Madras Pioneer

While many high schools are struggling to keep students engaged, the attendance rate at Culver High School is 94%.

That may have something to do with the size. The high school, located in rural Central Oregon, has just 200 students. And the district is one of those across the state that has been able to have students in classrooms since mid-September, even if it is for just two hours a day.

“The attendance rate is all we can hope for, given the circumstances,” said Culver Superintendent Stefanie Garber.

The bulk of the teaching in this high-desert community, as in most of Oregon, takes place online. Students must log into each of their virtual classrooms, starting at 8:30 a.m. and wrapping up at noon.

“They spend about 50 minutes with us every morning and then they’re expected to pick up another 30 minutes in the afternoon,” said English teacher Wendee Bowen.

Bowen teaches four online English classes each day. Two classes have about 22 students and two have a dozen. She gives her students five to 10 minutes to get logged on and gives them a writing prompt.

She then takes attendance. The PowerSchool program shows the students’ icons when they are logged on.

Then it becomes the task of keeping students engaged during those 50 minutes of English class.

“It is me continuously interacting with them and talking to them and requiring them to talk to me,” Bowen said.

She’ll give them an “Of Mice and Men” assignment and then occasionally pop into Google Classroom and ask everybody to flip their cameras on. “I don’t have to see their faces. They can point them to the ceiling, which is fine because, honestly, some of these kids are just getting out of bed,” Bowen said. “They just flip their cameras up, so I can see them wave at me or whatever, and then I require them to talk to me.”

And so it goes: Teachers are not only learning to use new technology to reach their students, they have to invent new ways of engaging them during distance learning.

Bowen often puts her students in small breakout groups in Google Classroom so they can discuss a topic.

“They have to talk to each other to work on something, and they know that I’m going to pop in and listen and maybe I’ll ask a question or two, just as if they were in my classroom working in small groups,” Bowen said. “I know that they will walk away if I don’t keep checking in periodically through the class.”

She says her teaching strategy during the first quarter of the 2020-21 school year, while not ideal, has worked.

“We have learned to give each other grace, we’ve learned to be super flexible, and great organizational skills,” Bowen said.

Freshman Kaiden Tolman has no problems paying attention in Bowen’s online English class.

“I like it better because you get it done faster and there’s not as much work, sometimes,” Kaiden said of distance learning.

Her classmate Nic Ivie says his internet is a little buggy sometimes, and he misses socializing at school. Like many students, he comes to the optional two-hour, in-school class only if he needs the study hall time or extra help from a teacher.

“It depends on the day,” Ivie said. “Sometimes, if I have a whole bunch of homework, I’ll come, but if I have like five sentences to write, I won’t come.”

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: English teacher Wendee Bowen takes the temperature of Kaiden Tolman before the freshman can attend the two-hour class at her Central Oregon high school. PMG photo: Holly Scholz

Holly Scholz is a reporter with The Madras Pioneer.