• Ontario geography teacher

    Claudette Phillips has been focused on finding ways to make geography engaging and accessible at home while schools are closed during COVID-19. (Photo: Claudette Phillips)

Claudette Phillips calls herself “a collector of ideas,” and she’s been amassing her own personal library of online resources and strategies to support distance learning. Phillips teaches Grade 9 geography, Grade 12 world issues, and e-learning travel and tourism and environmental science courses at Nepean High School in Ottawa. With schools closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she has had to adjust the way she reaches out to engage her students. She spoke with Canadian Geographic to share some of her experiences, challenges and successes from teaching during the pandemic.

On the differences between e-learning and distance learning

I’ve been teaching e-learning for about nine years now, but the big thing I find is that e-learning is a chosen course — kids sign up for that versus what we’re seeing with this new format, which is what we refer to as distance learning. Kids haven’t chosen this as their format for learning. Teachers in the classroom have an opportunity to show their passion for their course in their conversations with kids and that enthusiasm comes across when you’re face to face. Trying to engage kids with that same enthusiasm through distance learning is a bit more challenging. You’re trying to find ways to connect kids to the themes  so they can find their own enthusiasm for it, because you’re not there to help drive it.

On strategies for distance learning

The biggest thing with distance learning is being able to offer them a variety of options in the lesson they receive so that they can approach it in a way that feels comfortable for them. I pick topics where there are opportunities for them to engage their minds but that don’t feel like a normal classroom activity. I’m still using topics from the curriculum, but then really bringing it down to their own local and household level.

Another big thing is not to introduce new tech that they haven’t been exposed to before. I don’t want to cause any frustration. If one piece of technology or an app isn’t working, they have options to try something else. Having been an e-learning teacher, I’m trying not to incorporate too many new applications that they would not have used in the class before. I’m pretty tech-forward in the classroom, so my students were doing a lot of work with Esri and ArcGIS in the past. The work you guys did with the Anthropocene project was really awesome and really easy for the kids to access. 

Finally, when students are learning from a distance, they don’t log in at a given time period in the day. They’re submitting work throughout the week, even though they have a specific day for each class. So I’ve structured it to be asynchronous and I think it’s the easiest way for kids and families to manage this new format for learning. Kids work on their stuff when they have the time and the inclination to do that, and I’m consistently responding to questions and giving feedback throughout the week.

On finding activities that work in the home

It certainly involves a lot more research. I’m spending a lot of my time gathering materials, whether that’s a variety of media sources, different videos, or visuals that connect to themes that can engage students in their home. Some of the activities are meant to engage the entire household in the conversation.The students were doing a water audit, for example, and that might involve some conversation with their family members. How much water are we using for washing dishes or showering? I asked them: Can you look through your recycling bin and see what kind of products you are putting in? Can you find a specific company that you’re using a lot? Is there a way you can fix something instead of throwing it out? I had one kid who found a frying pan with the handle broken off, and he and his dad fixed it. A lot of kids chose to clean out their closets, to later donate their clothes to charity. This is a way for them to really look around and bring geography into their home. 

On the interconnections of geography

The great thing about geography and the different resources from Canadian Geographic and other organizations out there is that they connect to kids’ everyday lives. We have a unit on livable communities and I did a little walk-and-talk just after March Break, trying to keep them engaged and connected. Right outside my house, in Westboro, there’s these photo wraps that were done by Michelle Valberg as part of the business association here. It’s urban art. I really enjoy showing students that geography is not just in the classroom but everywhere around you. Anything they might go off and study has a geography component to it and that’s really important for them to realize.