Treehouse teaching and laundry art: Educators find creative ways to reach kids

Eufemia Didonato

The Washington Post gathered stories of creative teaching from throughout the Washington region. The anecdotes collected below do not represent everyone’s experience, but they highlight notes of grace — and offer sparks of hope.

‘Everyone’s got laundry!’

As the weeks of online learning stretched into months, art teacher Abigail Dillingham was struggling.

She kept thinking about the projects cut short by the pandemic: The crown-wearing dinosaurs her kindergartners would never finish painting. The cityscapes her second-graders would never finish crafting.

Dillingham, who teaches at James K. Polk Elementary School in Alexandria, was also concerned about her students’ lack of engagement — so few were completing the assignments she emailed to parents. She couldn’t be sure whether her kids were uninterested or whether they lacked the necessary pens, paper and crayons at home.

That’s when she spotted it, shared on an online forum for art teachers: Someone had twisted the contents of their laundry basket into an imitation of the “Mona Lisa.” Dillingham laughed aloud.

Laundry art! Kids could convert heaps of their family’s clothes into whatever fanciful landscapes they desired.

“Nobody should ever be penalized or put at a disadvantage for the supplies they don’t have,” Dillingham thought to herself. “But everyone’s got laundry!”

She set up a camera in her living room, grabbed her most recent load — all grays, blues and browns, her preferred palette — and sat on the floor for over an hour, shaping the clothes into Vincent van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.” After editing the video several times, she crossed her fingers and hit “send” on yet another email.

Maliah Peaches was one of the kids on the other end of that message. Maliah’s favorite class is art, because she loves to draw and paint: pictures of princesses and inventions, mostly.

But Maliah had been sad since school closed in March, missing her friends and her art teacher. Her mother, Marie Peaches, was worried about the formerly upbeat kindergartner.

Now, Marie bent over the computer screen, confused. “Laundry art?” she read. “What is this?”

But when she turned to look at her daughter, she was gone. Seconds later, Maliah reappeared, tottering down the stairs armed with her father’s freshly cleaned clothes and her sister’s pants. Within minutes, she had arranged the laundry into a large flower, its petals formed from socks — and stuck a favorite Barbie, Dr. Moopsy, alongside it.

“The Barbie was smelling the flower,” Marie remembered later.

“No, Mommy, she is taking care of the flower,” Maliah interrupted. “She’s going to water it.”

Playing with her family’s laundry marked the first time Maliah seemed happy — actually happy — since the start of the pandemic.

And she wasn’t the only one: Dillingham received far more student submissions for laundry art than for any other project. The teacher treasured every one, although she was especially impressed by the boy who turned his pile of clothes into a unicorn.

Maliah hopes she can make laundry art again soon. She already knows her next subject: the pyramids of Egypt, set against a desert background.

She has promised herself she’ll visit one day, when she’s grown up — and when the pandemic is over.

‘It was a leap of faith’

When schools closed in March, Alex Clark’s students at Dunbar High School in Northwest Washington were just beginning to understand the benefits of their physical education class. Clark, who works after-hours as a fitness instructor at a trendy exercise studio in the District, was teaching his music-blaring, high-intensity workout class to his high school students. He took his students on field trips to fitness studios in the city. They loved it.

So during a virtual spring semester, he posted workouts to his Instagram page so students could participate whenever they wanted.

But it wasn’t the same, and he knew some students were starting to lose interest.

“I did not want to lose the momentum,” Clark said.

Two Dunbar students were fatally shot this summer, and Clark wanted to ensure that his students had a way to connect with one another, to boost their mental health. He looked for activities that could keep them away from the often high-crime neighborhoods where many Dunbar teenagers reside.

He decided he would take his students on socially distanced bike rides across the city.
“It was a leap of faith. I got extremely nervous. I was trying to find a way to connect with kids,” Clark said.

Clark started an online fundraiser to pay for bikes. He raised more than $10,000, and neighbors donated dozens of bikes and helmets for the rides. The club became part of Clark’s nonprofit organization, Prime Ability, which connects students from low-income families to fitness opportunities outside of sports like football and basketball.

And students came for the bike rides. And more students. It became so popular that students brought friends and siblings from other schools. At times, more than 50 students showed up. Volunteers from the city also came to help make sure the large group stayed safe on the ride.

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday afternoon, they biked to a different neighborhood in D.C. They rode trails through the city that many students never knew existed. When Clark wanted to teach them about resilience, he took them through the hilly streets of Georgetown.

“If you bring your whole neighborhood and we have enough bikes, that’s awesome,” Clark said. “Anything that can keep you away from something that can tempt you to do something that can impact the rest of your life.”

Now that it’s winter and the sun sets early, Clark has stopped doing the weekly rides. But he’s found other ways to keep his students engaged and cycling the city. He invited students to a weekly entrepreneurship class for which they rode their bikes uptown from Dunbar to the gym where Clark works, Sweat DC. The students met with the owner of the gym and the owners of a nearby bar, Hook Hall, and the bagel shop Call Your Mother Deli to learn what it takes to run a business.

