Several classrooms at Columbia River Gorge Elementary had extra faces in boxes during their Zoom lessons on Wednesday, November 18 when Washougal School District Board members joined in.

“Typically, the Board takes learning walks at our schools to see first-hand the education and learning going on,” said Renae Burson, WSD Assistant Superintendent.  “But in the new virtual world that education is in, today’s visit took place via Zoom classrooms.”

The session began promptly at 7:30 a.m. and, over several hours and through a number of Zoom links, board members visited CRGE first and fifth grade classrooms, Kindergarten music class and a presentation by Wolfways to the entire third grade.

“My school team has forged ahead successfully,” Tracey MacLachlan, CRGE Principal told board members as they prepared to join the classrooms.  “They are very innovative, and they understand just how important it is for them to be reaching out and connecting to all students. No one is happy with the status quo.”

Board members witnessed fast paced, yet calm instruction and activities that are necessary to capture and hold the attention of students.  “We can’t just sit back, or the kids will check out,” said MacLachlan.  “What is important to me as an administrator is our teachers are knowing their students and engaging them. Engagement is the number one priority to support learning at CRGE.”

In the past, only the first couple weeks of school may have included a lot of classroom community building. “With remote learning, teachers are keeping more of those activities as a way to engage,” explained MacLachlan.   “Morning meetings and community building activities, that include recognizing and connecting with individual students, hold a lot of value for engagement.”

CRGE first grade teachers report connecting with approximately 90% of their students and they continue to reach out to those who are missing.  “We have to support them wherever they are at and provide individualized attention as they need it,” said CRGE first grade teacher, Sydney Termini. “It is about knowing what is going on with a student and keeping the student accountable for their own learning and setting expectations.”

MacLachlan said her teachers understand it is all about relationship building, for instance encouraging use of cameras. “If there is a black screen or the student can not be seen in the image, the teacher may call on that student during the lesson to check their engagement,” MacLaclan explained. “They find many are participating but just not on camera.”

If it is clear the student is not present, the family is contacted. However, some students may have poor wifi connectivity so the camera can not operate or they may be in a difficult living situation.  If a student privately requests their camera not be used for good reason it can be approved.

“This is all a huge puzzle and being honed to each individual student,” MacLachlan explained.  “What is important is for teachers to know the student and know the situation so they can offer the right help at the right time. We can’t challenge if we don’t know them and can’t challenge if we don’t nurture. I want us to persevere every time!”

“I was impressed with how organized the virtual classroom was and the quality of instruction from the teachers in a virtual environment,” said WSD Board president, Cory Chase. “It was fun to see the kids engaged in learning and interacting with one another.  The pandemic has provided some significant challenges, but I was really happy to see how everyone was adapting and making the most of our unique circumstances.”

Chase found the virtual music class a pleasant surprise.  “I had heard about them but being able to experience it first-hand really gave me a new perspective.  It was fun to see and hear music, movement, and sign language combined in the lesson,” he said.

“I was impressed by the community building and engagement and pleased that kids were learning important skills like how to operate in a group (hand raising and waiting their turn), as well as applied math skills in the first grade classroom,” said Board member Donna Sinclair. “The classroom mantras that reinforced respect and kindness were also terrific.”

Sinclair noted that the board understands there are kids whose needs are not being met.  “But I appreciate that teachers and paraeducators are working hard to stay in contact with them,” she said.

“Our elementary teachers are really hitting the mark,” said WSD Superintendent Mary Templeton. “I am encouraged at what I saw and impressed with how they manage relationships, expectations and connections. We hope the Board feels they benefited by having eyes on the product we are providing.  We wanted them to know how this looks and how it sounds.   I am enormously proud of our Washougal teachers and staff and the work they are doing on behalf of our students.”

The WSD Board will visit other Washougal schools virtually in early 2021.