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While in-person education is on hold until the fall in many provinces, teachers are finding ways to continue their lessons at a safe distance

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Physically distanced education across Canada: At left, Toronto's Rayna James and Natalia Bachan and Saskatchewan's Lindsay Kyliuk with a Mathmobile; at middle, Toronto's Shayle Graham with teaching partner Helen Quach; at right, Reet Ghuman (with a duck from Ontario teacher Deanna Gaughan) and Alberta's Aaron Ball.Carlos Osorio, Galit Rodan and Kayle Neis/The Globe and Mail; handouts/Carlos Osorio, Galit Rodan and Kayle Neis/The Globe and Mail; handouts

Teaching from the back of a pickup truck. Porch visits with students. Hosting virtual lessons weekly, sometimes even daily. And stringing together videos of kids playing instruments for the year-end band concert.

When in-class instruction abruptly stopped across the country earlier this spring, some teachers got creative. Here’s how nine educators have used this time to explore out-of-the-box ways to connect with their students.

Lindsay Kyliuk

High-school math teacher at W.P. Sandin Public School in Shellbrook, Sask.

When Lindsay Kyliuk’s graduating student wanted to finish a Grade 12 calculus course, Mr. Kyliuk knew he was going to have to find ways to teach that went beyond the usual online tactics.

So he moved his lessons to the back of his pickup truck.

With the help of his dad, not to mention some welding and carpentry skills, Mr. Kyliuk found a way to mount a whiteboard to the back of his truck, building what he has called the Mathmobile.

“When you teach mathematics, you’ve got to try pretty hard to be funny and get engagement,” he said with a laugh.

Mr. Kyliuk began offering his in-person lessons to other students as well.

Initially, he planned to teach students individually from their driveways, but quickly realized students preferred learning together.

The school, with 220 students, is located in a small rural community west of Prince Albert. Mr. Kyliuk received the green light from his principal to teach on school grounds.

Four times a week, Mr. Kyliuk pulls up his pickup truck to the school ground and assembles his whiteboard. His students set up their lawn chairs, physically distancing from one another, and Mr. Kyliuk teaches his lessons. “I’m getting a really good tan,” he said about being outside the school for about eight hours a week. He offers each group of students two-hour lessons.

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Mr. Kyliuk gives a math lesson outside WP Sandin Public High School in Shellbrook, Sask.Kayle Neis/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

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Mr. Kyliuk's father Walter, right, helped him install the Mathmobile's whiteboard.Courtesy of Lindsay Kyliuk

Mr. Kyliuk said one of his biggest challenges has been keeping students engaged.

Many paused their school work when Saskatchewan, similar to other provinces, said marks would not be negatively affected when in-class instruction ended around spring break. Mr. Kyliuk lost a few students at that point.

“I’ve been able to accommodate everyone that’s shown interest,” he said of his outdoor classroom.

Principal Karisa Klaassen said Mr. Kyliuk has gone “above and beyond” during this time of emergency remote learning. She described it as a “wonderful example of the creativity, resilience and dedication that all teachers bring to their profession each and every day.”

Mr. Kyliuk, who has been a teacher for more than two decades, said his initial motivation was “strictly teaching.”

“It was about getting content across to students – that’s kind of what started the thought process, anyway,” he said. However, he added, "having them connect in this was a great side effect of what we’re doing.”

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Shayle Graham of Pelmo Park Public School is teaching students math and technology skills through exercises in entrepreneurship.Carlos Osorio/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Shayle Graham

Teaches Grades 4 and 5 students at Pelmo Park Public School in Toronto

A group of students in Ms. Graham’s classroom are marketing slime designed as a fidget tool to reduce stress. Another group are creating proposals for T-shirts and masks that showcase the Black Lives Matter movement. And another student is launching a catering company with her mom.

These are a few ways kids in Ms. Graham’s class have begun to put into practice new math and technology skills in a distance-learning context.

Ms. Graham is focused on reshaping how students in her class feel about mathematics, and attempting to remove the anxiety and fear that comes with the subject. “We’re numerate beings. So from the moment we wake up to that alarm clock to every trip to the grocery store, we are using math in all aspects of life,” she said.

From the first day in her classroom, Ms. Graham has her students become entrepreneurs (she has her own cosmetic line). The program, Ms. Graham said, is designed to introduce students from marginalized groups to the idea of creating sustainable development in their communities. They draw up their plans, developing their math skills along the way.

She and her teaching partner have created avatars to keep her students engaged, and the children are learning new skills by creating pitch decks and working on spreadsheets, she said.

