January 8, 2021

Trying to Make Learning 'Magical' in Madras

Teachers in the Central Oregon school district have gotten creative and put extra energy into engaging their students online.


The Madras Pioneer

Kindergartners at Buff Elementary School in Central Oregon have been taking lots of field trips during distance learning — field trips to the window to look at the weather, to the calendar to learn what day it is and to different parts of the classroom so they can learn what it looks like.

“By moving around and doing different things in the room, I’m showing them that it’s real, that I’m real, the classroom is real,” said kindergarten teacher Erika Skaar. “My job is to show them what a magical place Buff Elementary is and show them how magical kindergarten is.”

Jefferson County School District 509-J serves just under 3,000 students, with a near-even split between Latino students, American Indian students and non-Hispanic white students.

The district reported an 85% student attendance average for the first quarter of the year, down from 92% a year ago. District officials are encouraged that attendance is hovering just above 90% at the elementary and middle schools but have seen a sharper drop-off at the upper grades.  

At Madras High, for example, attendance has been 79%, compared to 92% a year ago. And, at Bridges Alternative High School, which traditionally has lower attendance rates, the same patten held, with this year’s attendance dropping to 40% compared to 64% a year ago.

While some of Oregon’s urban districts are reporting significantly lower attendance rates for Latino students, that hasn’t been the case in Jefferson County, where both white students and Latino students have attendance rates of 89% according to data shared with the Madras Pioneer. There is, however, a gap with American Indian students, whose attendance rate is 78%. 

Brief return to classrooms paused

As with all Oregon schools, students engaged in distance learning are counted as “attending” if they engage with their teacher in any way during a 24-hour period. 

In November, the district began offering limited in-person instruction to selected students, who came to school for two hours a day and remained in groups as large as 20. The district paused in-person classes on Dec. 7 until further notice after a few support staff tested positive for COVID-19. 

So teachers across the district have gotten creative and have put extra energy into engaging their students online.

“Being a kindergarten teacher, I think I have a slight advantage that just being silly and singing songs and using different voices or sharing funny videos really helps get them engaged,” Skaar said. “If I seem like I’m having fun, they’re going to have fun because they’re in kindergarten.”

Skaar and her 24 students meet online through Google Classroom each morning. Then, an educational assistant helps run small reading groups. She then shares prerecorded videos with daily lessons.

Although some Wi-Fi connections are not strong enough to support cameras being on for the entire class, most of her students are able to get on video for at least part of the lesson. 

“Little kids love to have their cameras on,” Skaar laughed.

Each day, four students get to be unmuted and can sing along and answer questions. Their classmates remain muted unless they are called upon or have questions.

Skaar says parents help students log in and complete the lessons. Once a week, she meets one-on-one with the parents of her students.

Some Buff students came to school in small groups for two hours a day for a short time. In addition to teaching them reading, writing and math, Skaar also had to remind them to have their masks above their noses, to do “zombie arms” if they got closer than 6 feet to a classmate, and to use hand sanitizer frequently.

The other day, one student dropped a crayon box on the floor, and the neighboring student automatically began helping clean up, but with COVID protocols, Skaar had to ask the helper not to touch the other student’s crayons. 

“It breaks my heart,” Skaar said. “We talk about filling buckets by doing kind things for people, but it’s going to be tricky this year.”

Erika Skaar has learned to exaggerate her facial expressions and gestures while teaching online from her Central Oregon classroom. PMG photo: Holly Scholz

Reading, writing and rhythm guitar

At Jefferson County Middle School, staff are focused on their connections with students.

“It’s building relationships with students and getting them to trust their teachers and trust themselves as learners,” said Deseray Duncan, who is the English Language Development specialist and AVID site coordinator. “We make sure that we build in time to get to know our kids and let them get to know us. That establishes a relationship where kids actually want to come, and they want to talk to you, they want to learn from you as their teacher.”

Students attend their four classes online through Google Meets each day. It’s optional for students to have their cameras on.

A couple of teachers use “This Day in History” trivia to engage students, and teachers send home water bottle stickers to lucky winners. One teacher plays guitar and another joins him on the bongos during “Name That Tune.” The sixth-grade science team does “Pump Up Fridays,” getting students to pump their fists and dance to music.

Google Meets helps teachers take attendance by providing an overview of each session with details about who attended and for how long. Duncan is excited that attendance is only down a bit from last year. 

“Kids are starting to realize and see that school is a central part of their lives,” she said. “We’re seeing that they want to be here, which is actually really reassuring as an educator.”

This article is adapted from a longer article published by the Madras Pioneer in December. It is part of a collaborative reporting project called Lesson Plans: Rural schools grapple with COVID. It includes the Institute for Nonprofit News, Charlottesville Tomorrow, El Paso Matters, Iowa Watch, The Nevada Independent, New Mexico in Depth, Underscore News/Pamplin Media Group, and Wisconsin Watch/The Badger Project. The collaboration was made possible by a grant from the Walton Family Foundation.


Lead photo: Kindergarten teacher Erika Skaar takes her students on a field trip to the window to show them the Central Oregon weather during their Google Classroom morning meeting. She says everything she teaches has to be exaggerated while teaching online during Comprehensive Distance Learning. PMG photo: Holly Scholz

About the author

Holly Scholz

Holly Scholz is a reporter with The Madras Pioneer.