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Ontario dairy educators return to classrooms virtually

For long-time dairy educator Sue Wideman, watching her students discover something new about dairy farming is one of the best parts of her job.

“I love how the kids’ faces light up when they see the inflatable balloon Holstein I bring to their classroom, the funny faces they make when they smell corn silage and the never-ending questions they have for me,” she says.

Like many other dairy educators across Ontario, COVID-19 restrictions meant she would not be able to return to the classroom and see those faces for a while, and it meant Dairy Farmers of Ontario’s (DFO) Dairy Education Program would have to quickly pivot.

“It was challenging, but the crisis pushed us to expedite the development of digital education modules, including the digital Learning Management System and Dairycraft.ca,” says Audrie Bouwmeester, DFO’s manager of school programs.

TORONTO DAIRY EDUCATOR Emma Van Buskirk presenting to students in Toronto, Ont.

Now, the dairy education team is excited to be back in the classroom virtually. To date, dairy educators have conducted more than 82 virtual presentations since the beginning of the year.

The announcement comes as good news for educators like Wideman. For the last 14 years, Wideman has been interacting with students face to face, conducting around 400 presentations a year at schools throughout York Region. When the pandemic forced the world to embrace virtual meetings, the idea of going virtual was hard for Wideman to grasp.

“How was I going to gauge the students’ reaction to what I was teaching when they are just tiny squares on my computer screen?” she says.

But demand for dairy educators to return to classrooms was overwhelming. She says teachers reached out requesting virtual presentations—in one school alone, she had 15 requests for presentations. Just like many who are new to virtual meetings, technology was Wideman’s biggest concern.

“I know exactly how to transition from one activity to another in person, but what happens if I can’t get the movie to play when I go to share it virtually?” Wideman says. “I practised in front of my computer for more hours than I care to share.”

One of the biggest lessons she learned during the pandemic came from one of her eight-yearold students.

“While doing a virtual presentation, I mentioned to the teacher I couldn’t see all the students,” she says. “One student named Luke proceeded to talk me through the steps I needed to follow in order to see all the students— teaching this old dog a new trick.”

More than 20 virtual presentations later and Wideman is pleased to have experienced very little issues with technology. She says she’s had a great experience presenting virtually, and the positive feedback from teachers and students has been heartwarming.

“I look forward to the day when I can go into the classroom again and engage the students in person, but for now, I will happily teach them about the dairy industry from the comfort of my kitchen table,” she says.

To assist educators in conducting virtual presentations, DFO is providing resources to allow them to continue offering curriculum-based presentations for teachers and students.

Educators have access to a new Growing Up Dairy initiative, which launched in January. The program allows students to follow the growth and development of a newborn dairy calf without leaving their classroom. For schools that are registered, educators will send biweekly emails with updates on the calf, as well as information on topics related to dairy farming, such as harvesting, vet visits, structures of the farm and more.

Educators can also collect and answer students’ questions and provide extension activities for the teacher. All the information provided connects to specific curriculum expectations and subject areas, such as language, math, health and science.

“The ability to provide virtual presentations is very exciting and will help us modernize our longstanding program and continue to offer curriculum-based dairy education for teachers and students, regardless of whether they can physically be in the classroom,” Bouwmeester says.

ONTARIO DAIRY EDUCATOR Dawn Stewart engaging students during a virtual presentation in Toronto, Ont.
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