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Forced to teach hands-on classes from a distance, they make it work

Classes like band, cosmetology, and auto technology are best taught in person. But when a pandemic makes that impossible, it’s time for teachers and students to get creative.
Sickles band director Keith Griffis prepares the marching band for a performance at halftime during a game against Chamberlain High.
Sickles band director Keith Griffis prepares the marching band for a performance at halftime during a game against Chamberlain High. [ Times (2018) ]
Published Apr. 11, 2020

In ordinary times, Keith Griffis and his nearly 250 students would be spending the rest of second semester practicing for spring concerts and preparing next fall’s halftime show.

Instead, the Sickles High band director is working to keep his students interested from a distance.

It might sound like a tough task. Band, like so many electives, depends on hands-on activities that could be difficult to accomplish from afar.

Sickles High band director Keith Griffis
Sickles High band director Keith Griffis [ Sickles High School ]

But Griffis — like many other teachers — says he’s finding ways through trial and error to keep students coming back for more, despite the distance.

“We’re kind of learning this as we go,” he said. “There was no playbook. We’re just doing the best we can to make assignments that will be beneficial and fulfilling for these guys.”

A big part of the effort has focused on keeping the students creative.

Griffis opened his band room one day so students could get instruments for home. Then he provided websites that include recorded pieces the band and ensembles planned to play, so the students can record themselves performing alongside those.

Maybe a cool video might emerge.

Other assignments include finding music choices and possible formations for the halftime show, and making music arrangements. And there’s plenty of conference calls, sometimes just to hang out, like band kids often do.

Everyone’s access to technology isn’t the same, he acknowledged. But for the most part, it’s working out well.

“There are just a few we haven’t heard from,” Griffis said.

One factor that favors such courses: They’re often student favorites. And that draw doesn’t change just because the mode has shifted.

“Most of the kids that are in my program chose to be in the program,” said George Walker, automotive technology teacher at East Bay High in Ruskin. “That’s a plus.”

Having actual cars to work on with his students still would be closer to ideal. But Walker remained upbeat about the alternative.

“It’s an interactive online program that covers a variety of the different stuff in the auto industry,” he said, reeling off a list that included brakes and engine performance. “The nice thing about it is kids can come into it and do classes at their own pace.”

George Walker's automotive technology students at East Bay High School are using online programs to help them continue their lessons while schools are closed because of the coronavirus.
George Walker's automotive technology students at East Bay High School are using online programs to help them continue their lessons while schools are closed because of the coronavirus. [ Courtesy of George Walker ]

They click on animations to get details about the systems. And the program tracks their decisions to see if they have properly diagnosed a situation, or if they’re just guessing.

Plus, mistakes aren’t as costly, noted Walker, who said he provided students several ways to contact him, and created new descriptive videos of how to understand the work.

“Ideally we’d like to be in the shop,” he said. “But being limited to where we can’t do it, it’s as close as we can get.”

He said he’d never recommend canceling these classes just because the coronavirus pandemic closed the campuses. They mean too much to students.

“If they don’t have the desire to go to college or they don’t have the means ... then the workforce is where they’re going to be,” he said. “This is a chance for them to get into the industry.”

Getting certifications that lead to those jobs can be a strong motivating force, said Dana Johnson, a cosmetology instructor at Marchman Technical College in New Port Richey.

She said her students log in daily for live lessons and practice sessions in everything from the chemistry of hair color to the way styles fit a client’s head. And to keep the students’ interest high, Johnson said, she spends less time on the “boring assignments” and more time on their final quarter project.

Cosmetology teacher Dana Johnson has live online practice sessions with her Marchman Technical students to monitor their progress on their final model makeover project.
Cosmetology teacher Dana Johnson has live online practice sessions with her Marchman Technical students to monitor their progress on their final model makeover project. [ Courtesy of Dana Johnson ]

That’s a model makeover. They have to submit written explanations of their plans and how to execute those. And then they practice.

“They have a long-haired mannequin they took home,” Johnson said. “The live Zoom sessions are everything. ... I can literally watch them work and make suggestions.”

One other thing she stressed: High expectations.

“I’m 100 percent committed to them, so I ask them to be 100 percent committed,” she said. “So far I’ve had every student show up for everything.”

The same issues that affect the older students and their teachers play out with the younger set, too.

Sue Fisher
Sue Fisher [ Courtesy of Sue Fisher ]

Susan Fisher has been a physical education teacher at Tarpon Springs Elementary for seven years.

She sees students three days a week when school is in. But now it’s “hit and miss.”

Kids are logging in at different times. Only some participate in live lessons.

“So far it’s been okay. Overall, minus a few glitches, it’s been good," said Fisher, who uses email and calls to check on students.

Even though they’re not exercising together, the students still can benefit from her class.

“If a kid is going to only be on a computer doing math … they aren’t going to have that brain break activity," she said. "I think it’s important everyone gets that at some point throughout the day.”

She’s provided the students a variety of online applications, such as clever.com and Brainpop, and has asked them to fill out a daily activity log. Her first distance lesson, though, was perhaps the most important for these times: How to properly wash your hands.

“If we were in a whole year of this, then I would be looking for videos on the right way to catch a baseball, for example, or how to hop, skip and balance," Fisher said. "I’ve just started with simple things to try and get them moving.”

Music teacher Carol Carstensen
Music teacher Carol Carstensen [ Courtesy of Carol Carstensen ]

Safety Harbor Elementary music teacher Carol Carstensen has not used live lessons much, instead uploading materials for students to respond to separately.

She’s trying to keep the personal touch, nonetheless.

“One thing I do every class is I warm them up vocally and I sing hello and then they sing hello back," she said. "When we started (with online learning) I made a video for each child of me singing hello with their name … then they had to make a video back to me.”

Many said they missed her. Right back at you, she said.

“When you work with little kids, they’re always so affectionate and responsive, and that’s the part of it I miss," Carstensen said. "In my lessons, I’m hands-on, so this is hard.”

But like Fisher and the others, she expressed hope that the students look to their electives as a fun part of the day that also helps dispel some of the anxiety around distance learning and the coronavirus.

Kim Moore, assistant superintendent for career and innovative programs in Pasco County schools, said converting courses that depend on hands-on experiences into the distance model could be a challenge. Many of the courses are meant to provide the application of theory, and not just the theory itself.

But in the short period of time that remains for the semester, Moore said, the teachers still have plenty of material to cover. And they’re stepping up to the task of making the virtual lessons as useful as possible.

“Our teachers and our staff are just working really hard to keep the learning going," Moore said. “I don’t think anybody is going to tell you it’s ideal ... All I can give you is simulations and stay hopeful that this situation we find ourselves in will be over in a relatively short period of time."

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