School Notes: October 2020

Kevin Matheny, WAHS’ shop teacher, uses an upended laptop to allow students at home to watch their project’s progress as it’s created remotely. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Teaching Outside the Box

What’s a shop teacher to do during distanced learning? For WAHS teacher Kevin Matheny, the prospects were grim. “I knew I didn’t want to what I did last spring, so over the summer I had to rethink,” said Matheny. The division’s plan for shop classes was to limit projects to those using materials like paper, tape, glue, and scissors, and students at home were not allowed to use tools, so he had to think creatively. “If I told the kids they had only paper projects for the entire semester, I don’t think they’d appreciate me,” he said. “I had some other ideas, but we were going to have to pass materials back and forth [between homes and school] so it was going to be slow.”

Matheny brainstormed about what was possible and realized that his students could use their home computers to access the more powerful computers in his shop, and from there the students could control shop equipment like the laser engraver and the CNC 3D router. With his assistance and instruction, they could actually make something remotely. He reconfigured the shop layout and tested the school’s computer software called Quick Assist, then did a dry run with a few students at the end of the first week of classes, and it worked.

Matheny’s enthusiasm is infectious, and the students have responded in kind. “I’m hands on, and this is as hands on as I can get it,” he said. “The kids get to make something and come pick it up [from the front office] and have it. They are already designing different things for themselves and other family members, so as something that captures their interest, I know it’s working.”

The laser engraver can work with a variety of materials such as leather, fabric, glass, ceramic tile, and stone on a surface up to 12 by 24 inches. Students have programmed the equipment to make name plates, coasters, and artwork featuring designs like sports logos, video game characters, and original drawings. Matheny communicates with students during class on Zoom or over the phone, guiding them through the process and troubleshooting their programs, and he places their chosen raw material in the engraver when they are ready.

“I’ve learned to put a laptop upside down on top of the equipment with its camera on, so the students can watch the progress of their design as it’s being made,” said Matheny. “One student drew and designed a three-dimensional Pokemon character and had the 3D router make it out of a block of wood,” he said, showing off the finished piece. “If you know anything about routing, that is amazing.” He hopes to add a 3D printer option to the mix in the coming weeks.

Matheny said that both WAHS and the school division have been very supportive of his efforts, helping him to get more computers and cameras so he can help multiple students at once, and he’s thrilled to see the students tackling the programming challenge. “Doing what they’re doing is a real career that somebody could actually have,” he said. “They may not realize it yet, but they will—it’ll click. I try to make the instructions super easy so it’s not intimidating for those that don’t like computer stuff, and when they see the results, they think it’s awesome.”

The whole experiment has transformed Matheny’s semester into something gratifying and productive, and he hopes to share what’s he’s learned with other shop and engineering instructors. “It’s funny, I’m the most excited teacher maybe in the whole county,” he said. “I tell people—run over that hurdle, run around it, or run through it, but don’t let something stop you. Figure out how to solve the problem, make it better for the students.” 

Field School Goes the Distance

Capture the flag using six-foot noodles for distancing. “Foosball” soccer where players can run only horizontally along their yard line. Frisbee golf, bocce, croquet. 

Field School’s outdoor physical activity imperative may look a little different during COVID-19, but it’s still in force and going strong, just like the rest of the school. “Everybody has had to stop and think about curriculum a little differently, think about grading and assessments a little differently,” said Charlie Skipper, Head of Field School, “and it’s opened up a lot of new ways of thinking.”

Field opened in late August with a rolling start to in-person instruction. Three large tents were set up to accommodate rotating outdoor classes and lunch, and six-foot spacing is maintained both indoors and out. Blue dots on the gym floor serve as visual markers for where students can sit before classes begin in the mornings, and extra space along the edges allows them to line up for lunch and dismissal. Everyone eats outside, spread out over low rock walls or in the grass or at tables and chairs under the tents.

Field School’s Todd Barnett teaches history outdoors to his masked, socially distanced students. Photo: Lisa Martin.

Skipper lauds the heroic job being done by faculty and staff under challenging conditions. “Classes are being broadcast live for any kids who are at home, and the home kids are visible so that classmates and teachers can talk with them,” said Skipper. “Our teachers manage both groups simultaneously, and there’s a difference between the kids who have opted to stay home for the semester versus those who are just home temporarily in terms of getting everyone the right materials. And [the faculty and staff] do so many other things as well. It’s a lot.”

The morning drop-off has been reconfigured to include a mandatory online health pre-screen each day, intended to be completed at home, though there is a pull-over space in the drop-off line should parents forget. Staff members perform temperature checks on each student and provide hand sanitizer before sending them inside to the gym. Perhaps the most complex part of the new procedures is keeping track of who’s in and who’s out.

“We have spreadsheets to track who’s going to be out for how long—for instance, if they’re home while waiting for a family member to be tested—and when they’re due back,” said Skipper. “The parents have been incredibly supportive and engaged and helpful. Everybody understands the situation and they’re trying to do the best they can even when it’s incredibly inconvenient and they have to suddenly rearrange their day.”

Field School students make a socially distanced pattern on the grass with their backpacks as they practice soccer skills. Photo: Lisa Martin.

In the midst of it all, Skipper takes the long view. “Before starting here as Head, I had taken a semester last spring to get ready, so I’ve been involved with all of this since March and that created a natural transition into things,” he said. “It’s not what anyone would wish for, obviously, but from my perspective this has been a gift, allowing us to expand our tool kit in different directions. Now we have built-in ways to respond to situations like students missing significant class time that we didn’t have before.”

Skipper is thankful that the school has several things going for it. “The mission of the school stresses adaptability and the outdoors,” he said, “and boys in middle school relish the grand adventure, right? We’ve always been teaching these boys to have this mindset and approach. Here it’s about meeting the boys where they are, and the teachers are brilliant at that. Also, the parents have been willing to work with us to make this happen, and they understand what it means. If you didn’t have any one of those, I don’t know that it would work.” 

Field School’s Todd Barnett teaches history outdoors to his masked, socially distanced students. Photo: Lisa Martin.
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Lisa Martin joined the Gazette in 2017 and writes about education and local government. She also writes in-depth pieces about division-wide education issues and broader investigative pieces on topics from recycling to development to living with wildlife. Her Coyotes in Crozet story won a 2017 Virginia Press Association “Best in Show” award for the Gazette. Martin has a Ph.D. from the University of Texas, taught college for several years, and writes fiction and poetry. She co-authored a children’s trilogy about two adventuring cats, the Anton and Cecil series, which got rave reviews from the New York Times Book Review, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly and others.


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