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May 20, 2020

Using remote learning to build community

As we continue to navigate our way through the physical distancing and school closures required during COVID-19, Grades 4/5 and 5/6 teachers Zélia Capitão-Tavares and Kamla Rambaran shared their thoughts about building community through remote learning.
The two teachers have been running The Learning Partnership’s Entrepreneurial Adventure at McMurrich Junior Public School in Toronto for over five years. This year started no differently, with six teams beginning the process of ideation and product development under the guidance of a business mentor. Then, the coronavirus pandemic forced a change in strategy. 
“Our students are fully engaged, committed and excited to continue their learning process but they are definitely feeling a sense of disconnect as a result of the pandemic disruption,” said Zélia. “Many reached out to us during the extended March break to share their enthusiasm and concerns and let us know that they want to continue their journey as an entrepreneur.”

Taking Entrepreneurial Adventure fully online

Feeling invigorated by their passion, Zélia and Kamla decided to rethink how to provide a fully remote learning environment for their young entrepreneurs.
“We each had our own online tools to facilitate business day [Entrepreneurial Adventure, integrated into the regular curriculum]. We’re fortunate that we’ve already established these routines and created norms about how to communicate with our class communities early in the school year and I think that’s definitely given us a bit of an advantage,” said Zélia. “Students are familiar with many of the digital tools and of being a collaborator and a contributor to their own learning and their peers’ learning. So when we transitioned to working entirely remotely they were able to transfer those skills.”

The biggest barrier: Not the technology but the scheduling

For Kamla and Zélia the biggest obstacle has not been the tools but access to equipment. “Parents may be working or siblings might need access to the same device, so we had to establish a schedule that could be managed for everyone in the home.”
Both teachers have continued to provide learning experiences for their class communities focusing on literacy, numeracy, science and social studies during regular Google Classroom sessions on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Follow-up sessions are held once a week for business day groups and they make drop-in sessions available throughout the week to support individual students’ questions, wonderings or just to chat.

Where the projects were at … and how far they’ve come

Before COVID-19, students had initiated the “ideation” portion of product development and had been hard at work researching and developing their projects.
“We take for granted having visibility of work samples, so we had to figure out how to replicate that experience from our individual homes. Google Slides allows students to insert images and drawings, take pictures of their written work and post them, and lets us make notes and see their thinking. Then based on that, we can go back to Google Classroom,” said Zélia.
The teachers were also able to redirect some funds from a grant they had received to provide physical materials and tools that students could use to build their prototypes. Each student received a “STEM Kit” with the materials and tools needed to build their prototype and demonstrate it to the class.

The flexibility to adapt

For the most part, the students’ original ideas have been able to be adapted to the online learning and demonstration environment. One of Kamla’s teams had planned a vegan product based on local beekeeping and honey production that needed to be modified. “We couldn’t count on parents being able to bake and have the supplies they needed so instead the group used a virtual reality site to create their own world and show how different parts of the community can pollinate their own gardens,” Kamla said.
This kind of creativity and flexibility has more than made up for the initial disappointment of being unable to market and sell their products. “While they won’t have a live event to sell their product, they very much wanted to find alternative ways to meet their team goals. When you get that kind of buy-in, as a teacher, you run with it,” Kamla said.

A bigger picture

The Entrepreneurial Adventure experience fits in with the broader curriculum goals in another way, too. At the beginning of the school year, students commenced an inquiry project that involved researching one of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. “The question we posed for our students, children who have a certain amount of privilege and access to education, is how can we support our fellow citizens in other parts of the world,” Zélia said. “We talked about the global goals and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. My students landed on the right to play from the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Each team has their own focus.”
Entrepreneurial Adventure includes a philanthropy component and for Zélia’s and Kamla’s classes, their charity of choice has been WE.org. “Unfortunately we aren’t going to be able to raise funds this year to build a school or a water system, but what this year’s projects are going to be able to do is raise awareness. We’re really pushing for them to have that piece at the forefront of their project, whether it’s climate change or the right to play or life on land, to showcase awareness of those topics as part of their project,” said Kamla.

The GIFT of learning

Zélia and Kamla stress that during COVID-19 – and in any remote learning situation – it is important to keep students engaged in meaningful tasks which allow them to take ownership of their learning. The Global Innovation Field Trip (GIFT) provided an opportunity to do just that.
The inaugural GIFT was held on May 14-15. The online, multi-country collaboration enabled more than 100 young innovators from 17 countries to share their ideas over a 24-hour period, including the six teams from McMurrich Junior Public School.
“What an amazing event! It was so lovely to hear our students share their projects and be inspired during this time. As well, it was great to hear all the students from around the world share their projects and inventions,” Kamla said.
“GIFT occurred right in the middle part of the project. I was worried about how much the students would have to share, but they were ready!” said Zélia.

“It’s authentic learning, and it’s building, and it’s hands-on,” said Kamla. Zélia added: “It’s taking that experiential learning that we always talk about but now doing it in their home, guided and supported by the teacher. While we can’t compare year to year because students’ needs vary, where it is right now – whew! – I don’t even know how we got to this point given the school closures. They’ve accomplished so much despite the obstacles. I’m in awe.”
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