DMS Science Teacher Uses Fun Game, Interactive Assignments to Keep Students Engaged

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically impacted how education is delivered. Beginning in March, all Stanislaus County school districts – including Denair Unified — were forced to suspend on-campus classes and move to a distance learning model. Today, in the latest in a series of profiles, we talk with a Denair teacher about distance learning, some of the challenges involved and the lessons that can be learned.

  • Teacher: James Zepeda
  • School: Denair Middle School
  • Grade/Subject: 7th– and 8th-grade science
  • Years in the district: 1

What does a typical school day look like for you now? How do you organize your time?  

I wake up at 5 a.m. and begin checking emails from students or parents who may have concerns regarding my class. Depending on the emails, if any, I reply with the best of my knowledge and information. Depending on my lesson plan for the day, I begin looking over the Google Slide, Homework, check-in question or Kahoot to ensure the information is easily accessible. By 7:45 a.m., I arrive at school ready to begin my day and meet all the students in my classes. From 8 a.m. to noon, I will hold a class for students Monday through Friday. On Mondays and Wednesdays, I review with students the topic(s) we are discussing that incorporate Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and post a “check-in question.” On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I have homework assignments(s) about the discussion on the previous days and will go over the homework with them. On Fridays, in class, we play Kahoot. In Kahoot, the questions are based on the week’s lecture materials, homework assignments and previously covered materials.I utilize Kahoot as a tool to help create a fun environment to help refresh and reiterate lessons and major essential NGSS concepts. 

As noon comes around, I have my lunch and start working on other assignments/materials related to my work. From 12:30 to 2:45 p.m., I hold online office hours for the students to ask questions, work on assignments and get guided/scaffolded instruction on any homework assignments. After 2:45 p.m., I head home and respond to emails or questions concerning my class from students or parents until approximately 8 p.m. 

What are some of the things you are doing during live instruction with students?

I pose questions to the students during live instructions, create scaffolded instruction and collaboration amongst the whole class, and create opportunities for engagement on Kahoot days. I have made a point to build strong relationships with students through fun, interactive activities and provide opportunities for collaboration amongst their peers. This approach has helped create a willingness for students to participate and attend classes on a daily basis. 

What are the most significant adjustments you have had to make? 

The most significant adjustment was learning how to create a behavioral management style that keeps my students focused on the task at hand within the classroom while developing commonality of respect. This has been a learning experience for myself as well, to understand and innovate teaching techniques that reach all my students. 

What are your favorite teaching tools? Why?

Google Slides, Kahoot and humor are my favorite teaching tools. Google Slides are accessible when presenting information to the students. Within Google Slides, information is easily given and received to and by the students. Kahoot helps deliver essential information and facts to students but in a fun, engaging and competitive aspect. From what I have learned from my past experiences in science, science can be challenging to comprehend. By utilizing Google Slides and Kahoot, science becomes a little easier to comprehend and can only help benefit those students who may sometimes struggle with science. Humor has allowed me to show students that learning can be fun and has allowed me to further build upon that relationship with the students. 

Are there teaching techniques you are using now that you will apply in your classrooms when in-person classes resume? 

I believe the teaching techniques I am currently using are transferable and beneficial to in-person teaching. Teaching in a distance-learning manner helps the teachers develop, discover and reinvent teaching techniques that only benefit students rather than hinder them. 

What are your biggest concerns about students and distance learning? 

My biggest concern for distance learning is making sure that I do not fail the students when teaching science. The materials I am teaching within the classroom are aspects that will come back up in their everyday lives and future learning (e.g., high school, college and post-bachelor’s degree). 

How often do you interact with your parents? What are their most common questions?  

Currently, I have only come in contact with parents intermittently. The common questions are “How is my child doing?,” “What can I do at home to help my child?” and “Why was my child marked absent?” These questions are great and illustrate how important and involved parents are here at DMS and within the Denair community regarding their children. Parents are always welcome to call or email, and I am more than willing to respond to each inquiry. Again, we are all in this together. 

Do you have a favorite distance learning story to share?  So far, my favorite story is from Friday, Sept. 18. It was a Kahoot day, and all the students in each class were excited and ready to learn and play for some extra credit. It was in one of my classes that the competition amongst the students was palpable. One of the students (let us call this student Student A), who has won previous Kahoots, was on top of the leaderboard and was being trailed closely by Student B. All the students in the class were rooting for Student B to beat Student A and were doing all they could to help Student B win. During this time, the students laughed, wrote the chat box’s answers and rooted for Student B. After the game was done, Student B did win and was very excited. Student A was gracious and later said “gg” for a “good game.” Myself, I was laughing and happy to see how the students were interacting, having fun and actively engaged in the activity while remaining respectful to each of the students. This activity helped illustrate that authentic distance learning is possible and can be fun for all.

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