Manitoba teachers parody pop songs, create Survivor challenges to engage housebound students

By | April 29, 2020

Step aside, Weird Al — there’s a new music parody video making the rounds.

Will Penner, a math and guitar teacher at Winnipeg’s Arthur Day Middle School recently created his own version of Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy, transforming the American pop star’s tune into a lesson for his Grade 8 students.

His rendition, called Math Guy, was an attempt to capture the interest of his students, who are learning at home during the coronavirus pandemic, and help some of the terms he uses in the classroom stick, he says.

“I know what they’re doing at home can be seen as somewhat repetitive in terms of worksheets and things like that,” Penner said. 

“I wanted them to kind of go, ‘Oh, there’s something new here and something different.”

Whether they’re dancing and rapping in a YouTube video or creating fun challenges to get students moving, teachers across Manitoba are going to great lengths to hold the interest of children who aren’t able to go to school because of the pandemic.

Many are using technology, including social media, to ensure students can continue learning. Even so, keeping them focused on studies can be tricky, Penner admits.

“I teach math so it can be somewhat trying.”

WATCH | Will Penner’s Billie Eilish parody Math Guy:

Even physical education can get a little dry when students aren’t at school and able to play with their friends.

Maya Diaz-Hammond, a dance and physical education teacher at River Heights School in Winnipeg, was part of a group of people who spearheaded a Survivor-themed gym class challenge for grades 7 and 8.

Every day, teachers post challenges in different categories for students to complete so they can earn points for their homeroom. Individual students are also sometimes selected to compete against other students to earn points for their teams.

Maya Diaz-Hammond is a dance and physical education teacher at River Heights School in Winnipeg. She spearheaded the Survivor-style gym challenge at the school. (Adam Charbonneau/YouTube)

“They really are taking to this idea; a lot of them have gotten their friends to start joining,” Diaz-Hammond said.

Part of the fun comes from seeing what classmates are doing. Videos are sent in almost daily of students taking part in the challenges, she says.

In one challenge, Grade 7 student Trevi Gawletz can be seen jumping over brooms, doing squats with the weight of his large orange cat and punching pillows to get his heart rate up.

“I’ve seen a lot of them commend each other for … great work that they’re doing or a video they sent in — so just feeling that sense of belonging and community still,” Diaz-Hammond said.

WATCH | Diaz-Hammond and fellow teachers at École River Heights School explain the Survivor challenge.

During this tumultuous period, Jennifer Tessier, a Grade 6 teacher at École Viscount Alexander, is making sure some things stay the same.

Every year, the school in the Pembina Trails division holds a talent show. This year will be no different, even with orders in place restricting large gatherings.

Although the school can’t meet, students and staff are sending in videos that show off their talents — singing, dancing, acrobatics, trampoline tricks, etc. — which will eventually be compiled into a private YouTube link for students to watch with their families.

“More than ever we need to have a good laugh and a bit of fun right now. We want to stay connected to our student body as a whole,” Tessier said.

She’s also maintaining classroom routines like speaking in French, greeting every child and asking about weekend plans.

Tessier is also working to ensure her students can get the most from their at-home learning. 

“I’ve encouraged the kids to get up, get dressed, have a routine and draw out what the new normal looks like.”

Penner knows the pandemic will continue for a while and it’s likely students won’t be back at school for some time to come.

Will Penner hopes to make more parody videos to help teach his Grade 8 students math. (Mathopoly Games/YouTube)

But that doesn’t mean they can’t learn something.

Penner has more parody plans in the works.

“My wheels have been spinning at night and I can’t sleep sometimes because I’m thinking, ‘What am I going to do, what am I going to do?'”

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