General Brown prioritizes staying connected even when apart

  • With limited in-person contact with students and families this school year, staff members at all General Brown schools have been working hard to find ways to engage students during remote learning. They also have added activities to keep students connected to their school community and ensure their social-emotional well-being.

    Opening lines of communication

    Much of the extra effort this school year has been focused on finding ways to communicate with students and their families during remote instruction.

    At the Junior-Senior High School, Interim Principal Karen Denny said teachers, counselors, support staff and administrators have worked to reach out to students and families with phone calls, emails, home visits, mailings and videoconferencing to encourage and support student engagement. Staff has been calling to check in with every fully-remote student and parent, and middle school teachers are taking on mentoring roles to keep students connected. She said the results have been positive, with more students actively participating in school activities. “We are committed to providing the necessary and ongoing effort to keep students moving in the right direction,” she said.

    Brownville-Glen Park Elementary Principal Missie Nabinger said teachers found that some students preferred phone calls to virtual meetings for students, so staff simply adjusted to what the students were comfortable with.

    Elementary teachers also expanded their virtual office hours during the fully-remote period, which they found students used more than when they were coming to school. They also have offered individual student help sessions.

    While space is limited in the district’s buildings because of social distancing guidelines the district must adhere to, Denny said that in mid-January, they were able to coordinate a third day of instruction for 41 students at the Junior-Senior High School. Students were selected based on grades, support services, social-emotional needs, outside agency and teacher and counselor recommendations.

    Making house calls

    Making in-person visits to families’ homes (socially-distanced and masked, of course) also has made a difference in keeping students connected to school even when they aren’t physically attending. Nabinger said she and other staff members have delivered food and class materials, showing families how to log on to virtual classrooms if they were having trouble. She said they want to make sure the school is providing support to not only students, but to parents as well.

    “I think it is important to physically meet with families to build trusting relationships with them,” Nabinger said.  

    Stopping by students’ homes to deliver additional Chromebooks also has been a priority, Dexter Elementary Principal Dave Ramie said. “We wanted to ensure our students could complete the daily lessons and assignments, and we knew families with multiple students needed the extra devices to help keep everyone engaged with their teachers,” he said.

    Embracing technology

    Using some of the online education platforms can be intimidating and cumbersome for some students. Adding a little fun to using them can make all the difference. Ramie said physical education teacher Mike Hartle created a scavenger hunt that asked students to post pictures and messages on the Seesaw platform. “Getting the students more involved on Seesaw led to an increased number of students participating in the class lessons and other activities assigned by their classroom teacher,” Ramie said.

    Other ways teachers have been using technology to engage students include hosting virtual art shows and having special guests attend their online classes.

    Making sure school is still fun

    While many of the regular school activities and celebrations have not been able to go on as they normally would, each General Brown building has adapted events for the virtual world.  

    Ramie said at the elementary level, they have worked to carry on with the activities they would during a “normal” year. That includes themed dress-up days, a dance party, Valentine’s Day parties and a 100th day of school celebration in which students dress up like 100-year-olds. “We felt it was important to keep those traditions going,” he said.

    Nabinger added that even doing things like craft projects online as a group helps bring together the school community. “It promotes school spirit and excites students to come to school or participate virtually with their teachers,” she said.

    Some other examples of fun virtual activities across the district include:

    • At the Junior-Senior High School, Mr. Finley has begun hosting a weekly talk show via WebEx with students and interested staff. The first show had a theme of “Bring Your Pet to School Day” and the second show involved participants playing a game.
    • Mrs. VanBrocklin’s and Mrs. Taylor’s bearded dragon is well-loved by the middle school students. He has his own Google Classroom page, which students love to follow, and he frequently joins videoconference meetings. 
    • At Brownville-Glen Park, Ms. Aumell set up a STEM Valentine’s party, dropping off sealed envelopes to each student’s house. On the day of the party, students were instructed to open the envelopes and participate in several hands-on experiments. 
    • At the Junior-Senior High School, Hannah Cottrell has turned lessons for her Family and Consumer Science class into “Mrs. Food’s Cooking Show.”

    A different approach to special education 

    Providing special education services to students during the pandemic also has required some creative thinking. Director of Student Services Kate Beattie said virtual meetings with teachers have been reassuring to parents. “They knew someone would be available to assist their student with the remote work and to check in to see if they needed any specific support,” she said.

    Beattie said although the district’s speech, occupational and physical therapists were unsure what the response would be to offering these important services in a teletherapy format, they have found that the majority of families were grateful to have the option. “I feel it’s beneficial for families to feel as though, despite the challenges and limitations of remote learning, their students can continue to work on goals and make progress,” Beattie said. Counseling also has been taking place using teletherapy.

    Whether visiting students’ homes to deliver guided reading books or having a one-on-one videoconference, the face-to-face time does more than just boost students’ academic progress. “Everyone has found this time challenging, staff included, and it helps all of us to see the students and connect with them,” Beattie said.