“I find my kids are very engaged in completing their work, because it is work that they are interested in. It is work that speaks to who they are as people,” Ms. Graham said.

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Deanna Gaughan, shown at middle with daughter Emily, is a special education teacher in the Peel District School Board. Animals were a staple of her class for students on the autism spectrum, so she surprised pupils like Andrew Sceviour, a Grade 5 student at left, and Joshua Rose, a Grade 7 at right, with visits from ducklings and her adopted pig, Ursula.Courtesy of Deanna Gaughan

Deanna Gaughan

Special-needs autism spectrum disorder teacher at James Grieve Public School in Caledon, Ont.

By May, Ms. Gaughan usually has an incubator set up in her classroom, filled with ducklings ready for their dramatic, unsteady climb from the egg. Her students love it.

Ms. Gaughan was determined not to let a mere pandemic break the bonds of that love this year. She hatched the eggs in an incubator at home, and recorded the process for her students. In recent weeks, she surprised her students by taking the ducklings, as well as a pot-belly pig she temporarily adopted from a farm in Peterborough, to their homes for a physically distanced visit. Ms. Gaughan won’t soon forget the smiles on their faces.

“It provides the students therapy. A student who is feeling stressed out or even upset, if you let them hold a baby rabbit or a baby duck for a little while, it’s really therapeutic,” Ms. Gaughan said. “There are so many great learning opportunities, too.”

Ms. Gaughan’s classroom has seven students in the intermediate grades. All of her students are verbal, some more so than others. She regularly brings animals into the classroom, from baby rabbits to baby chickens to butterflies, and the students can then tour other classrooms with their animal charges, answering questions. “It is a wonderful opportunity for my students to develop social skills, self-confidence and to build relationships outside of our classroom,” she said.

Parent Fabi Tempio-Hillier said that as much as her 11-year-old son enjoyed having the animals over, he was just as excited to see his teacher. It was the third time Ms. Gaughan visited; she had previously come by to drop off Easter goodies and then a bag of Earth Day activities. “It’s good for his self-esteem, it’s good for his communication,” Ms. Tempio-Hillier said of the visit with the animals. “There’s a lot of teachers doing a lot of great things, but Deanna takes everything one step further.”

Ms. Gaughan has since returned the animals to the farm, but she still intends to visit her students. "For our guys, they need social skills and social interaction,” she said.

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Laura Eilers conducts an orchestra in absentia, with her pupils' performances to be added later in a virtual band in Final Cut Pro.Courtesy of Laura Eilers

Laura Eilers

Music teacher at Lake City Secondary School in Williams Lake, B.C.

Hearing word that schools would soon be closing across British Columbia, a music teacher from the province’s Interior sent an urgent note to students: Please don’t forget to take your instruments home with you.

Ms. Eilers was not merely concerned with teaching. She was concerned about tradition.

The high school’s year-end concert has long been a fixture of the calendar year, jamming students into a school space known as the Commons. Student musicians can play as many as four pieces, and the senior class can often star on stage.

A global pandemic would require some changes.

Ms. Eilers’s colleagues elsewhere were looking at weekly rehearsals with students online, but Ms. Eilers was aware that not all her students had access to the same level of technology. So she thought of an alternative plan.

Ms. Eilers’s students are practising and recording their parts of a piece of music – this year she is teaching works are varied as a symphonic tribute to Cathedral Grove and the disco staple Funkytown – which they then submit to her. The graduating class has been invited to wear their gowns as they record themselves playing their instruments.

When Ms. Eilers is not hosting private lessons with each students (it took her six weeks to finish the one-on-one sessions), she spends part of her days using an app to string the recordings together. She’s even conducted to an empty room to include herself in the video.

The concert will go ahead as planned on June 17. Except this time, it will be done virtually.

“We’re just trying to make the best of the situation,” Ms. Eilers said. “It’s taken a lot of work but I’m actually really enjoying it, because I get to see what the kids have been working on.”

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Rhonda Godfrey

Grade 5 teacher at Eliot River Elementary School in Cornwall, PEI

There were 24 snowmen in all, spaced out across Ms. Godfrey’s front lawn on a wintry morning in the early days of the lockdown. Two of the snowmen were made for her assistants, with the remaining 22 representing each of the Grade 5 students she could no longer see.

“I miss my kids,” she said. “I did it for them.”

All of the snowmen stood six feet apart.

After she posted a picture of the assembly to her Google classroom, many of her students drove by the house, trying to figure out which one was them.

