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A banner outside Oriole Park reminds students how much they’re missed.

Staying Connected While We Are Apart

By Louise Brown - May 2020

The song you hear in the video is Drake’s hot new quarantine dance track Toosie Slide, which the superstar filmed in his Toronto mansion wearing a face mask and gloves.

But in this version, some of the dancers are wearing unicorn hats and tails, some are dancing with their kids and one is pushing a floor mop as he busts his moves. 

Welcome to the Toosie Slide video created by staff at North York’s Cassandra Public School, from their homes, as a way to bring joy and human connection to their 300 students grounded at home. 

The 57-second clip is one of a number of staff quarantine videos being made by schools across the Toronto District School Board to bridge the digital gap with students and recapture some of the humor and personal moments that get lost when you’re not together.

 

“We thought a virtual dance party would be a really fun way of engaging with our students to show them ‘We’re all in this together,’” explains Principal Karen Bradley, who opens the video with her 7-year-old son, both sporting unicorn costumes. The school has asked students to send back clips of themselves doing the Toosie Slide for a new version Bradley will show at a welcome-back assembly when schools re-open.

“Our number one priority during this whole new territory of remote learning has been on wellness, so we thought it would be fun for the community to see staff in their element doing something that’s light and uplifting,” she says.

 

The response was huge, and many families say they’re watching it over and over. “If we can bring a smile to people’s faces at this time,” says Bradley, “mission accomplished.”

There’s been growing concern over the mental toll that isolation is taking on children, and parents have shared that students’ interaction with teachers and friends is helping.

But outside the curriculum, many educators are already dreaming up ways to engage with students on a human level. Staff videos. Teachers making curbside visits to students’ homes. Schools inviting students to join in online musical jam sessions, and play silly-hat online bingo games, and hold teachers’ joke contests where students are the judges.

 

“People are recognizing now that those relationships, those connections between staff and students are the basis of everything we do at school,” says veteran social worker Heather Johnson, a Mental Health Lead with the TDSB. She and a team of some 20 TDSB professionals are creating mental health resources to help students and teachers cope with the pandemic in a positive way. When the province closed schools, Director of Education John Malloy said the five most important principles that should guide schools through this strange new time include a focus on mental health, wellness, and maintaining school relationships and connections.

 

 

 

 Schools have embraced the challenge.

At Scarborough’s John A Leslie Public School, teachers not only made a “Quarantine Dance Party” video of themselves from their homes, but had the nerve to ask students to vote on which of them was best. Some 230 students weighed in; nearly half the student body. Teachers also made a comedy video and asked students to vote on who told the best joke. The winning entry? “What do you call cheese that doesn’t belong to you? Nacho Cheese!”

Positive messages in chalk from Queen Victoria PS.

“It’s really exciting to do whatever we can to make real connections with students and support their mental health and well-being, even before the academic piece,” says librarian David Hoang, who helped teachers produce the videos and online voting. When they surveyed students about what else they’d like to see teachers do, many said: Sing.

“So we’re currently thinking of doing a Masked Singer contest for staff,” says Hoang, based on the hit TV show where celebrities disguise their identity and players must guess who they are by their singing. Teachers could use costumes, he says, or a well-placed emoji.

“We’re making these videos to boost morale,” says Hoang. “It all feels lighthearted.”

Grade 6 Teacher Glen Barbeau gave his class at Samuel Hearne Middle School a sweet incentive to finish a math challenge. To any student who correctly calculated the surface area and volume of a Toblerone chocolate bar that Barbeau held up on-screen to show the dimensions, he would hand-deliver a Toblerone bar to their front porch or apartment lobby in this neighborhood near Danforth and Pharmacy. Not many of the kids believed him, he figures, because only three did it at first.

 “But when I announced the winners to the class and said I’d be dropping off their chocolate bars, there was a little flurry of comments because the other kids suddenly realized, ‘Oh, if I do this, I get to see Mr. Barbeau! Something new is happening!’”

The chocolate delivery offers a rare tangible link to what they learn in a virtual classroom, he says. It also provides a nice excuse for teacher and student to see each other face-to-face. “I look forward to seeing them too, even just knocking on their door and taking a two-meter step back and waving at them. ”

 

Now Barbeau is letting other students try the math challenge. If more of them get it right, he’ll be shopping for more chocolate bars. 

Humewood Public School figured out a way to have students get out and reconnect with their physical school by having them make “family flags” for the schoolyard fence. It was a way to remind them – and the neighborhood – there’s still a real live community connected to that empty building.

A collage of good news messages from Allenby PS student and staff.


“We’ve been working on ideas to try to connect with our students and families in a real way as opposed to just a virtual way, so we suggested families create a little family flag, and then hang them along the school fence last Tuesday and Wednesday, and we’d come and photograph them on the Thursday,” says Principal Julie Whitfield.

There were dozens; some simple handprints by younger students, and others elaborate family crests designed by a whole family. Some were on paper, others on cardboard and even wood. Whitfield shot a three-minute video of them along the fence, with staff members waving from behind.
 

“We had done a Social Distancing School Spirit Day a few weeks before, where staff drove by students’ homes in a parade of cars and bikes,” says Whitfied. “Seeing families waving from their porches and balconies, some wearing their Humewood gear and lots of them holding up signs saying We Miss You, was really special. It was the first time we had really seen each other since self-isolation and it was so beautiful, we thought, let’s do something else.”
 

