D91 student Jayden displays his artwork for Emily Bruzzini's class. | Photo submitted

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Reading, writing and arithmetic are obviously essential parts of elementary education, but in schools everywhere, “specials” like art, gym and library are important parts of a well-rounded education — and even remotely, teachers are finding ways to make these classes meaningful.

For Nitasha Ali, who teaches physical education to students in preschool through fifth grade in District 91, keeping kids active on a regular basis is the goal.

“For physical education, it’s important that they get their 30 minutes of movement at least each day, so we do a lot of movement and basic skills,” Ali said.

Ali teaches gym to preschool students for half an hour once a week, to kindergarteners twice a week, and older students three times a week, and she focuses on using things they have around the house instead of special equipment only available at school.

“For younger kids, for example, we do a lot of hand-eye coordination, like touching your nose. Older kids enjoy the water bottle flip challenge, and with something like that, everyone can participate,” she said.

She keeps in mind, too, not to be too active. “I don’t want them to break any furniture, or their mom’s pictures or something.” Parents have reached out to her, thanking her for the physical break her class gives students.

Emily Bruzzini teaches art to kids in the same grades as Ali, and she sends home supplies to make sure everyone has access to materials, even basic ones like paper, markers and crayons.

Oil pastels are a special supply she sent home, useful for mixing colors, a project she recently did with the kindergarten students.

But art can act as a way to express feelings too, something particularly necessary during these strange times.

“We talk about emotions and how we can show those,” Bruzzini said. “Something great about art is that it can be really personal.”

Through technology, she’s found ways for her students to express themselves and stay in communication with one another too. She uses Seesaw, an app that allows students to post their art assignments. The platform also allows them to record voice messages about their projects for the other kids to listen to, and a comment feature allows students to respond to each other’s work.

“They say really nice things to each other in the comments,” Bruzzini said.

She’s found that it’s been a source of friendship and social connection for students too. Oftentimes, they share extra drawings. Sometimes they post riddles or drawing challenges (elephants have been popular lately) or just say hi. In fact, in one fifth-grade class, in addition to assignment-related posts, Bruzzini said there are over 150 posts “that are just for fun.”

“They even write math problems,” she said. “I’ll approve anything as long as it’s appropriate. If they’re doing their work, and it’s something they’re posting during off-times, it’s fine. I want them to stay in touch with their friends.”

Art in Bruzzini’s class also reflects what’s going on in the world today. Her students recently did a project featuring masks.

Heath Mills is the library media specialist for D91 kids in grades three through five. For Mills, teaching — and reaching — kids remotely has been a huge shift from in-person school.

He said at the beginning of a typical school year, he jokes with his third graders, whom he’s just met, that he’ll know what they like to read before he even knows their names. He connects with students through their reading preferences.

“It will be October, and I’ll say, ‘Hey, you, kid who likes Lego books.’ Because that’s what that student is looking for. I take a lot of pride in knowing what they like to read and giving recommendations to them. But it’s been different making a connection with them remotely,” Mills said.

Reading books to kids presents extra challenges and work too. Prep time is increased because instead of just picking up a book and reading, he photographs the pages and uploads them to a Google slide show so kids can see the pages as he reads them. Holding up a book in a Zoom session wouldn’t work quite as well.

But technology has provided some benefits too. Early in the school year, he worked to get Epic Books accounts set up for the students. It’s a service that allows kids to read books online — or have books read to them. This way, all ages and levels of readers, including struggling or emerging readers, can benefit.

Another change for Mills is scheduling of curriculum. For example, digital citizenship, something he teaches at the end of the year, when kids might have more unsupervised device time, has been bumped up since kids are online so much now.

“I remind the kids of how to stay safe online, and maybe what to share, what not to share. We talk about cyber-bullying because I know that they’re going to have some unsupervised device time,” Mills said.

Connectivity issues have limited some of the things he does with students. One thing he misses a lot this year is Reader’s Theater, an activity he said the kids really love. They take turns reading from a script, but remotely, even with cameras turned off and all tabs closed, there’s too much lag and connectivity problems for it to work.

For many teachers, connectivity issues present one of the biggest challenges with remote learning, and Bruzzini said she hates when technology prevents a student from participating.

“It’s heartbreaking when their connection won’t let them participate in class the way they want to, especially with like younger students who can’t really type in the chat,” Bruzzini said. “Sometimes it just breaks my heart.”