Nearly a week before NASA’s latest rover, Perseverance, was scheduled to land on Mars, a first-grade class at Central Point Elementary was already well beyond the fourth planet from the sun, venturing clear out of the solar system with still about an hour to go before lunch.
The plan was to stay there for the day, gather as much data as possible, work on some core subjects then zip back just in time to be picked up by their parents back on planet Earth. And if there was time — and there usually is when you’re traveling at the speed of light times two — they could swing by Mars and see how Olympus Mons, the largest mountain in the solar system, compares to Mount Everest.
The students blasted off Friday morning shortly after entering Room 14 at CPE, which their teacher Kary Rogney had transformed into Mission Control. Desks were attached to slate gray computer terminals each outfitted with four monitors and an array of buttons and dials. The terminals were cardboard boxes big enough to hold 65-inch flatscreen TVs, wallpapered with printouts of Mission Control workstations. Dangling overhead were paper mache versions of the planets. A string of neon lights on the floor cast the room in a cool blue hue, and a full-scale Extravehicular Mobility Unit (spacesuit) stared back at the students from one corner, its components labeled.
“They were mostly kind of in shock,” Rogney said of his students’ reactions to the redecorated room, which they’ll be visiting twice a week as part of the Central Point School District’s hybrid model that was implemented beginning Feb. 2. “They kind of warmed up to it, and then they got really excited.”
The seven students in attendance Friday started their school day with a rocket blast into outer space, rendered in high definition by way of a YouTube video Rogney had queued up. Another, played at the end of the day, simulates their return journey. Among other fact-finding missions, the students were introduced to “Space Oddity” — the classic David Bowie song about Major Tom.
“I explained it,” Rogney said, “and they’re like, ‘Is (Major Tom) OK?’”
Rogney’s class will be learning about the solar system for most of the rest of the school year. Ordinarily it wouldn’t take that long, he said, but because students are allowed on site for only two five-hour days per week, unit studies take longer to work through. And not every student in his class will be attending in-person. Rogney said he typically gets eight students in his “B” group Tuesdays and Fridays and 11 in his “A” group Mondays and Thursdays. Another four students are full-time distance learners who watch portions of class via Zoom.
“We tend as a school to go deeper into topics, not just brush the surface and then on to the next one,” he said, as his students, dressed in lab coats, watched a short video. “So we’ll take it deep and learn a lot more details. Probably even a little bit above grade level as far as content exposure. But I think it just makes it more memorable, that repetition, to really learn the content and get the most out of it.”
It’s hardly an ideal setup, Rogney concedes.
“So it is tricky to juggle the two groups,” he said. “Like, ‘have I said this to you yet?’ because you teach the same materials for a couple days. But every day I’m doing a Zoom, so that keeps the continuity — the daily oral language, the math, the writing. We do that (together), so everyone gets to see each other every day and feel that community.”
Rogney prefers the hybrid format to the limited in-person instruction that came before because class time has more than doubled for those students who can attend. But he likens its time constraints to driving a car with four wheels of differing sizes.
“So we’re moving,” he said, “but it’s kind of wobbly, and we’re not up to speed by any means. It’s better than LIPI because we get five hours instead of two hours. So we can do more of our project-based learning instead of just racing to get our core content taught.”
Once the class is done studying Mars, they’ll get busy turning the class Omnikin ball into a 4-foot sun model. Then they’ll be able to compare it to the models of the planets. Later, they’ll take two field trips to CraterWorks MakerSpace to cut out models of constellations and the space shuttle, which will later be assembled in class.
Creativity abounds in Rogney’s class, adding new twists to old elementary school standbys. Remember dioramas, those miniature 3-D models usually built into shoeboxes? Rogney uses green screen technology to magically transport his student into their dioramas.
Central Point Elementary Principal Walt Davenport says bringing lessons to life is more important than ever given the practical limitations of hybrid learning. And silver linings, he said, do exist.
“I think that the time that we have with kids is definitely something that we’re kind of reframing as far as how we spend it, how we’re asking students to spend their time,” Davenport said. “And there are some efficiencies that have come out of distance learning because of the COVID-19 piece that help teachers kind of go, ‘OK, I don’t have to spend as much time on this particular aspect of instruction if it can be delivered through a digital realm or through an online program better.’
“So I think they’re starting to kind of reframe their scope and sequence of instruction based on the distance learning experience, and the time they’re spending with kids really should be that depth of instruction — they’re really going after the depth with kids being in-person at this point.”
Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or firstname.lastname@example.org.