From his unfinished basement to living rooms around the state, Southern Regional High School’s Bill Smith took middle school students on a tour of the Underground Railroad in a new educational program that debuted this week on public access television.
Smith draped a blanket against a wall and propped lamps on paper towels, their shades flipped for lighting, to create a makeshift studio last week to record his first lesson for NJTV’s first day of “Learning Live,” a daily program featuring third- through sixth-grade lessons taught by Garden State teachers.
“I know for adults this has been such an unprecedented horrible time. No one knows what’s going on. It’s unprecedented in its level of tragedy and disruption to our lives. I can only imagine that feeling for a sixth grader, or fifth grader or fourth grader,” Smith said.
The program, a partnership between NJTV, the New Jersey Education Association and the New Jersey Department of Education, was created to provide more opportunities for learning during the statewide school closings caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, especially for students who may not have technology at home for remote learning.
“There’s a lot of students who don’t have the remote online capabilities that often one would need to have this full educational experience, so this is such a great way to bridge the digital divide,” Smith said. “The hope is that most students will have access to a television.”
NJTV Learning Live is scheduled to run until May and can continue into mid-June if needed. NJTV General Manager John Servidio said the program aligns with the station’s mission to serve the community.
“We can extend lessons from teachers’ homes to students across the Garden State,” Servidio said.
Smith, of Brick Township, teaches 10th-grade history at Southern Regional, but previously taught seventh-grade history at the junior high school there.
His lesson incorporated his colleagues, Dan Dreher and Dan Wasilewski.
A former Ocean County Teacher of the Year and a finalist for 2019 state Teacher of the Year, Smith said he was contacted by the Department of Education to participate.
Although he no longer taught at the middle school level, Smith said he decided to adapt a lesson that could be used in both middle school and high school.
In three days, Smith developed a lesson that incorporated New Jersey’s Amistad Curriculum, state learning standards on the Underground Railroad and the dissertation he is currently working on about fugitive slaves.
Using Google Earth and documents and pictures, Smith’s lesson took students on a tour from northern Delaware through New Jersey to New York City. He had his AP History students help him do research for the lesson.
Smith said he has heard a lot of positive feedback from colleagues and on social media from those who watched last Monday’s show.
“A few people reached out to me on Twitter and said how meaningful it was for their children, which was so cool,” he said, adding that some sent him videos and pictures of their students following along with the lesson.
Another local teacher was featured Friday, Russell O Brackman Middle School chorus teacher Erich Wald.
“In the wake of the COVID-19 restrictions that will likely keep our children out of their classrooms for weeks to come, we are extremely proud to have Mr. Wald take part in this innovative program,” said Barnegat Superintendent of Schools Brian Latwis. “Developing alternate ways to teach students is a challenge, but everyone is chipping in, and this is another exemplary way we can adapt during this time.”
NJTV Learning Liveoffers four programs daily, Monday through Friday and will also be live-streamed at NJTVonline.org.