This month, he helped his students fulfill their required community service hours. A group bicycled from Dunbar to pick up food at Call Your Mother Deli, which they then transported on their bikes to Martha’s Table, the charity and volunteer center in Southeast D.C. During a holiday season in the middle of the pandemic, they distributed food to residents in need.

Top-secret mission

From the first day of all-virtual music classes at Whitehall Elementary School in Bowie, Md., April Shawyer used props. She invented themes. And on the video clips she uses to kick off her class, she cast herself as a detective, wearing dark glasses and peering around corners.

“Who’s ready for this week’s top-secret mission?” she asks, as adventure-evoking music pulses in the background.

The mission changes week to week, but Shawyer, 37, keeps up the idea that she and her young students are musical detectives, in search of learning. She teaches most grade levels and the school chorus.

“We have a lot of fun,” she said.

One recent week, the mission was winter music. Shawyer led a first-grade class via Zoom — a challenging platform for musicians — as they pretended to pull on hats and boots and bundle up in big coats.

She introduces Vivaldi’s “Winter” from “The Four Seasons,” and she and her first-graders use scarves and ribbons and towels — whatever they have at home — to move expressively like the wind and sleet of a snowstorm.

This is the way in to the next idea: She wants them to create their own composition, their own snowy-day song.

A week or so later, they have uploaded rhythm and pitch compositions inspired by their snowy-day experience to a platform called Flipgrid.

Each child starts with a grand introduction to their piece, as if they are giving a recital.

“They love that part,” Shawyer laughs, saying she tries to keep it playful and keep her students moving. In lessons for older students, some days there are makeshift drums involved or recorders that students have taken home.

Shawyer has been a teacher for 14 years, the last six in Prince George’s County. She has children of her own, sons ages 2 and 7, and has led sessions on creativity in online learning for other teachers

“We are making it work,” she said. “I knew it was going to be challenging. I wanted the kids to look at this as a mission we would accomplish together.”

‘The Treehouse Teacher’

Every workday around 7:50 a.m., Nellie Williams slips her computer into a bag, grabs a thermos of coffee and bids her husband goodbye: “Honey,” she says, “I’m going to work.”

Then Williams, a 48-year-old sixth-grade teacher in Northern Virginia, walks out the door and into her backyard. She plods through grass for 150 feet — followed by her cat Stewart and two white and fluffy Great Pyrenees dogs named Pearle and Gilligan — before climbing into what passes for her classroom in 2020: her daughters’ decade-old treehouse.

Nearly halfway through the school year, “the novelty really hasn’t worn off yet,” Williams said. “This is my 20th year teaching and I absolutely never experienced anything like this.”

Still, she has embraced it: Williams has taken to calling herself the Treehouse Teacher, a nickname that caught on immediately among her students.

Nowadays, she leads all her social studies and language arts video classes for Haycock Elementary School from up among the trees, with the animals splayed on the porch. She enters the treehouse at 8 a.m. and, apart from an hour-long break for lunch — which she eats in the house with her husband and daughters, ages 16 and 19 — does not leave until 5:30 p.m., meaning she navigates the short distance home in the dark.

At the start of the year, Williams held virtual parent-teacher conferences from the treehouse, prompting amazement from some mothers and fathers. And, early on, she was able to use the treehouse as a key part of her lessons.

“I talked about how we’re all in a different location than we’re used to being in this school year,” Williams said. “I said, ‘Here’s my space, here is how it’s unique and different. I want you to tell me about your space and how you can make it your own.’ ”

The idea emerged over the summer. Around the time it became clear that Fairfax County Public Schools would start the year all-virtual, she and her husband invited friends over for a socially distant dinner. One friend pointed up at the treehouse and said, “That should be your classroom.”

The next day, Williams and her husband drove to Home Depot for supplies. They had a lot of work to do: The treehouse was unfinished and had grown dilapidated through years of disuse.

They installed new flooring and added insulation. Williams painted the walls ballet-slipper pink, a reminder of childhood ballet lessons. She lugged a bookshelf, desk and heater into the 5-by-7-foot space, and ran an Ethernet cable from the house so she’d have Internet.

There have been a few irritants — a chipmunk invasion, a wayward bee, moments when Pearle or Gilligan wouldn’t stop barking — but overall, Williams loves teaching in the treehouse, she said.

“It is my own little nook in which I can focus, not on what’s around me, but on my teaching,” she said. “Plus I need the separation of work and home.”

Next semester, Williams said, she plans to add a Zip line: “Then I can Zip home.”

Staying hands-on

Even though school is all-remote in Montgomery County, teacher Kevin Daney tries to get his students away from computer screens. He figures kids at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda spend enough time that way for other subjects.

Besides, technology education classes are often hands-on. “I want to make it as real as I can,” he said.

So as one class studied architecture this fall, Daney, 54, encouraged them to walk in their neighborhood to take photos of houses of different styles: ranch, colonial, Victorian.

