How some Manitoba Hutterite students attend classes over the phone

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AUSTIN — The young voice popping out of the phone in teacher Janet Buhler’s tiny office in Austin Elementary School was not overly impressed with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, then on the federal election campaign trail.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 14/11/2015 (2460 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

AUSTIN — The young voice popping out of the phone in teacher Janet Buhler’s tiny office in Austin Elementary School was not overly impressed with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau, then on the federal election campaign trail.

The first-year teacher was covering interviewing techniques in a Grade 12 English language arts class for a handful of unseen students on two distant Hutterite colonies, and had posed the question, “If we were interviewing Justin Trudeau, what question would you ask him?”

And back it came: “Are you mad?”

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Students of all ages do their separate work in a kindergarten to Grade 8 class at Emerald Hutterite Colony near Gladstone.

Buhler paused, then suggested it might be a more appropriate approach to ask Trudeau to outline his economic policy.

And again came the disembodied student: “He has ridiculous ideas… I’m more of a conservative guy.”

This is how 118 high school students in 23 schools scattered across a wide swath of Manitoba take many of their courses — by telephone.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Janet Buhler teaches an English class to unseen students on two Hutterite colonies.

All but a couple of the schools are on Hutterite colonies which decline to use the sophisticated technology that’s become ubiquitous in distance education, such as computers and video links, allowing teachers and students to see and speak to each other as if they were in a traditional classroom together.

Because nothing in education is ever described simply, it’s called a teacher mediated option (TMO).

“Really, it’s a conference call,” explained Tammy Kruse, the TMO lead teacher and consultant based in Austin.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press Students from Emerald Hutterite Colony play hockey during recess on a warm, fall afternoon Tuesday.

“It’s all audio,” said Randy Chambers, principal of the seven Hutterite schools within Pine Creek School Division that use TMO as a teaching tool for many courses.

Teachers working out of cramped “studios” teach courses ranging from English and social studies to science, geography and drafting through a phone bank connected to as many as 11 schools and 30 students at one time.

Each student has the same enormous binder as Buhler — “Turn to page 48,” she instructs, as unseen hands flip pages — and she has mailed out other written materials, which is also how students get their assignments back to her.

Ruth Bonneville / Winnipeg Free Press High school students Kimberly Waldner (left) and Dianna Waldner from Emerald Hutterite Colony in The Pine Creek School Division take German classes by listening to a teacher from another location.

When the lad expounded on Trudeau, said Kruse, Buhler would know which school he was attending, and with a careful trained ear, “she would recognize him.”

Only Buhler has a laptop, on which she has her lesson plan prepared and types in notes as they go through the class.

“The kids have to be motivated,” he said, pointing out educators have found auditory learning produces keener attention from the students.

“Prior to this, a lot of the colony schools didn’t go past Grade 8,” Chambers said.

Kruse said TMO students have a 97 per cent pass rate, and high school graduation rates are steadily increasing.

Some Hutterite students go on to study education and nursing in university, or take trades at community college.

Joshua Waldner studied education at Brandon University and now teaches at the Emerald Colony school just outside Gladstone.

His school embraces technology, but Waldner has his own little studio to teach German by telephone to another nine colonies.

“I have 18 students taking German,” Waldner said.

Through his phone, and the codes assigned to each school, he can see who is logged on and which school a student who is speaking attends.

“When I was in high school, we only had the telephone,” he said.

Kruse explained Waldner and Buhler get to recognize voices quickly, so they can respond to students by name.

“They can interact and ask questions,” she said.

The teachers also travel to each colony regularly so they can meet the students, who have the option of phoning the teacher later if they’re reluctant to ask questions during class. And they can play back the recorded lessons any time they want.

Emerald students Kimberly Waldner and Dianna Waldner sit in Joshua Waldner’s studio as he teaches German by telephone, essentially having the same experience as their fellow students.

Kimberly knows one of those students on another colony, and said she does just fine learning German by telephone: “It’s what she’s used to.”

Chambers said TMO really got going in 2010, when then-education minister Nancy Allan decreed all Manitoba children must stay in school to age 18, unless they had graduated from Grade 12 earlier.

That led to the consortium based in Pine Creek, which includes Beautiful Plains, Frontier, Prairie Spirit, Sunrise and Turtle River schools divisions. The TMO schools range from just above the U.S. border, to west of Brandon and east of Beausejour. The northernmost school is Peonan Point, a non-Hutterite school in the Frontier School Division.

“It gave us an opportunity to open the door to these colonies” when students were legislated to stay in school, Pine Creek superintendent Brian Gouriluk said from Gladstone. “As long as we have colonies concerned about the transmission of images, there’ll be a need.”

It takes about five minutes to set up each telephone lesson, said Joshua Waldner, who waits for each school to dial in and then checks who’s present.

The colonies that choose to join the public school system enter a distinct relationship in which they build and own their schools and provide maintenance, while the division provides teachers and delivers the children’s education, Chambers said.

“It’s one of communication and respect. Spirituality is their No. 1 focus, Christian values,” but every colony wants its children to receive a good education, he said.

The colonies don’t want their children going to town schools. Chambers said the federal election campaign made it clear Canadian society may not always welcome those who dress differently and whose religion and beliefs are different. “The public school system is definitely not always sensitive to culture,” he said.

Meanwhile, back at Austin Elementary, Buhler decided to try a different tack with her class.

Forget interviewing Trudeau, let’s look at interviewing someone on the colony to get material for a written tribute. Pick someone with a long career in dairy, she suggested: “Who influenced them? What did they do to promote development in the barn, cow health?” she asked.

Their essays will be in the mail.

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

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