Washougal School District touts new online learning model

Distance-learning program will have more 'hands-on, engaging, project-based learning' says superintendent

The Washougal School District is confident that its new distance learning model will make a positive impact this fall.

The district’s new remote platform, dubbed “impactED Washougal,” will be an enhanced version of the system teachers and students used earlier this year after the outbreak of a novel coronavirus shuttered schools, according to WSD Superintendent Mary Templeton.

“We’re excited about bringing this opportunity to families,” Templeton said. “In the spring, we established a nice baseline for what remote learning looks like, and we learned a lot. At the end of the year we asked a lot of questions to teachers and families about what worked and what we could improve on, and took that feedback and incorporated that into a new virtual learning opportunity. I’m very optimistic about it.”

In a video message to students, Washougal High School Principal Sheree Clark said the district is “working hard, making sure that (it’s) got all in order so that it will be easy to navigate, the learning will be solid, and (students will) be able to engage with teachers and peers.”

“Our focus is to make sure you guys are healthy and safe, but that doesn’t mean that we aren’t working hard to make sure that you have a robust educational system that’s going to be online,” Clark said. “I know it isn’t ideal. I definitely wanted to be greeting you guys at the front door on the first day of school. It’s not the news we wanted, but we are Panther strong, and I’m excited for the school year to start.”

WSD technology coach James Bennett, who is transitioning into his current role after serving as a science teacher at WHS, said that while the challenge of “literally reinventing American education” has been daunting, teachers and administrators are working hard to ensure a successful implementation of the new system.

“In the spring, (the transition) was literally on the fly. We literally found out at about noon on Friday that we weren’t going to be back in school that Monday,” he said. “So given what we had to work with, I think we did pretty good. Can we do it a lot better? Yeah, now that we have some time to plan it out and prepare for it and train some staff to get them up to speed. Hopefully (now) we’ve got a little bit better handle on it.

“Maybe it isn’t the way they really want to teach, but they’re feeling more comfortable that they can do this, and that they have the resources to make this work. I don’t know if it’s going to be perfect come Sept. 2, but I feel like it’s definitely going to be better than we did in the spring.”

Templeton said the district will streamline its learning applications to provide students and teachers with an easier educational experience, and provide a “one-stop shop landing pad” online platform for parents with children in different grade levels or schools to access schedules, assignments or other information.

“A focus on an asynchronous model is going to be key,” Bennett said. “(We want to) develop video lessons that the kids can watch or re-watch whenever they want to, and activities that lead them through materials. I don’t want to make it sound like we’re just throwing them out on their own, but if they can do those parts on their own, the video conference interaction becomes more of a support to that, explaining things that they didn’t pick up or more difficult concepts, rather than trying to do 30-on-one at a time.”

WSD schools will “be more innovative and feature more hands-on, engaging, project-based learning,” Templeton said. 

“Some students will have one-on-one meetings with their teachers, some will have breakout sessions, some will work on peer projects, some will have conversations with their teachers about a book they just read,” she said. “These opportunities move us into a different way of thinking about learning. We’re always trying to quest for authentic, engaging real-life applications of learning to provide a purpose and reason.”

The district is also exploring ways to set up an online tutoring center or “helpline” to provide assistance for students, Templeton said.

“Not every parent is equipped to help their kids through these topics,” Bennett said. “We have to develop our lessons in such a way that the adults can support (the students) or find the support that they need to do these things. If we just send them a worksheet and say, ‘Here, work these problems,’ that doesn’t give them a lot of resources to figure out how these problems should be done, or how to write the essay or whatever the assignment is. We have to provide those supports that go along with it.”

WSD administrators and teachers are learning more about distance learning, which is “really a different model altogether” from in-person learning, according to Bennett.

“When you have lessons set up and written to deliver in person, it’s really difficult – and frankly ineffective, I think – to just take that and try to do it over a Zoom call,” he said. “We tried to do whole class Zoom meetings like we’re in person, and that just isn’t really done in the distance learning model that’s out there if you look at the way colleges and other schools are doing distance learning. They don’t tend to have 30 students with one teacher on a Zoom meeting trying to do class as normal like that. The asynchronous model, where students are reviewing a lot of the material on their own and then we have small-group one-on-one time, or one-on-few time, to support that learning, makes a lot more sense.”

“We’re focusing on how teachers can teach differently with a virtual platform,” Templeton added. “We’re not just going to have students watch pre-recorded lectures for six hours straight. We want them to engage with their teachers and work on hands-on projects. We’re training our teachers to promote critical thinking in a virtual environment and still find a way to maintain relationships and connections, which are critical.”

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