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Talent teacher adds Lego competition to holiday party

Ready, set build.

Willamette Connections Academy teacher Sarah McQueen of Talent combined the universal and ageless appeal of Legos with her personal adoration for the reality cooking challenge show “Chopped” Friday to create a holiday activity her students could get excited about.

McQueen, an eighth-grade language arts teacher for the online public school, hosted a virtual Lego building contest as part of WillCA’s first annual Wild Winter Festival, a remote version of the traditional classroom holiday parties that typically mark the beginning of winter break.

The contest was one of 30 different games, activities “and other surprises” students participated in during the festival, which also included snowflake art, a gingerbread history lesson, a winter wonderland read-aloud and a winter-themed bingo game.

McQueen said she found the idea online and loved it so much she decided to replicate it, adding a thematic twist. She chose a theme to which she felt every student — it’s a K-12 activity, after all — could relate: “Festival.” Students had 30 minutes to see what they could do.

“And then we’re going to share at the end over our webcams and kind of talk about our creations, what we came up with,” she said prior to the competition. “Then we’re going to vote on which ones we like the most. I chose the word ‘Festival,’ and so whatever they celebrate, that’s something that they can translate into their Lego build.

“I’m excited for it because it’s kind of a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) activity, whereas I’m normally teaching English. It’s kind of different for me. Any kid can do it, any kid can show their creativity. I’m not as great with Legos, but I know kids are and I know they love building. I’m going to show them my little creation and be like, ‘Hey, mine isn’t the best but I know that you guys are going to come up with something awesome so let’s see what you can come up with.’”

McQueen is in her first year with WillCA after working for three years as a public school teacher in the Rogue Valley, and she loves the flexibility that her new job provides both as a mother and as a teacher. The academy is similar to a bricks-and-mortar school in some ways, she said, but different in that it provides the framework for a great education without the rigidity of a typical classroom. To make this work, she said, parental involvement is key.

“I have a curriculum that I defer to and I have a plan for the kids and I build community in my classroom just like I would in a regular classroom,” McQueen said. “But these kids have a lot of choice and a lot of freedom in how they get to structure their day, how they get to learn, how their services are provided to them, and it’s a lot more flexible for our students.

“The other thing is we work in partnership with parents. So the teachers teach lessons, check on grades and go through the curriculum, but the parents are also at home working with us to help their student succeed and we have a lot of contact with parents making sure that we’re all moving in the right direction. I spend a lot of time just on the phone with parents and students during the day, which is something that I wouldn’t necessarily get to do in a classroom because I’d be teaching. And I get those one-on-one conversations with kids that I don’t always get in a regular classroom.”

McQueen has 176 students this school year and says the middle school grade level is, most teachers agree, one of the most enjoyable to teach. One of the keys, she added, is to find ways to make the lessons — and thus the learning — fun. One of the ways she does that is by turning tests into popular game shows like “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” and “Wheel of Fortune.”

It’s important, she said, to let the students know that she’s in their corner, she’s there for support and she also happens to know the content inside and out and can help make it manageable.

Creating games that turn learning into team-building exercises, too, has proven to be effective.

“That’s the biggest part for me,” McQueen said. “Building community and letting them be themselves, being dorky myself and showing them that learning is fun. And I think the learning is secondary to that community building, which is why things like the holiday festival are so important.”

That’s especially the case in 2020, she added. McQueen would know. She had to evacuate her Talent home during the Almeda fire and was forced to improvise and adapt like many others, running her classroom out of a friend’s house while the town was off limits.

Since her students are spread throughout the state, many were living through the same nightmare during wildfire season. The winter festival marked an opportunity to put smiles back on kids’ faces, and for that McQueen was thankful.

“It’s a time to work with your teachers that isn’t with curriculum, so they’re just, ‘Hey, I’m just having fun; I’m just interacting with you,’ and they get to have that community,” she said. “And then they get to share with their peers and it’s whatever age rage. So they’re sharing with multiple age groups, not just their classes that they normally meet with.

“I think that it’s just a way to have fun and build community, get to know a teacher that maybe they’ll have a few years down the line and get excited about taking a class with that teacher. And just to have kids to talk to, too, is huge.”

Joe Zavala can be reached at 541-821-0829 or jzavala@rosebudmedia.com.

Willamette Connections Academy eighth-grade teacher Sarah McQueen of Talent looks through her Lego collection while preparing for the online school's Wild Winter Festival, held virtually Friday. Photo courtesy of Willamette Connections Academy