 

One of the Humewood teachers is a dancer who created a 15-second TikTok dance challenge for students to practice at home for a week, then try it Friday online with the whole school.

“At first we thought, maybe we can connect it with the math curriculum and do some data management (related to the dance),” says Whitfield. “And then we thought, You know what? No. This is really about connecting with community. We understand a lot of kids are isolated right now, so we do want to focus on that community connection.”

It’s not just elementary schools that are having fun with students outside the curriculum. Staff at Westview Centennial Secondary School made their own version of a viral video called The Don’t Rush Challenge, in which a series of people record themselves in casual clothes, then cover the screen with an item like a make-up brush, and instantly re-appear dressed up. As each persontransforms, they appear to throw their make-up brush (or other item) off-screen, and it appears to be caught by the next person, who is in casual clothes until they transform, and so on. Since the British video went viral in April, thousands of groups around the world have made their own version, from doctors to soldiers to models.

In this one, Westview staff members are shown at home, many in sweat pants, one in a kimono and some in masks and gloves, before they transform and begin online teaching at their laptops. Even Principal Monday Gala gets into the act. He’s seen hauling huge supplies of toilet paper into his house before reappearing in a suit at his office desk. In another scene, a school hall safety monitor warns viewers, “Get to online class!” He throws a roll of toilet paper at the screen.

 

b“The twist is, instead of trying to look glamorous, we show the contrast of teachers at home coping with Covid realities like wearing masks and hauling groceries, and then transforming to our best selves as teachers, attempting to teach students remotely,” says Kulsoom Anwer, Westview’s assistant curriculum leader for English and literacy.

A screenshot of more than 50 staff members holding up signs with positive messages on them.



“Whenever teachers engage with social media challenges like this, kids find it really funny that we even know about them, let alone dare to participate,” she says. “We knew this would be amusing at a time when so much of this remote learning is faceless.”

Besides, if you want to really connect with kids, you have to go where they are - on social media, says Westview Teacher Jason To.



“We know right now it’s hard to connect with students, and we wanted to do something that we know they have seen before, and they would get a real kick out of, and laugh at our expense and loosen things up,” he says.

“I know we’re tasked to teach them right now remotely, but we wanted to let them know we’re also thinking about them as humans, and do something to lighten things up a little.”

Colleague Dargine Rajeswaran agrees.

“I think we lose a lot of our personalities through online teaching; we just can’t express ourselves. This was a way to really have fun but show who we are. This is Westview! We go out of our way to make you remember that this is a family, we care about you, and we’re going to be silly just to make you laugh, because right now, we’re not laughing enough.”

Students loved it, and the video was shared more than 600 times. It boosted the school’s Instagram account past 400 followers.

There are other interactive ways teachers are finding to engage with kids outside the curriculum.

At the beginning of the lockdown, Teacher Shinta Tanuwidjaja met twice a week online with her Grade 1 and 2 students at Ogden Public School, every Monday and Friday. But parents told her the kids wanted more; they missed their actual teacher, and not just the schoolwork. So she introduced a third meeting every Wednesday in which she and the kids just play online games. She calls it Wondrous Wednesdays, and it’s so popular, she’s invited students from other classes to join in. 

 “We’ve been playing online Hangman, we’ve done riddles and played Around the World – just having fun with the whole class. Some of my students really need that, to have a sense of routine and they know there’s still someone who cares about them outside the home.”

Tanuwidjaja admits it’s something that helps her as well “mentally, because I do miss the kids and having that connection and having that routine. It’s been good for students, and also myself.”

Surely the most popular way teachers have reached out to students is through school-wide digital slide shows where they hold messages like “We Miss You” or “We Love You.” Each staff member is shown at home, sometimes with a child or pet, holding a home-made sign with part of a group message. 

At Broadacres Junior School in Etobicoke, staff each held up part of a more elaborate note: “Hello Broadacres! We all miss you very very much! We also love you very much! This is NOT an easy time, but we are Bobcats! Forever strong. We will be together again soon. Stay safe! Stay healthy. Stay strong. Take care always. Miss you, stay safe. Bobcats Go! From our Broadacres Family to all of yours.”

North Bridlewood Junior Public School in Scarborough posted a moving introduction before each teacher gave their own statement,:

“Hello North Bridlewood! We, like you, are all at home doing our part to stay safe and maintain social distancing. Despite the fact that our hallways are empty and our school grounds are quiet, we want you to know how much you all are missed!”

And at Downsview Secondary School, whose slide show was put to “I’ll Be There” by the Jackson 5, staff members created personalized messages, some with a dash of humor:

“Missing laughing together,” from a male teacher in a chicken suit.

“It might be stormy now, but rain doesn’t last forever.”

“Quarantine Hair, Don’t Care!” .

“Every day may not be good, but there is something good in every day.”

“I miss blowing things up for my students.” (Science teacher, we hope.)

“This too shall pass. Miss you guys.”

“Just Breathe. We got this!”

“Positive vibes.”

“Things may look different, but we are still the same strong community!”

“I miss the laughter… and I can’t find my keys.”

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