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Thorsen returns to River Ridge classroom virtually

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ELIZABETH–Kim Thorsen retired from teaching literature at River Ridge Middle School last spring in the midst of the pandemic, and even then it was clear she would find a way to continue to educate. Thorsen has found a way to do that with the assistance of Doug Vandigo and his River Ridge Middle School social studies class.

Utilizing the classroom app Seesaw, Thorsen created a program called Virtual Visitor. She records a lesson weekly that allows students to use critical thinking skills to answer a question from Thorsen. Even though the videos aren’t live, Thorsen responds live as students respond in the chat on Seesaw.

“History is important. That is why you are studying it in Mr. Vandigo’s room and it has some value and significance in the 21st century. You are creating history,” Thorsen told the students in the opening video.

Thorsen reached out to Vandigo with the idea for Virtual Visitor.

“She doesn’t want to be done with education,” said Vandigo. “She isn’t retired and gone. She had hoped that she could come in and help and do different activities, but we can’t do some of that this year. She thought this would be a great way to stay connected even during the pandemic.”

Vandigo also thinks Thorsen is nudging him into exploring more technology in the classroom, which she used often.

“It started because as much as I have enjoyed retirement, I miss the kids,” said Thorsen. “Since visitors aren’t allowed in the building, this was an idea that popped into my head.”

After she retired from River Ridge, the Elizabeth Historical Society asked Thorsen to serve as its education coordinator, and Thorsen sees the Virtual Visitor program as a way to blend that position with her background as a teacher.

Thorsen’s first few programs will be identifying objects of the past and having students guess the use.

“It is like a vlog and they can answer questions to it. (The app) allows me to interact with them in the moment,” said Thorsen. “It is allowing students to use deductive thinking to figure out the object and allows them to do more critical thinking and to research the item.”

On Fridays, Thorsen presents the item and on Monday, she reveals the answer.

Students have to make three comments. The first comment is their guess and why they thought that their answer was possible. Thorsen cues the students throughout the process and prompts them to tell her why.

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On Mondays, Thorsen also picks a few of the guesses from students to read aloud.

“She talks to me beforehand about certain kids to call out and mention their comments during the presentation. It is kind of like Romper Room when I was growing up,” said Vandigo.

Last week’s item was a potato ricer that a descendant received as a wedding gift.

“The kids didn’t figure it out,” said Vandigo. “They thought it was anything from a fertilizer to a grass spreader to a diaper press. She made them dig a little bit and explained how it worked.”

“I would like to get into the historical society museum and showcase some of their items and bring to light the local history for the kids,” said Thorsen. “A lot of time a history book is full of history but none of it is local. We think we have to go somewhere for history, but it is right in our back yard.”

Thorsen is enjoying the time she is able to spend virtually with the students and the students are enjoying the process as well.

“It is keeping me connected with the kids, which is what I always wanted to do after I retired,” said Thorsen. “It fulfills the desire to stay in touch and stay connected, especially since the seventh and eighth graders I still know. They all seem to enjoy it. It is outside the box thinking.”

Thorsen has more ideas for what the future of Virtual Visitor might hold.

“I want to visit some local historical locations and do a ‘Where in the World is Mrs. Thorsen?’” said Thorsen. “Those are my next steps.”

Vandigo is thankful for the time that Thorsen has spent on this project and said the students are really enjoying the activity. He said after the first day, all of the students gave him a thumbs up and couldn’t wait for the next one.

“We can’t take field trips right now, but this allows students to explore and keep the history local,” said Vandigo.

The experience also allows for another voice to come into the classroom which is difficult during the pandemic. The lessons are also allowing students to see a different side of history.

“It is making that historical connection,” said Thorsen. “History isn’t always about the famous battle and people but it is the common, everyday person carving out their lives.”

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