Toppenish Educators Trying to Make the Most of Online Learning

When K-12 classes abruptly ended in mid-March due to concerns over the spread of the coronavirus, few educators in Washington had any idea what might lay ahead. 

A statewide stay-at-home order came next, followed by a full cancellation of in-person instruction on April 6. Some school districts around the state struggled early on to react the sudden paradigm shift, but others, like the Toppenish School District, enacted successful emergency plans from the beginning.

By providing computers to students in need, expanding availability to the internet and offering food to families twice a day, the school district has done its level best to respond to a once-in-a-lifetime challenge.

“Our school district’s mission is to always do what’s best for our kids, and this is definitely a time where they’ve proven that,” said Amber Gutzwiler, an English and language arts teacher at Toppenish High School. “They have gone out of their way to make sure kids are fed, have internet access and have the tools they need to be successful. This is a situation where I’m very proud of how my district responded.”

The school district, led by Superintendent John Cerna, started planning for a potential shutdown in the weeks leading up to the statewide stay-at-home order. Once Gov. Jay Inslee issued the order March 23, the district sprang into action.

Google Chromebooks were loaned out to students who needed them. Schools opened up their parking lots so community members could access the internet. School buses with Wi-Fi hotspots were stationed at parks around town, and each of the schools began providing daily breakfasts and lunches to families. These steps allowed students to continue their educations with limited disruptions. 

Top-Hi math teacher Brad Baker has been equally impressed with how the district responded to the crisis.

“Our district has done an amazing job,” he said. “I don’t know where we stack up around the state, but we have to be near the top of the line in the Yakima Valley.”

Baker and Gutzwiler said the biggest challenge for them and their colleagues has been keeping students — not all, but some — engaged from week to week. They have tried to be as flexible as possible with due dates and meeting requests, recognizing that many students are working full time or caring for younger family members. 

“I’ve noticed that the time frame kids work on things is much different,” said Gutzwiler, who teaches college prep English, College in the High School English and a freshman reading class. “My office hours are technically 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., but I’m answering most of my emails and meeting requests from 5 to 8 p.m. With work and family commitments, a lot of them have to do their school work after hours.”

Baker, who teaches trigonometry, algebra and the THS Freshman Academy, said the most important thing he can do at a time like this is be available for his students. It’s also important to inject as much fun as possible into his lessons.

“I post weekly discussion questions and try to keep a dialogue going between the students,” he said. “They really respond well to their classmates, so it’s important to keep up the social interactions. I also get to ask them if there’s anything they need or what’s going on in their lives. That’s something we all need, I think.”

One Top-Hi teacher who has taken the “fun” aspect to heart is Ron Livingston. The 41-year school district veteran, who teaches agricultural education and ag carpentry, has experimented with Saturday Night Live-style openings, a fireside chat theme (a la FDR) and a Mr. Rogers skit.

“I wanted to get the students’ attention, and one way to do that is to get into costume,” he said. “I’ve also tried to get them out of the house. It’s kind of hard to work with a table saw over the internet, so I’ve been sending them out into the community.”

One unit that proved popular with the students was architecture. Livingston found some useful YouTube instructional videos and then asked the students to capture photos of different roofing styles, roofing materials and building techniques around Toppenish. He also used the real estate website, Zillow.com, to educate his students about the many steps involved in building and purchasing a home.

“Most kids have no idea how much houses cost or what it takes to build one,” Livingston said. “This assignment let them explore their community and look around at what’s out there. Then we had a discussion about it.”

As time has gone on, and the official end of the school year inches closer, the three Top-Hi teachers have noticed some drop-off in participation. But by no means have their students been mailing it in. Baker said he’s been thoroughly impressed by his trigonometry students.

“They’ve been doing great with the online format,” he said. “Of the 28 kids in that class, 21 of them are consistently sticking with it, and I haven’t seen a drop in their grades at all.” 

Gutzwiler said this spring has been “a struggle” at times, but she’s been able to meet the students where they are.

“We work based on student needs, and it’s much easier to work with them in person,” she said. “But we have worked hard to maintain a positive mindset because, somehow, we have to continue to be there for our students.”

For Livingston, the lack of interaction with his students has been the most difficult aspect of the shutdown. 

“The reason I’ve done this for so long is that I like kids,” he said. “I enjoy the relationships from year to year, and that’s what I miss the most.”

Gutzwiler, who has been at the school since 2005, echoed that sentiment, saying the sudden shift to online-only learning has been emotional for everyone. 

“The teachers in Toppenish have a special relationship with the kids because we almost feel like secondary parents for them,” she said. “The kids feel like they’ve lost something, too, and that has been hard.”

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