Using his cat’s blanket as green screen, history teacher Bill Smith recorded himself teaching a lesson on New Jersey’s underground railroad, taking student viewers on a tour of sites including a river where slave hunters would try to reenslave people attempting crossings.
The lesson was broadcast over television airwaves for the state's homebound students, part of an effort to keep children engaged in learning during the coronavirus outbreak.
“This is such a weird, strange and tragic time," said Smith, a teacher at Southern Regional High School in Stafford Township, New Jersey. The televised lessons like the one he volunteered for "can provide something that regardless of where a student is in the state of New Jersey, they can see a teacher and they can learn from them.”
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Teachers have begun recording classes at home, using whatever technology they can, for television in places including New Jersey, Nebraska and New Mexico, where officials have partnered with broadcasters to help students feel connected and to overcome hurdles with access to the technology needed for distance learning.
It's one approach among many that public media stations around the country are taking to boost the availability of educational programming while schools are closed.
New Jersey's televised lessons began April 6 in a partnership involving the state Education Department; the state’s biggest teachers union, the New Jersey Education Association; and the state’s public broadcaster, NJTV. The hourlong episodes air on weekdays for students in grades three through six. The NJTV staff, which is also working remotely, has produced the programs and put them on air.
“We didn’t know if we could. What’s the saying? Necessity is the mother of all invention,” NJTV General Manager John Servidio said.
The broadcasts are resonating with students.
Colin Powers, 9, was so inspired by a teacher's televised lesson that he wrote about a half-dozen of his own poems. In a phone interview, Colin and his dad, Tim Powers, pointed out one of their favorites, which evokes some of the new realities families face.
“Kabam! The door slammed. It’s me coming home from school. That does not happen in the time we’re living in,” Colin, a fourth grader, read. “The door only opens when you’re going outside to play. Nocka Nocka! It’s the mailman. We have to scrub, scrub the package.”
Kimberly Dickstein Hughes, a high school English teacher in Haddonfield, New Jersey, helped to coordinate the project as part of her sabbatical after winning the State Teacher of Year award this year. On the day it launched, she got emotional seeing positive comments on social media about the lessons.
“I was getting really choked up,” she said. “What it really reinforced for me was that the education community will really rally for children and do whatever it takes to ensure some sense of normalcy in an otherwise abnormal time.”
The televised lessons are intended as a supplement to remote coursework that is happening simultaneously, according to the state Education Department. While most students have access to home internet and computers, some do not, and education officials note the public broadcast channel reaches statewide.
The lessons are tailored for grades three through six because students who are older appear to be getting more out of distance learning, and younger students might lack the attention span for an hourlong program, according to state education officials.
In cities including Boston and Los Angeles, broadcasters and educators are finding ways to emphasize programs that might have educational value for children, like “Nova” and “Nature.”
There are some upsides to being home, like getting to do schoolwork wherever he wants — even the front lawn sometimes, Colin Powers said. But he misses his friends.
“It’s pretty tough, but I think my family is going through it pretty well,” he said, pointing out that no one in his family was sick.