Kevin Daney, a teacher at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, Md., shared how his students designed their dream houses for a class project. (Kevin Daney)

As another lesson focused on engineering drawings, he had them working with old-fashioned, plastic floppy disks to measure, draw and scale up.

And he stuck with his usual method of helping students learn about the design process, asking them to prepare a meal. They started with ideas and research, made a plan, carried it out and evaluated it. The result: soups and pastas and pastries.

“Can you assign this more often?” one parent asked him at back-to-school night.

Sometimes Daney tells his class stories — about his time in the Peace Corps in Zimbabwe, about his tendency to get flat tires, about his wife making bagels from scratch. One day recently, he said, he stopped himself and asked if the class was interested.

One student told him it was his favorite part of the day.

“Kids need connection, he said. “I think they’re starving for conversation,” including with adults.

With learning all-virtual, he packs a big Ziploc bag — for each student, each quarter — with things like fishing line, foam board, pipecleaners, magnets, Popsicle sticks and rubber bands. Whatever they will need for their projects.

“I love designing and building stuff, and I get to teach what I love,” he said. “People don’t realize the cognitive thinking and the problem-solving you have to do when you make something.”

A teacher for 30 years, Daney has worked in Montgomery County’s public schools for two decades. His wife is a teacher, and they have two children.

As the holidays approached, one of Daney’s classes was building a geodesic dome house using straws, pipecleaners and foam board.

Just before winter break, they displayed their creations.

“I was totally happy,” he said. “Everybody had something to show, and they looked really good.”

Taking robots home

When schools closed in March, Catherine Moessner’s fourth-grade math students had just started a robotics session in partnership with the University of Maryland. The students were supposed to use their fourth-grade math skills to program spherical robots, small enough to fit in their hands, to move.

But students went home, the robots stayed at Powell Elementary in Northwest Washington, and the computer programming lesson was canceled.

In the fall, Moessner had the same students, but now they were fifth-graders. She didn’t want them to completely miss out on the robots lesson that the pandemic took from their fourth-grade year. So she decided to use the robots for fifth-grade math concepts and arranged for families to pick them up.

“It was a lot of logistics,” Moessner said. “The kids were so excited to get the robots. They were thrilled to have it at home to play with. One student said his sister was chasing it.”

In fifth grade, students are expected to learn how to add, subtract, multiply and divide with whole numbers, decimals and fractions. Through a computer application the students have, they can program the robot to move a certain distance, stop, maybe even turn.

“The robot is a fun way to get the kids involved,” Moessner said. “And a lot of the math is a little sneaky. They think they are trying to get the robot to move, when they are actually measuring the angles to get it to move.”  

Moessner said that teaching math virtually has had its challenges.

Some students do their math with a pencil and paper, and hold their paper up to the screen. Others complete their math problems directly on the computer, which can lead to some troubles as they try to show their work. “There’s been a lot of trial and error,” she said.

But it’s been the weekly robot sessions after classes end that have captured her students’ attention. The students are manipulating a concrete object in their homes. There’s a tangible outcome to the work that they are doing, and they can see it away from their screens.

‘A Change Is Gonna Come’

When Kristin Gavaza interviewed for the music teacher position at Dorothy I. Height Elementary in the summer, she told the principal she had some ideas for how to create a festive concert while students were scattered and learning from home.

She wasn’t sure exactly what it would look like, and she had never edited video before. But after many weeks of sending recordings to her students and their families and having them sending recordings back to her, on Christmas Eve, Gavaza posted to YouTube a seven-minute holiday concert featuring about 80 of her music students at the Northwest Washington school.

“Good things come in little packages, little packages, just like me,” sang a kindergartner wearing a pink, glittery shirt that read “Shine Like a Star.”

Once she finished her solo, a piano started playing and other classmates jumped in with their solos, then the whole class came together. Some sang in front of Christmas trees, others at desks or tables, many with ear buds or headsets, and all had a far-off look of concentration, perhaps imagining being onstage with their classmates.

“They were excited. They liked the idea of being a part of this, and maybe even getting to do a solo,” said Gavaza, who decided to become a schoolteacher after teaching private piano and voice lessons in the region for the past decade. “They were excited to have the opportunity for a spotlight.”

Students from Dorothy I. Height Elementary school sang Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come” during their Dec. 31 virtual winter concert. (The Washington Post)

She began teaching the songs in the fall to six grade levels during weekly music classes. She recorded herself singing and playing the songs on the piano. She sent the recording to the students, and asked them each to record themselves as they sang along.

Many of the younger students required technical assistance. Some of the students and their families are recent immigrants who speak little English, requiring all correspondence to be translated. But they sent recordings back to her, and Gavaza went on YouTube to learn how to use the D.C. public school system’s editing software. She guesses she spent 80 hours putting together the concert of solos and ensembles.

Gavaza decided to end the concert with a song that the older students were introduced to when they learned about the civil rights movement: “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke.

“The song resonated with the students,” she said. The students started singing it at home to their families. Their parents and grandparents knew the song, and were impressed the children were singing it around the house.
“It’s been a long time coming,” the students sang together. “But I know a change gonna come. Oh, yes it will.”

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