She planted a sign on her front lawn that read “I miss you” and included the names of her students. Some of the letters were made of Kit Kat bars, her favourite chocolate. “That’s one of the first things they learn about me. So when they saw, ‘Oh my goodness, she sacrificed some of her Kit Kat bars to make a sign,' I knew they’d know how much I missed them,” she said.

The snowmen melted after a few days, but Ms. Godfrey has found new ways to surprise her students. She’s delivered birthday cards, and, along with her two educational assistants, dropped by student homes and dropped off treats. Technology, she said, cannot replace the face-to-face connection.

“We had tears of delight and looks of shock,” she said.

They are already planning another visit to get the students excited for the last few weeks of school.

Some overwhelmed parents are giving up on distance learning and abandoning at-home schooling

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Rayna James and Natalia Bachan discuss a lesson plan outside Toronto's St. Martin De Porres Catholic School.Galit Rodan/The Globe and Mail/The Globe and Mail

Rayna James and Natalia Bachan

Grades 5 and 6 teachers at St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Toronto

Having visited Paris, a group of Grade 5 and 6 students are set to tour Diagon Alley and Hogsmeade in Florida’s University Studios, class trips they might not have taken had it not been for the pandemic.

Ms. James and Ms. Bachan, who respectively run a French classroom and an English classroom, are leading the trips virtually.

In a typical year, students switch between Ms. James’s and Ms. Bachan’s rooms.

Ms. James said that one positive aspect of emergency distance learning is that it has allowed her to harness technology that she likely would not have time for in the classroom. The French teacher had her students use a website where they could explore the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre Museum and other attractions in Paris.

Ms. James said that “a lot of the time in school, I find myself concentrating on grammar and getting those verb tenses right and pronunciation. Bringing in the cultural aspect of French really makes a difference," she said. Her students apparently agree – she says one student remarked that they didn’t know French could be so fun.

Her colleague, Ms. Bachan, had her students recently read one of the Harry Potter books and, as a year-end surprise, she’s found a way for them to explore the world of the characters online.

“It’s hard now being away from them, finding ways to motivate them and keeping it relevant,” Ms. Bachan said. “They’re lacking motivation, and I don’t blame them. So this is a way at the end to celebrate the learning we’ve done so far.”

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These Edmonton geese were a little too interested in teacher Aaron Ball's 360 camera, a loaner from his school district.Courtesy of Aaron Ball

Aaron Ball

Grade 5 teacher at St. Leo Catholic Elementary School in Edmonton

Armed with small nets, Petri dishes, magnifying glasses and microscopes, at this time of year Mr. Ball’s students would normally be taking a trip to Elk Island National Park, half an hour from the school, to explore the swamps and wetlands.

Instead, this year, Mr. Ball has been bringing aspects of the wetlands to them. He’s captured a duck eating worms, geese, pussy willows in bloom and water boatmen, all with a 360 camera he’s borrowed from his school district. He’s taken samples from the pond, put a lens in the water and asked his students what they can discover.

“It’s their choice what they’re going to look at," he said of the images he’s uploaded for his students. “I’m creating lots of different content for them. So we’re really trying to change up everything and add a little bit of surprise in there as we cover maybe some traditional content that may not be as exciting to them.”

The Alberta government expects an hour of work a day for Mr. Ball’s students. But his hope is that the lessons will spark their curiosity and push them to research further.

"Some of them are getting out, some of them are able to get to these little wetlands. But not all of them are able to go out and explore beyond their yard or beyond their neighbourhood,” he said. “So if I can bring a little bit of exploration to them, then I can spark … more interest as we continue to learn about food webs and as we learn about the importance of wetlands and cleaning water and things like that.”

Marin Barley

High-school physical education teacher at Templeton Secondary School in Vancouver

When the videos arrived, they showed Ms. Barley’s students practising their moonwalk, juggling and even attempting the limbo.

The point, for the high-school gym teacher, is that they’re all active.

“It’s been really fun,” she said. “Some are fully editing them and making them with special effects.”

The weekly video challenge is part of Ms. Barley’s lessons to keep her students moving at a time when it’s easier for them to remain sedentary. She worries about their physical and mental well-being.

Her senior class, especially, has been more anxious during the school closings, she has found (Ms. Barley’s province is reopening its school in June on an optional and part-time basis). Ms. Barley has been doing weekly check-ins, asking them to rate how they are feeling.

One week, many of her students were feeling particularly low. Ms. Barley posted a yoga video, and asked them to go outside, physically distance from friends and follow the video. Many of them did, she said.

“I think they’re just looking for connection and PE is such a big thing for them to connect with each other," Ms. Barley said.

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