthrop High School technical education teacher Todd MacArthur demonstrates a homemade catapult with the help of sons Harper, left, and Lincoln while holding a virtual lesson with his preengineering class. Submitted photo

Distance learning has been challenging for MacArthur, who teaches technology education at Winthrop, as well as for many other teachers of “elective classes,” as Edward Little High School art teacher Shawn Rice terms them. Classes go beyond a textbook, sometimes out of simple necessity. 

“I’ve had to recreate my curriculum and head toward more theory-based content rather than hands-on,” he said. “It really depends on the class I am teaching.” 

MacArthur and his preengineering students have been able to deal with the distance and still be able to do some hands-on projects using materials that can be found at home, such as creating aluminum-foil boats, spaghetti towers, miniature catapults. 

His woodworking classes, however, haven’t been able to be so hands-on, with lessons centering around learning different wood types, wood joints and tool identification, as well as project planning and creativity. 

Gray-New Gloucester High School art teacher Mary Pennington has also asked her students to “creatively source whatever materials they have at hand” for their art projects. She said one student in her mixed-media class made a book using crushed soda cans and zip ties. Another student in her Foundations class made a four-section 3D construction out of items the student had available at her house.

“It helps that between all of my classes I was at the point of the year when I was not teaching media-specific lessons,” Pennington said. 

Rice, who is the art department chair at Edward Little High School in Auburn, said varied access to resources ranging from internet access and computers to school and art supplies is part of the challenge of distance learning, which means “learning options try to take that into account.” 

Lexi Hutchings made a 3D art piece for one of Mary Pennington’s classes at Gray-New Gloucester High School in Gray. Submitted photo

Not knowing which students had internet access prompted Chris Hughes, a physical education teacher at Fairview Elementary in Auburn, to prepare at-home packets for his students as distance learning was starting to take over. The packets included fitness schedules and logs and nutritional goals. He has since worked with each student’s family to figure out which method of learning works best for each individual student, and he has encouraged families to get involved. 

“Overall, teachers need to be creative by nature, so we are always trying to come up with fun activities to keep students engaged,” Hughes said. 

Rebecca Hefty, chair of the physical education department at Edward Little, said keeping students engaged in distance learning for some of her classes has been a challenge at times. 

“Our PE program focuses so much on physical activity and fitness that it’s tough to monitor,” Hefty said. “However, hopefully now with the weather getting nicer more students will get outside.” 

Ethan Hill made a soda-can accordion book for one of Mary Pennington’s art classes at Gray-New Gloucester High School in Gray. Submitted photo

Fairview music teacher Brian Gagnon said one of the biggest challenges for him was scrambling during the first week of distance learning to try and research the best ways to interact with students. But after that, Gagnon said, “it’s actually been working out OK for us.” 

Gagnon has been holding Zoom meetings — both entire class and individual — for students from kindergarten to sixth grade. He said he’s learned to give the students the first five minutes of each meeting to log in and say hello, but then it’s time to mute everyone so they can focus on the day’s class. 

“I then try to hold as normal a music class as possible,” he said. “I’ll share my computer audio with them and get everybody up and doing a dance to ‘shake it out.’ It’s pretty great to see everyone dancing from wherever they are — their kitchen, on the deck, on a trampoline, their bedroom — and it’s a lot like how we’ll start a music class in person.” 

The last five to seven minutes of the 40-minute lessons are reserved for sharing comments and thoughts, “as this is something that I feel is one of the most beneficial things about getting an entire grade level together,” Gagnon said. 

Not having all the students together has been one of the hardest parts of distance learning for art classes, according to Pennington and Rice. 

“So much of teaching is circulating around the room and seeing what students are doing and being able to help them along the way and talk about their goals, struggles and successes,” Pennington said. 

Ella Field shows a design proportion in a photo for Shawn Rice’s Introduction to Digital Photography class at Edward Little High School in Auburn. Submitted photo

“The classroom art studio environment is one that generates a lot of collective energy,” Rice said. “Absent that energy, students are now learning how to tap into their own drivers and motivations.” 

Lewiston High School art teacher Laura Manchester said that she’s been doing “some alternative assignments and Virtual Art Club twice a week with students via Zoom.”

Distance education certainly has been a learning process for both students and teachers. There’s no handbook to follow, but Rice said what teachers “have done to build remote learning infrastructure in very little time is nothing short of extraordinary.” 

MacArthur said kudos should be given to the students in all of this. 

“Kids are the most resilient demographic and understand that this is not the most ideal way to engage in a hands-on course, but tackle the challenge of doing what needs to be done,” he said. “I’ve never been more proud of students, seeing them adapt and succeed in a challenging situation.” 

Lewiston High School art teacher Laura Manchester interacts with her students via online class. Submitted photo

Lewiston High School art teacher Laura Manchester interacts with her students via online class.


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