Distance Learning – The Return of the One-Room School House

Growing up, I always knew I wanted to be a teacher. In fact, I dreamed about what it would be like to run a one-room school house, like on Little House on the Prairie. Little did I know that I would one day do just that, but in a very different way, in a very different time, and with very different students.

With six weeks of distance learning under our belt here at Saint John’s, we are learning as we go. We have hired a full time teacher to oversee the program, and are interviewing now to fill one more position. We are currently working with 18 children spanning 10 grade levels, five with special needs, with three of those non-verbal. Although Saint John’s is an up-to-18-month residential program, we do have families entering and exiting our program weekly, so the “student body” is always a moving target.

Our staff is busy calendaring and overseeing Zoom courses being taught by the more than eight schools our children attend, while simultaneously providing a recreational and art program for kids when they are not “in class.” It is not unusual to walk into our classroom and see PE workouts happening right next to English lessons, but we have adapted. We are finding that our high school and middle school students want a more “homelike” appearance when they attend their Zoom meetings, with no other children or noise in the background, so that they are spared the “stigma” of their classmates discovering that they live in a shelter. We have thoughtfully redesigned our classroom space to ensure that older students can position their cameras facing walls and neutral backgrounds so that no one will know where they live. This one small adjustment has made a big difference.

Distance learning is not something we had planned, nor budgeted for, in our 2020 Children’s Program curriculum, but alas, like everything else in 2020, we’ve had to roll with the punches and be flexible, be proactive, methodical, organized and thoughtful in our approach. We are so thankful for the all the love and resources from our community.

We hired Ms. Hazel to oversee our Distance Learning Program and provide the much needed supervision and guidance that only a professionally trained teacher can provide. Our students and mothers are reacting warmly to her and are benefiting from her academic and motivational lessons. In fact, I think every parent could use one of her lessons on backpack organization! We would never be able to manage distance learning without the proper tools, we still have kids waiting for laptops and rely on the donated Chromebooks to get by. In a one-room school house, headphones are a necessity and we use them daily and know that we have enough for each new child on the day they arrive. We’ve learned a lot this year about motivating students with different needs and have developed individual plans for each child. We have wonderful partners who have introduced token systems, coping boards and Picture Exchange Communication cards. We end each week with social emotional group sessions with our CSUS interns, the kids provide an emotional “check in” and work on coping skills.

2020 is the year that taught us a lot and forced us to learn and grow in ways we had never imagined. The one-room school house is working and I remind myself that if Laura Ingalls Wilder taught school on a prairie in a snow storm then we can do this too!

By Abra Ruthenbeck, Children’s Program Director, Saint John’s Program for Real Change

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