Summer 2020: The Season of Transformation

  • “I absolutely loved teaming with my Yonkers colleagues across grade levels
    and having vertical conversations from elementary to middle to high school”

    A Verdant Learning Lab for Students And Teachers

    Virtual summer elementary, middle and high school programs were established for the first time in Yonkers during the Summer of 2020 adding an innovative learning opportunity for our students, teachers and administrators. The remote learning programs were designed to help students not only catch up on needed skills and content but to provide a virtual place for students to interact with teachers and their peers. The virtual summer programs provided us with the opportunity to explore instructional practices that were well suited for digital learning and that provided “face-to-face,” live interactions for students and teachers. The lessons learned during the summer helped our district to construct effective remote and hybrid instructional models, shift to single platforms that provided live interactions and consistency across the district, and to implement new programs that engaged our students and teachers.Traditional In-School Summer Academies Transitioned to Full Virtual Learning

    Each summer the middle and elementary academies focus on academic and skill areas that promote learning and enrichment. Extracurricular activities such as field trips, fun competitions, and opportunities to have recess outside were often included within the programs. "The charge for us this past summer was to create learning communities that could engage students in this new digital realm, where both students and teachers would be interacting from remote locations, and where we could institute inquiry-based learning practices," said Dawn Bartz, Executive Director of Social Studies, Science, and Instructional Technology. In designing the learning academies, our goal was to create a welcoming environment where students could engage in enrichment opportunities, work together to solve real-world problems, and make deeper connections with their peers and teachers. We also wanted students to have fun, particularly after the sudden shift to fully remote learning in March 2020 and we knew that many had lacked personal contact with others outside of their homes.  Once the middle and elementary academies were established, enrollments soared.  

    A challenge that we readily accepted was to develop approaches to building communities within the academies. The summer middle and elementary programs traditionally enroll students from all 32 elementary and middle schools in the district and classes take place within actual school buildings. This summer, we developed remote classrooms that blended students from across this diverse district to replicate what had been done in the past. Teachers who wanted to try new pedagogical approaches and work in a highly collaborative environment (albeit virtually) were hired for this exciting project. “I am most proud of the development of a collaborative community with the kids and with the adults,” said Jesse Carter, a sixth-grade teacher. “I learned to take risks, to try new things, and to experiment,” said Penny Arenas, who taught middle school students during the summer. 
    Teacher as Learner Drives Their Professional Development

    Teacher professional development occurred before and during the academies and consisted of intensive training on instructional platforms such as Microsoft Teams, Zoom, Minecraft Education and WebEx. Teachers learned how to create digital classrooms, using diverse approaches to teaching including implementing breakout rooms and live virtual meetings. Teachers adjusted the inquiries to their learners and their own experiences and backgrounds. Supplemental instructional technology programs were employed to measure their effects on student learning and engagement. Virtual field experiences, including those to museums, outer space, and amusement parks were designed and developed collaboratively. The teachers engaged in ongoing professional learning, learning to master the diverse technologies, to problem solve and to share practices they found effective. Ongoing collaboration inspired the team. 

    The pedagogical approach used within several of the academies was project-based learning (PBL), an inquiry mode of instruction. "Inquiry methods of teaching and learning, such as project-based learning," said Bartz "puts students in the drivers' seat of their own learning." Used in the Engineering and Humanities summer academies, these two programs enrolled rising third through ninth graders in 18 virtual classrooms. The classrooms became learning labs to test strategies and programs that met the goals of the program and exemplified excellent instructional practices during remote learning. The experience level of the teachers ranged from beginners to veterans of over 20 years. Several of the teachers had attended the district’s Inquiry Institute and had prior experience implementing PBL.  

    Professional Learning Communities of teachers and administrators were developed to share ideas and provide feedback on their experiences, discussing the “Glows and Grows,” which added deeper contextual meaning. Observations of the classes, student work and collaborations, attendance, and the culminating projects provided additional data to assess the program and instructional practices. At the end of the program, teachers and students provided feedback through surveys.  “I absolutely loved teaming with my Yonkers colleagues across grade levels and having vertical conversations from elementary to middle to high school,” said one veteran teacher. The teaching approaches and strategies became a blueprint for remote and hybrid learning in the fall. “Higher level planning leads to higher level outcomes,” said Dave Alger, special education teacher and a participant in last year’s Summer Inquiry Institute for Teachers.  

