“One little boy played the violin on his stoop”: These Toronto teachers biked around their neighbourhood for an epic series of porch parties

“One little boy played the violin on his stoop”: These Toronto teachers biked around their neighbourhood for an epic series of porch parties

Katherine Jones and Erin George-Hughes are phys-ed teachers at John Ross Robertson Junior Public School near Avenue Road and Lawrence. When schools closed, they wanted to stay connected to their students, so they organized porch parties in the school’s catchment area, cycling around to visit each family. Here’s how they made it happen.

Erin: A school is a nucleus for children, for families, for teachers, and we know how important it is to have that connection. We were devastated when schools closed in March, but we’re learning new ways to connect with students. I’m maintaining a daily routine of waking up early, showering, meeting with students online and working out. It has helped me tremendously, but I really miss the interaction with my students, families and colleagues. There’s no replacing that.

Katherine: Homeroom teachers have Google Classrooms set up, and they’re video conferencing with their students on a daily basis. But for us, as rotary teachers, it’s harder to connect with kids during this time of remote learning. Occasionally, homeroom teachers will invite us to join in on a Google Meet session for half an hour. We’ll talk about things like healthy snacks and what the kids are doing to stay physically active.

Erin: Katherine and I have also been filming exercise videos on my back deck. We put out a two-metre plank of wood so we can social distance. We’ve been creating two videos a week for the kids to do at home. They’re about 30 minutes long.

Katherine: We’ve done some circuits. We’ve done some dances. We did a spring circuit recently where we were flapping like butterflies, jumping like frogs, hopping like bunny rabbits and growing like blossoms.

Erin: I was sore for two days after that, by the way.

Katherine: After a few weeks of doing these videos, we wanted even more of a connection with the community. We were really missing the kids. So we started brainstorming on Erin’s deck one day after filming a video. I remember hearing about a teacher who biked around the neighbourhood to see his students. So we decided to do that and encourage families to have porch parties when we visit. We suggested they decorate their porches and dress up in their John Ross spirit wear, which are red T-shirts with the school’s name.

Erin: We wanted to get the kids engaged, so we challenged them to do 10 chicken jacks when they saw us.

Katherine: A chicken jack is like a modified jumping jack. You tuck your arms in like a chicken wing, and it’s easier for little kids to do. We do it in gym class so the kids are familiar with it. And they love doing it because they look silly. We challenged them to see if they could collectively do 2,000 chicken jacks that afternoon.

Erin: We set our first date for Monday, April 20, at 1 p.m. We posted a digital flyer on all of the students’ Google Classrooms. The vice-principal also tweeted and emailed it out to parents.

Katherine: We mapped out our route ahead of time. We wanted to go down every street in our catchment area. The bikes made it quicker to get around and easy for us to stop and have quick conversations with the kids and their families. Plus, we’re phys-ed teachers, so it’s important to us to be active and model physical fitness. We were going to bike on opposite sides of the street to maintain social distancing.

Erin: My sister happens to live on the same street as the school, so we started out at her house. I went a day early to decorate our bikes in her garage. I had some rubber chickens from the school, which we use as props for games, so I attached them onto our bikes. I also decorated our bikes with ribbons and pom-poms. I borrowed my son’s wireless speaker and put it in the bike basket. I created a playlist for the day with all sorts of cheerful music like “Don’t Worry Be Happy,” “Shiny Happy People” and “Happy” by Pharrell Williams.

Katherine: We were definitely nervous going into it. It was hard to know exactly how many families were going to participate.

Erin: It was overcast in the morning, but by 1 p.m, the clouds parted and the sun shone magnificently. It was like it was meant to be. We rode down the street and right away we saw so many families. Everybody was out in their John Ross spirit wear. There were colourful posters in windows. Our school colour is red, and it was just a sea of red every time we turned a corner. Everyone joined in on the fun—students, younger siblings, parents, grandparents. I think some family pets were even involved. It was beautiful.

Katherine: One family waved a big flag with the school’s name on it. We saw so much great sidewalk art, saying “We miss school” and “We miss our teachers.” There were kids that were playing music on their front porch: the brother was on his violin, and his sister was playing the cello. I had tears in my eyes. It was beautiful that they were out playing music for the community.

Erin: We were a little stressed because we got behind schedule. We wanted to make sure we got to everyone and we didn’t leave any child or family out. The whole thing ended up taking four hours. But what ended up happening was that families stayed out the entire afternoon. I had a cowbell that I was ringing—it was excellent for warning families that we were on our way.

Katherine: We visited more than 200 families in total, so we definitely met our goal of more than 2,000 chicken jacks. Our voices were raspy by the end from cheering and shouting to people on their porches for four hours.

Erin: We slept well that night, for sure. But it was pure joy, the entire afternoon. It was glorious. We left thinking wow, that was incredible.

Katherine: We’re going to keep doing community events every few weeks. We did another porch party last week, during Children’s Mental Health Week. We challenged students to design a poster and come up with a cheer to show gratitude and appreciation for front-line workers. They’re superheroes, so we wore capes in their honour.

Erin: I love the effect that these porch parties are having on our school, our community, ourselves and the kids. Anything we can do to stay positive during this time–we want to keep spreading the joy.