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distance learning
PHOTO COURTESY PIXABAY

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Amir Doctry’s seventh-grade students at Renaissance Middle School had live chats with students half a world away.

Montclair High School students used Theresa Giarrusso’s media literacy lessons to make sense of information (and disinformation) about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speech and language pathologist Megan Randall worked with Bradford and Nishuane students on issues such as speech, communication and self-awareness, along with the social and emotional aspects of those issues, through teletherapy sessions in Google Meets.

With the shape of education in the fall in question, Montclair’s teachers have come up with innovative ways to teach students.

The three projects had the backing of the Montclair Fund for Educational Excellence. The MFEE provided funding for materials for the media literacy courses and a 360-degree camera to use as part of the Global Citizen Project, as well as for curriculum materials for the teletherapy sessions.

Global Citizen Project

Doctry and his students at Renaissance Middle School are participating in the Global Citizen Project, which encourages students to come up with solutions to help schools in need, while communicating with students at other schools around the world.

On a trip to Tanzania last summer, Doctry visited a school that did not have ready access to electricity, electronics and other items that students in Montclair take for granted. So when the school year started up, he asked his students if they wanted to do something to help.

“Everybody had their hand up when I asked who wanted to help,” he recalled.

The details of the project, including fundraising to help the school in Tanzania, are still to be determined.

But the project then led Montclair students to communicate with students in other countries, such as Belarus, Japan, Vietnam and Brazil.

The communications took place via Flipgrid, where students can post short videos that other students can react to, and via Google Classroom.

Some students act as moderators and ambassadors: people who help facilitate the live discussions online. There are also translators present during the live discussions.

There is some math involved — for example, how many time zones is Belarus ahead of Montclair? The students quickly learned the answer: seven. And if it’s 9 a.m. in Montclair, it’s 10 p.m. in Japan, so the students and teachers needed to be mindful that the classes they were taking could mean being up late at night or early in the morning.

Sometimes they talked about everyday topics such as pets, or sports, or favorite foods. Other times, they might talk about how their respective countries are coping with the COVID-19 outbreak. “Unintentionally, we’ve seen how the coronavirus has affected everyone,” said student Ben Shandler. “It’s the opposite of isolating.”

Fight the Info-Demic

The project started with Nick Stambuli’s students at Montclair High School preparing to do TED Talks on projects of their own choosing, known as “passion projects.”

Stambuli invited Theresa Giarrusso, high school media literacy teacher, to present a series of media literacy workshops to the students to help them with their research and critical thinking skills.

The classes concentrated on disinformation and misinformation online and on social media about the COVID-19 pandemic. So the classes were known as “Fight the Info-Demic.”

At one time, websites ending in .edu and .gov were always trustworthy, Giarrusso said. But with reports that key information about COVID-19, climate change and other important topics is being removed or purged from government websites, even those sites are coming into question, she said.

Students now need to apply critical thinking skills when analyzing those sites.

For example, in Florida, a data scientist was dismissed from her job because she would not manipulate the data to support a reopening of the state. Students did research on media reports about that story, including coverage by the Miami Herald and the Tampa Bay Times.

Stambuli said his students have risen to the occasion of having classes online by working hard. “They’re putting in everything,” he said. 

Speech and language

In a typical school environment, Randall, the speech and language pathologist, would meet with students one-on-one and then follow up with the students’ parents via phone or email. But with remote learning, she switched to teletherapy sessions in Google Meets.

The online sessions, which connected 25 families with Randall, came with some very definite benefits, she said.

The parents were listening in on the sessions, so Randall was able to speak to them as well as the student. “We’re coaching the parent as the parent is coaching the student,” she said. And that in turn builds up the level of trust, making the therapy sessions more candid and more personal, she added.

Randall received a grant from MFEE to invest in materials from the Social Learning curriculum, which provides support for speech therapy for children and pays special attention to social and emotional needs.

Randall said she hoped that some of the advantages of teletherapy continue when the school buildings open back up. She said she can’t wait to see her students and families in person again.