Speaking out loud with classmates was the first item on the agenda for students in Matt Winbigler’s Earth and Space Systems class on Thursday, Jan. 28, — day one of hybrid learning for some Cloquet High School students.
Armed with a loud horn, background music and jokes, he split the students into groups and disabled the online chat option, preventing students from typing messages to one another.
He then told the groups of freshmen to use their voices to communicate and come up with the perfect pizza for their group.
The science teacher said they had to agree on the toppings for their pizzas and encouraged the students physically present in the classroom to be leaders by initiating immediate conversations with their group members on the screen.
The result was uncomfortable laughter and frustrated comments as some students in the classroom struggled to engage with their group. Others stared into their screens.
Freshmen Abby Steinert and Ella Colt joked with one another across the room, cursing Winbigler for making them speak out loud.
In the end, each member of the class had to say their favorite pizza topping to be counted for attendance. Winbigler said it was the most talking he heard in the classroom in a long time.
Winbigler's strategy is one among many Cloquet teachers employed to engage their students during virtual learning, and students, too, have found new ways to connect with each other as the COVID-19 pandemic has modified their school experience.
A different kind of class
“Who hasn’t been up this early since last week?” teacher Kevin Brenner asked his college algebra class early Thursday morning while raising his hand.
He was met by silence from the small group of juniors and seniors.
Cloquet senior Camden Pollerd was the only student physically present in Brenner’s classroom that morning.
Seniors and freshmen returned to Cloquet High School classrooms in a hybrid model, with one-third of the students in person and the remainder learning remotely.
The senior and freshman classes have been split into three groups — A, B and C — with each group in the building on different days of the week. Sophomores and juniors will remain in full-time distance learning until Feb. 8, at which point all high school students will return in a hybrid model.
“It’s been really different,” Pollerd said of her return to the school building.
Brenner had a moment of shock and excitement during the lesson when he realized he might be blocking Pollerd's view of the whiteboard. He said it had been so long since he had last worried about working with students in the classroom.
“Camden’s made my day,” Brenner said, smiling behind his mask after finishing the class lesson.
Working to teach, trying to learn
Juniors in Brenner’s class said it has been difficult to learn in a virtual environment.
Brenner's son is a senior at the school, and he said he uses his son’s experience to influence his teaching methods. He encouraged students throughout the day’s lesson, calling them the smartest kids in the school.
Sticking to his numerical tendencies, Brenner said he found a comfortable solution for himself and his students by aiming to complete 80% of the course work.
Teacher Bret Baker has shortened his lectures and tries to incorporate a lot of visuals into his lessons. to keep his students engaged. Thursday morning he read a passage to his freshman world history class, while pointing to various maps.
English teacher Jason Richardson said he is helping students manage by going at a slower pace.
Richardson, who requires his students to read 30 minutes a day, said he will do whatever it takes to get students the books they need and want, even if it means making personal deliveries to homes.
“You're just doing your best and getting through,” he told his freshman English class Thursday, calling the return to a hybrid model a “baby step” in the right direction.
For students, moving from a completely virtual school experience to a hybrid model will be a challenge.
Freshman Beau Plante said it’s been a hard transition back to classrooms with having to adjust to a new schedule, and being both in and out of the school building.
For freshman Madi Fredrickson, learning during the pandemic means she doesn't know the school building as well as she should.
“I think it’s pretty stressful,” she said.
Connecting and coping
Being back in the classroom has improved Pollerd's communication with her teachers, but she said she misses seeing all of the other students, and she feels the gap left by missed events from her senior year, such as homecoming.
Every student’s experience in the pandemic has been different based on varying home lives and schedules, said junior Lydia Stone.
To cope, Pollerd and others said they talk with their classmates on group chats.
Similarly, Cloquet teachers said they miss seeing students and interacting with them in person.
To help build relationships with students, Baker said he attends as many sporting events as he can.
He and Richardson both said that getting to know freshmen, whom they met for the first time through a virtual setting, can be difficult.
The teachers encourage students to reach out to them, and Richardson instructed each student to prepare an introduction for themselves.
Baker sets time aside each Friday to meet one-on-one online with students.
Aiming to be better
The reliance of technology for virtual lessons has meant teachers have had to adjust their work as they go.
Winbigler surveyed his students to adjust how he uses technology in his teaching.
“We’re here to always be working on improving,” he said.
Technology has been an obstacle for Richardson throughout the pandemic, and he took a few minutes at the end of his class Thursday to ask for student feedback.
“Let me know if there’s anything awkward that I’m doing here,” he said as students helped him find the correct placement for his computer screens. “Everything is awkward about this.”
The students actively provided tips and suggestions for their instructors, telling them what worked well and what didn't.
Because of the nature of virtual learning, Baker said he no longer works from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., but rather 24 hours a day when he factors in messages from students. He said he wants to respond to students as quickly as possible.
Baker has been a teacher for 20 years, but said the 2020-2021 school year alone has felt like four or five.
Baker, Brenner and Winbigler all said that despite the challenges, they are grateful to have students back in the classroom.
"Let me just say how wonderful it was to hear your voices," Winbigler said to his students after the pizza discussion in Thursday's class. "Your ideas and your voices are so powerful and so important."