    “During quarantine I did not have the chance to be with other kids and this allowed me to work with them”

    Addressing the social emotional needs of our students was a primary consideration in the establishment of the summer programs. We wanted to connect with students, many of whom were isolated from their classmates and teachers for several months. We also wanted to ensure live lessons during the day, large group meetings at the beginning and near the end of each day and small group learning opportunities where students worked together to solve real-world problems.  Using interactive instructional approaches, placing students in collaborative learning groups using digital break out rooms, having adequate time for deeper discussions and problem solving, and engaging students in virtual field experiences helped to address the SEL components of the program. “I am most proud of the student projects and the friendships many of them seemed to strike up,” said Mike Devlin, who taught middle school students in the Humanities Academy.  “I am proud of how hard my students worked,” said Leanora Kozlek, who taught combined classes of different grades and who is also an ENL teacher in the district.   
    Students Began to Drive Their Learning 

    Students quickly adapted to the digital learning environment, becoming highly proficient in using a variety of technology programs. Through the inquiry model, teacher guidance, and their quick adaptation to technology, they began to drive their learning. Students enjoyed collaborating, researching, creating, and presenting their solutions to the driving questions. “The students really stepped up in this summer program even though they experienced many hardships this year,” said Ramon Martinez, who taught middle school students in the Humanities Academy. “The greatest learning was when the students worked in collaborative groups and had to compromise when building their structures,” said Kozlek. Not only did the students collaborate and problem solve,  “they also became technology experts,” said Audra Giuliano, who taught rising fourth grade engineers. “It was a great experience because students gained new confidence in skills and their learning,” said Jesse Carter, who taught rising sixth graders in the Humanities Academy. 

    Students provided feedback at the end of the program through a survey. The most reported comments were that they appreciated the opportunity to interact with other students and with teachers.  “It was fun to meet new people,” said Noah. “During quarantine I did not have the chance to be with other kids and this allowed me to work with them,” said Ethan. “I loved that I could play and create with friends,” said Katie. “We got to learn and play at the same time,” said Josiah. “Working with others was my favorite activity because you can see what everyone else thinks,” said Adrian. Students also responded that they enjoyed building and creating and using technology. “I liked creating my project because it was really fun since I got to share things about myself and who I am,” said Ashwani. “I liked working on projects with others,” said Lei-Asia. “Creating my project was something I was really proud of because I got to create,” said Gloria. “I chose being in the engineering academy because I want to be an engineer when I grow up and I wanted to learn more about engineering,” said Karla.  
    The Summer Engineering Academy for Elementary Students Proved to Be a Great Case Study

    The Summer Engineering Academy was developed for students entering third through fifth grades. The major technology platforms that students and teachers mastered included Microsoft Teams for daily meetings, Minecraft Education for skill development and student projects, and WebEx to showcase the students’ work and their voices. The community showcases highlighted the students' work within the academies during the summer. In the Engineering Academy, student groups showcased their projects and discussed the processes they used to create their “8th Wonder of the World.” The showcase was visible to the larger community on the district’s Distance Learning website where students from the different academies, families, and community members could visit the exhibitions. “The amount the children learned really surprised me,” said first grade teacher Kiyoi Tolliver-Vanwright, “I feel really accomplished.” “I liked seeing how other students used their imaginations,” said Ethan about viewing the showcase. “I loved how we could see what other classes made,” said Katie. “It was awesome and there were some really good builds,” said Zola.  

    The Summer Engineering Academy demonstrated that even our youngest students could become proficient in using different technologies very quickly. The students flourished and enrollment grew in the Engineering and Humanities academies, requiring additional digital classes. Nine classroom communities were developed in the Engineering program and students learned how design and building principles and how to apply them using Minecraft Education as one of the primary platforms. They studied history and math and addressed the driving question: If you could develop the Eighth Wonder of the World, what would it look like and why would it be a “wonder”? Each student team of two or three developed their own “land” as they collaborated, engaged in problem solving, and created their “wonders” and prepared to discuss how they developed their ideas and their challenges. Over four weeks, students worked together, engaged in virtual field trips, used Microsoft Teams, Minecraft Education, WebEx and Zoom.  “I was amazed at how much the students loved the class,” said teacher Nick Vitulli. “I like it when we are learning new things,” said Denise, a student in the engineering program. “I learned that anything is possible when you work together,” said Mathew.  

    The teachers became fluent in using different technologies, including several interactive platforms that provided content. The teachers and students also learned how to quickly shift pedagogical approaches during times of program glitches.  “I learned to loosen the reins and not always have complete control,” said Martinez.  “It was a truly amazing experience,” said Arenas. “It was awesome, and I had lots of fun working with my teacher and other students and making lots of new friends,” said Joshua.