Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin: Rick Erickson of Bayfield High School
Rick Erickson is an award-winning high school teacher at the Bayfield School District where he teaches high school chemistry, physics, and alternative education. Among his laurels are a 2014 Wisconsin High School Teacher of the Year and the 2019 Presidential Award of Excellence in Math and Science. He has a passion for place-based, experiential education, and as an educator, he is happiest when his students are exploring the rich Lake Superior region and actively participating in real-world science. Rick was a valuable collaborator for the 2018 Wisconsin Idea Seminar’s BIG LAKE tour, bringing nuanced perspectives on how future generations can learn about the value of land stewardship and how experiential learning can nurture a deep and enduring connection to the natural world.
We caught up with Rick to ask a few questions about how he and his fellow educators have transitioned, collaborated, and adapted to new online learning platforms.
In what ways has COVID-19 revealed the needs of your community? So many things have happened so quickly. One of the most difficult aspects of this situation has been limited contact with students, families, colleagues, and community members. As I’m sure is true in most rural areas of Wisconsin, this situation has verified and amplified several equity issues that include health/wellness, employment, and access. As educators, technology access is of particular concern. Fortunately for us, as a tourist destination, our infrastructure is likely more developed than other rural areas. As a school district, we quickly assessed the needs of our students and families, and we were able to get devices into everyone’s hands and help them gain access to virtual instruction with very few exceptions. Our entire staff worked diligently to make that happen – administration, technology department, teachers, support staff. These are examples of immediate issues, but we also have concerns about the lasting impact on students and families. Will this situation exacerbate already existing equity issues and opportunity gaps?
Educators across the country have had to pivot to online learning in response to COVID-19. So much of your engagement with students is through project-based experiential learning and authentic scientific experiences. Can you tell us how you approached the challenge of translating your ways of teaching into an online experience? Some educators were definitely more prepared for this pivot to online learning than others. Especially now, I am envious of those who had developed online platforms while also teaching face-to-face. Those educators are not only more prepared, but they are also leading the rest of us through this new reality. I am clearly not one of those educators. I have adjusted my chemistry and alternative education programs in different ways. In chemistry, I have been trying to provide online instruction with demonstrations and slides while also conducting experiments in my kitchen and providing students with the data. My alternative education program presents an entirely different challenge. That program is almost entirely focused on experiential learning and authentic science experiences in the field. My students and I are out of the building far more than we are in the building. Their learning happens while operating a maple sugar bush or monitoring and recording wildlife data using trail cameras or gathering wild foods like mushrooms, fiddleheads, and leeks/ramps. It has been extremely hard to translate that to an online platform. I have chosen to approach that challenge by leaning on my students to guide their own learning while we are all staying at home. Our hope is that we have set the stage for independent learning – that we have fostered curiosity and given students the skills needed to learn on their own. When we started this online instruction, I asked each of the alternative education students to identify independent projects they could work on and report their progress to me. Several students have responded very well to that task. Others have seriously struggled without daily guidance.
Bayfield School District is located near the shores of Lake Superior and students from the nearby Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa make up a large percentage of the district. How has school closures affected students and their families? I feel fortunate to work in a school district that, from the beginning, brought multiple stakeholders to the table and allowed a variety of voices to be heard. As a district, we chose to roll out the virtual education slowly. We used the first few weeks of the school closure to connect with students and families – to focus on health, safety, and social-emotional well-being. That also gave us time to make sure students and families had what they needed when we were ready to begin virtual instruction. I think that was a very good decision. As a result, we were able to connect with students and families to set the stage for a very different type of instruction. That deliberate effort was effective. Yet, as with most real-life situations, there are definitely still issues to resolve. I think our issues are very likely similar to issues faced around the state and throughout the country. Based on conversations with some families, the transition to learning at home has been difficult for some. Parents, especially those who are still working during this pandemic, have found it difficult to assist students with schoolwork and keep up with household and work responsibilities. At the same time, there are several students who are looking for more intense schoolwork – schoolwork similar to the “typical” school experience. As a teacher, it is a balancing act. It seems to work well to provide a variety of scaffolded lessons/activities to try to meet the needs of all students. When I actually say/write that, it sounds funny to me because that is just like any typical day at school. How do we meet the needs of all students? Same challenge…new platform.
Are there ways that you are collaborating with UW System schools or UW-Madison during this time of uncertainty? I have been involved with UW-Madison’s Earth Partnership Indigenous Arts and Sciences institutes for a while. Both the teacher and student Earth Partnership institutes will be offered online this summer. At this point, my role is not clearly defined, but I am sure it will definitely look different than in the past. To date, I have been consulted about logistics and structure. I have provided some guidance based on what is working and what is not working under our current experience with virtual learning. As the program rolls out, I will work with the school district to secure devices for the students and make sure they have the access they need to participate in the program. Rather than driving the bus and working directly with students, my role will look much more like a facilitator role.
Have you seen your community come together in response to COVID-19? If so, how? The communities served by the School District of Bayfield have always been close-knit communities. There are always examples of the community coming together, and like most communities, everyone rallies when there is a need. Through a variety of programs, the school district and Red Cliff tribal entities were able to collaborate to provide breakfast, lunch, and dinner for all of the district’s students. The school district and tribal staff members coordinate that meal delivery program. In April, several Red Cliff fishing families and companies donated 1000 pounds of fish to the community. Those are just a couple of the many examples of community members working together to address community needs.
How has COVID-19 strengthened your relationships with others? Fortunately, our staff had already developed strong relationships with our students and families and community organizations. That is always a focus of our work. Those relationships have allowed us to stay in contact with students and families. In some respect, our relationships with students and families have deepened. Families have greatly appreciated the efforts of our school staff to reach out and engage. Other relationships have also benefited. Our staff has been collaborating more than ever. There is more flexibility in our schedule, and, as a result, staff meetings are not governed by the school bell schedule. We are able to give ample time to more agenda items, which, in turn, improves our efficiency. We have a small staff, so calling our three middle/high school science teachers a department is pushing it. That being said, our science department has also been able to collaborate more than ever. We immediately joined forces so that we could coordinate and strengthen our science instruction. We have clearly seen the benefits of these collaborative efforts.
Do you have any advice for others on keeping spirits up during times like these? This situation has definitely required all of us to look at education through a different lens. I see this as an opportunity to rethink the manner in which we deliver education. This is why we became educators. Let’s change the discussion from minutes/hours of instruction and test results to how do we teach students to become independent learners and how do we give them the skills necessary to become engaged members of our society. Again, this isn’t a new idea. Most educators are clearly on this page, and this pandemic situation provides an opportunity to move it forward.
Dispatches from Our Own Wisconsin is a profile series that showcases fresh stories, observations, and insight from our Wisconsin Idea Seminar partners who are facing, engaging, and addressing critical issues in their communities.