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How 3 award-winning CCSD teachers prepared for most-challenging year

Monday’s resumption of distance learning at Clark County’s public schools will be a “zoo” for teacher Kim Law, even without any students in the classroom.

That’s because the Hoggard Elementary School science specialist, now relocated to the former Fyfe Elementary School campus while Hoggard is rebuilt, brought about 150 animals with her. The menagerie, which includes chickens, goats, pigs and tortoises, plays an important role in the “zoo program” she teaches.

The great lengths that Law goes to to engage with her kids earned her a Heart of Education Award this year. It also explains why the Review-Journal sought her out along with two others who were recognized by the Smith Center as teachers who “stand above the rest” and “go above and beyond to put students first.”

We asked the trio — Law, Robert Cuccurulo, a social studies teacher and head junior varsity football coach at Coronado High School in Henderson, and Mark Nekoba, a music teacher at Schofield Middle School in south Las Vegas — how they prepared for what will almost certainly be the most challenging year of their teaching careers. We also asked whether they and other Clark County School District teachers are better positioned now than they were in the spring to deliver quality distance learning.

Here’s what they said.

Robert Cuccurullo has props all set

When the Review-Journal first contacted Cuccurullo in early August, he was just beginning to prepare for distance learning.

“I’m going to definitely need the training,” he acknowledged.

Now Cuccurullo, who served for 10 years in the U.S. Army — including during Operation Desert Storm — before becoming a teacher, feels much more confident.

Cuccurullo said teachers had “a lot of information thrown at us, but not in a bad way” during professional development, a 13-day period that covers distance learning along with many other topics. “The district is trying to give all the resources they possibly can.”

For now, he isn’t planning major changes in his teaching style. He’ll still conduct his social studies classes live in his classroom at Coronado, and plans to stand up, just like he always does, rather than sit at a computer.

“I can never sit and teach. I can’t,” he said. “It’s impossible.”

He also intends to “keep it as fun as I do in the classroom.”

One way he’ll do that is to use a camera set up in his classroom to show cardboard cutouts of historical figures sitting at the desks where his students would normally be. The students, meanwhile, will receive periodic clues to help them identify the world leaders.

“It’s all about the presentation with me,” Cuccurullo said.

He said, though, he doesn’t think a teacher can lecture via live video for an hour and still keep students engaged, particularly with distractions they may have at home. Cuccurullo said his opinion is a 20 or 30-minute lecture would be sufficient, followed by students working on their own.

As for coaching football, Cuccurullo can cross that off his list for now. The Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association announced in late July it will move high school sports to spring semester, allowing a six-week competition window for each sport.

But that’s OK. “As much as I live for sports, it’s really the last thing on my mind right now,” he said.

Cuccurullo said he is convinced distance learning likely will last all school year, noting that even if a COVID-19 vaccine is developed, it will take time for it to be produced and widely distributed.

If three-quarters of the school year is over, it wouldn’t make sense to bring students back to campuses if they’ve gotten used to the online format, Cuccurullo said. Even a hybrid model — a mix of in-person and remote instruction — at that point would “throw things off, in my opinion.”

In the meantime, he said he believes he has the tools for success.

Canvas is a good online learning management system that allows teachers to be creative and use “different tools to suit our styles,” he said.

Kim Law brought her menagerie

Law has been teaching for 13 years and, before that, was a campus monitor. Most of her children went to Hoggard Elementary, and her granddaughter is in first grade at Hoggard this year.

Law will have her hands full this semester. Students in the Hoggard’s “zookeepers club” she runs normally help care for the school’s animals, but they won’t be on campus. That means Law will spend hours on daily animal care while also teaching.

She’s also been busy preparing a virtual classroom for the new semester.

Despite the swirl of activity, she also said she feels better prepared for distance learning the second time around.

The switch to distance learning in the spring as the coronavirus began spreading in Nevada was abrupt, while she and her colleagues have had time during the summer to prepare for a new school year, she said.

She said Thursday she’s excited to teach students via live video, compared with recorded lessons used in the spring. She’ll even offer cooking classes and run the zookeepers clubs virtually. She’ll teach students about the animals live as she’s taking care of them.

As science specialist, Law doesn’t start lessons with children until a couple of weeks into the school year. Before that, she’ll help wherever needed at the school, including answering questions from parents.

“We’re learning along with the students,” she said.

Despite the challenges, Law said she hopes to make online instruction fun.

“If you’re a teacher and you love to teach and love to learn, you find a way,” she said.

Mark Nekoba is finding a new rhythm

Nekoba has been teaching for 30 years and has worked at Schofield Middle School in the south valley since it opened in 2001. He teaches instrumental music classes, including jazz band and beginning through advanced band.

He said he and district music teachers met virtually over the summer to bounce distance learning ideas off one another.

As a result, “It’s really going to be a collaborative effort this year for everybody, I think,” he said.

Nekoba said he will tailor his band classes to fit the new medium, with more focus on music theory and history than usual.

“In a normal year, you’d focus on the playing, of course,” he said.

But he’s also working to help them build their chops, devising a no-contact drive-thru system to distribute school-owned musical instruments to students and figuring how he can work with virtual band ensembles for what he hopes will be an online concert later this year.

“The kids need something to motivate them,” he said of the performances.

Nekoba said that the training he received on Canvas during professional development this month was better than he anticipated.

“Thankfully, the district gave us two weeks to train. Otherwise, we’d be in big trouble,” he said.

For many teachers, Canvas is brand new, “so of course it’s frustrating,” he said. “Every day, you learn a little bit more.”

The more teachers use Canvas with their students, the easier it’s going to get, Nekoba said, adding the online management system has useful components.

“Even older teachers like me,” Nekoba said, are having fun and are exercising creativity with setting up their virtual classroom, including creating their Bitmoji (a personalized cartoon avatar).

Nekoba said his only real concern about distance learning is whether servers will crash when thousands of students and teachers log on to Canvas simultaneously. And instruction is highly dependent on technology, he said, noting there are also some wonky signal and connectivity issues in certain areas of the valley.

But in the long run, he said, the rush to embrace more technology in education could prove beneficial.

“Luckily, kids grew up with video chat. They know this stuff better than we do,” he said. “I think no matter what we throw at these kids they’re going to figure this out before we do.”

Contact Julie Wootton-Greener at jgreener@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2921. Follow @julieswootton on Twitter.

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