Changing Paradigms: Part I - How educators are teaching their students virtually

Troy Kuntz, elementary media specialist for Dickinson Public Schools, dresses up in costumes for his online videos to entertain students. (Photo provided by Troy Kuntz)

The American education system, by and large, doesn’t look much different today than it did in the 1950s. Students arrive at schools and are instructed by teachers on a variety of subjects in person, are kept in batches based on education level and are taught using the socratic method of I do, we do, you do. For more than 80 years, this process has been the norm — but with the outbreak of coronavirus and COVID-19 cases growing exponentially across the United States, schools have been forced to reinvent the wheel.

While students are isolated from their peers and classrooms, their teachers are doing their best to take the distance out of distance learning and bridge the literal gap between them and their students with technology. In Part I of this three-part series, we talk with teachers in southwest North Dakota about some of the ways they are providing routine, social/emotional learning, and using the situation itself as a learning opportunity.

South Heart

Holly Holinka doesn't teach The Last Lecture every year. When the semester started, she decided she really wanted to teach it to this particular group of 11th-grade students.

The book is by Randy Pausch, a former lecturer at Carnegie Mellon University who was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in his 40's and given a short time to live.

Now that the their lives have changed from the pandemic caused by a coronavirus, Holinka said it seems like she was supposed to be teaching it. It's given Holinka and her students a new lens through which to read the book.


"It’s about living your best life and coming into it with an optimistic attitude," Holinka said of the book. "There’s so many lessons in it now. … In this time where we’re all sort of wondering what’s going to happen, this positive attitude that he … leaves as a message for readers - you can see it in a different perspective now than I probably would have thought about two months ago. "

She's using this perspective to help students relate to the book and its message.

"I’ve been trying to draw the students into thinking about the kinds of things they’re feeling that they’re losing or not getting to experience like they would like to in their final years of high school and how you can sort of see how Randy’s perspective may help us get a more positive attitude about dealing with what we’re dealing with," Holinka said.

On an online discussion board, Holinka asked her students to respond to the following prompt:

After showing his lecture audience the CT image of his numerous tumors, Randy Pausch said, "We can't change it. We just have to decide how we'll respond. We cannot change the cards we are dealt, just how we play the hand." (17) Consider Randy's comment from page 17 of The Last Lecture from the perspective of "the cards" we have been "dealt." How does his statement (and other reflections about living life) resonate with you in our current situation?

Student Elizabeth Dean wrote:

"Randy explains his situation as "the cards" he has been dealt in life. He realized he couldn't change the cards, but that he could change how he "played the hand." ... This is similar to our current situation because we have been dealt an unfortunate hand. As Americans and North Dakotans we cannot change our situation, but we can change the impact it has on us. Rather than letting the virus dampen our mood and control our lives, we can search for the positives. With a grateful heart and an optimistic mind, I have found the virus as a wake-up call. I feel it has brought families together and caused all of us to reflect on what is most important in our lives."

Student Campbell Clarys wrote:


"I find myself angry or sad at our current situation at times, but then I remember that there is NOTHING I can do besides make the best of it. ... Although I would rather be learning face-to-face, I have realized that distance-learning will help improve my independence and motivation to do work by myself. I also have more time to do the tasks that I have never done because I was always too busy. Randy's saying reminded me of another quote: "Control the controllable(s)." I have never related to this quote until recently. I am doing my best to control how I react to situations and change my mindset about dealing with challenging situations in a positive way."


Dickinson's teachers are finding creative ways of using technology to maintain a sense of community and lighten the mood.

Dickinson Middle School

Sarah Crossingham found inspiration online to facilitating a virtual talent show with her students.

"Awhile ago, I saw on Dickinson Classifieds someone snapped a picture of one of our 7th graders playing saxophone, and then someone joked on there, 'We should have a talent show.' Once I saw that, I ran with that idea," she said.

To get the kids excited about it, the staff at Dickinson Middle School created a virtual talent show of their talents. The school had students sign up for the show on a Google Form. So far, at least 90 kids have signed up.

The students will take a video of themselves performing their talent using Flipgrid, a website that allows teachers to facilitate video discussions, and the teachers will turn all of those videos into one big compilation.

"Especially right now, they're missing those interactions and they're isolated at home," Crossingham said. "They are getting the academics, but I feel that some students are craving that social/emotional learning and getting to see their classmates and talk to their classmates. This is an easy, fun way to do that, and to get to know our students a bit better."


With the 7th graders in her advisory period, she's continuing the school's live circles activities every Monday morning.

"It's basically a time where we serve our students and get to know our students and do something fun. Sometimes it's academic, but it's strictly to serve their social/emotional needs," she said.

Crossingham hadn't planned to continue to do the activities. When a student asked her if they were going to, at first she questioned how they could, but then she thought about it.

Their first activity was a scavenger hunt.

"I had a list on my end, and then I would say, 'Ok. You guys are going to race, and the first person who brings me back a spoon gets a point,'" she said.

Then the items on her list started to be individualized. She asked students to bring her their favorite shirt, to bring something they take care of, like a pet or plant.

Elementary Schools

Roosevelt Elementary kindergarten teacher Emily Bren also uses Flipgrip for social interaction and is beginning to hold morning meetings on Zoom. She also uses RAZ Kids to monitor her students' reading.


"This app allows my students to have access to book at their just right level," she said. "They are able to listen to the book being read, read it themselves, and answer comprehension questions. One of features I'm really utilizing is the record feature, where the students record themselves reading a book that allows me to listen for expression, fluency, and decoding of words."

Troy Kuntz, elementary library media specialist, works with Berg, Roosevelt and Prairie Rose Elementary Schools. To make his online videos more interesting, he dresses up in costumes. Karl Leggate, who teaches 5th grade at Berg Elementary, does a joke of the day to lighten the moods of students and staff, and the school is doing a virtual parade and spirit week.


Since Robin Rivinius teaches first graders, she's trying to maintain their classroom routine as much as possible.

"Young children find comfort in knowing what to expect, especially in a situation like this where adults don't even know what to expect. I try really hard to make as much the same at home as it is at school. I've done a few Zoom meetings where we're just having their read aloud," she said.

She's trying to maintain the spelling routines and structures they had in the classroom.

"For 1st graders, they walk around the room to write their spelling words for practice, and I sent home papers that they could cut apart so they could walk around their home and do their spelling words like they would in a classroom," Rivinius said. "I try to do things like that where they're actively learning at home like they would be at school."

They're learning about coins in class, so she had each student collect 7 dimes, nickels, quarters and pennies, then grab a handful. Next, they counted and recorded how many of each coin they had picked up.

Students will also interact with their families for her lessons.


"A lot of learning when kids are this little is social. They need to be developing those relationships and interacting with others to learn best."

For one of the lessons, kids will play a game called Word Bump with their family.

"There's a mat that I sent home - one for ... whoever they're playing with, and one for the student, and they each have a (word) list," Rivinius said. "They roll a dice, the next word on their list they'll write that number on their mat, and they might be able to bump one of their family members off that list. They're reading the word, spelling the word, writing the word, but in a way that develops relationships with their family, so it's interactive."

Holly Holinka.jpg
Holly Holinka is having her students at South Heart reflect how the themes of The Last Lecture relate to their lives during the pandemic. (Photo courtesy of South Heart Public School)

Kayla Henson is a former Dickinson Press reporter.
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