Thursday, December 9, 2021
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How Haddam-Killingworth Does Distance Learning

By Kathy Brown.

May 5 was Teacher Appreciation Day, which was part of an overall Teacher Appreciation Week, which goes from Sunday May 3 – Saturday May 9 in 2020. Governor Lamont, who closed schools temporarily earlier this spring, announced on May 5, that we won’t be going back to school this school year. We talked to both parents and teachers in our district about the learning curves, and the changes that were made for Distance Learning amid concerns about the spread of COVID-19.

School buildings closed on May 13, 2020. From pre-K all the way up to the high school, teachers have learned new technology to get lessons out to all students.

“In pre-K, we’re using Seesaw to communicate with our students and families,” explained Stephanie Lundgren. “I record videos and create activities that the kids can respond to via touchscreen, photo, or voice recording. I have also provided my families with a monthly calendar and a physical packet of papers. I emphasize to parents that all materials are optional and they can do whatever they want, whenever they want.”

“Teachers have been incredibly flexible and accommodating of our students’ emotional, learning, and technology needs during this time,” said Rebecca Degnan, a school counselor at Haddam Killingworth Middle School. “Our staff always are, but it’s to a whole new level right now!” She went on to say that the district is prioritizing mental health above all else right now. “School mental health staff are actively engaged in supporting students every day through video chat, phone calls, emails, Google Classroom, and their website, which has supports for parents and students.”

Georganna Munz, a second grade teacher at Killingworth Elementary School, and last year’s Teacher of the Year at KES, said, “It definitely has been a shift in thinking in education. Creativity in engaging our littlest learners through a computer screen can be challenging!”

“Distance learning was extremely challenging at first,” said Rebecca Drew, the mother of three children, a 4th grader, a 2nd grader, and one in preschool.  “Our family was overwhelmed with ensuring our kids would not fall behind. Everything between math and reading to art projects and P.E. logs left parents stressed and unsure of our expectations. Now that we are weeks into distance learning, I feel much more comfortable. RSD17 teachers routinely check in, hold office hours, conduct morning meetings with students, and offer one on one lessons for my kids. I am so impressed how quickly these educators have adjusted to working behind a screen. Some may be more tech savvy than others, however all have been successful in conducting their lessons remotely. We have extremely talented and dedicated teachers in our district, I feel so lucky to have this village of educators on my side.”

The district made sure that everyone had access to tablets, Chromebooks, or laptops.

Some classes are more “hands on” than others, and everyone has had to adapt – teachers, paraprofessionals, counselors, principals, parents, and of course, the children.

Elvie and her art

Katrina Potts, the chorus teacher at HKMS, found a way to keep students (and staff) engaged while also increasing the sense of community at HKMS. She developed and organized a “Masked Singer” competition. People have been encouraged to submit a video of themselves singing while their face is covered by an emoji. Students then guess who the singer is. Students and staff are enjoying the videos.

“There were a few hiccups in the beginning of distance learning as we were all on a steep learning curve in order to flatten the curve of COVID-19,” said Gail Buller, mother of a fifth grader at Haddam Killingworth Intermediate School. “Over the next couple of weeks, however, Google Classroom became easier to navigate and the teachers became better connected with students.” Her daughter goes to a morning meeting for her homeroom, has individualized math instruction, and she said, most assignments include an attached video lesson.

“Most Mondays are overwhelming when we see all the work to be done,” said Gail. “But by Finish-up Friday, we are always done and can look back at the week proudly, realizing just how much we learned.” She was full of praise for the teachers and staff at HKIS. “The teachers aren’t just doing ‘enough,’ they are going above and beyond to make sure that their students are getting everything they will need to start their next grade prepared. We are working hard because we know they are working harder!”

To welcome students back from spring break, HKMS teachers created a video. “As a counselor and a musician, I wanted to find a creative way to send the students a message of support, community, and caring after we found out that our distance learning would be extended beyond two weeks,” said Rebecca Degnan. “I asked HKMS and HKIS staff to learn the choreography to “We’re All In This Together” from High School Musical. Staff who weren’t able to learn it sent a photo of themselves taken during quarantine. I created a video to the song, and we sent it to students the day we returned from April break. My hope is it made them laugh a little and eased their transition back to distance learning.” The video can be viewed here:

Mrs. Munz visiting Chloe


We have heard stories of many teachers going that extra step to connect with the students. Georganna Munz showed up at her students’ houses dressed as a shark, singing the infamous “Baby Shark” song, just to get smiles. “Mrs. Munz has gone above and beyond for her second graders,” said Jennifer Patton, mother of one of those second graders. “Distance learning has been challenging with all the new things they are learning. She makes time for one on one whenever she needs to. She is the perfect balance of silly and structure. I don’t know how we would have gotten through this year without her. She is truly one of the best!”

Zach’s conduction experiment

“My sixth grader, Zach, was trying to understand the concept of conduction for his science class with Mr. Houlton,” said his mother Shawna Goldfarb. “He made a video [but] it turned out he was not quite understanding the concept, and Mr. Houlton saw that. Mr. Houlton called our house about 5:30 that night and spent half an hour working over the phone with him to understand the concept. It was amazing! Zach finally understood it and got an A+ on his assessment.”

Shawna went on to say that one week, Zach and his brother Jake, in eighth grade, both struggled to get motivated to do their school work. She let their Special Ed teacher, Kaitlyn Sunderland know, and Mrs. Sunderland issued a challenge to the boys, “if they work hard and get all their assignments in by the end of the week, they would get their favorite: PIZZA. Sure enough, they both stepped it up and got all their work done and turned in. Guess what we got – Pizza!”

Soren, a seventh grader at HKMS, has sported a mohawk that has been quite a few different colors over the last couple of years. “Soren’s teacher, Mr. White, sent Soren a video to wish him Happy Birthday,” said Jennifer Tassmer, Soren’s mother. “He said to honor Soren’s birthday and all Soren’s changing hair colors, he was inspired to do something for his birthday . . . at which time he pulled off his hat to reveal bleach blond hair! It made Soren’s day. Now that’s love and commitment to teaching and his students!”

I’ve seen stories of scavenger hunts, Fun Fridays, costumed teachers, and other ways that teachers are connecting with students.

Michele Ouellette, Lead Teacher for Student Life at HKMS, has been putting out a calendar of virtual field trips for students, like this one for May: MAY 2020 – VIRTUAL FIELD TRIPS, and has also organized a virtual Field Day, which is part of a national event.

Amy Koepke, a sixth grade teacher at HKMS, has been doing weekly games such as trivia through Google Hangouts, and mails prizes to the winners. “My daughter looks forward to these every week,” said Rebecca Degnan. “But the real prize is the social interaction and connectedness that is fostered by these Hangouts.”

My own ninth grader is reading Shakespeare, taking Biology tests, and logging her activity for Physical Education class.

Mark doing his distance learning

Even as the teachers are creating new lessons, the administrators are already looking ahead to Fall 2020, and the transition back to classroom learning. “When we return, students will be assessed in a way that is not overwhelming to determine strengths and needs so that we can take students from where they are to where they need to be,” said a recent communication to parents. “Curriculum will be adjusted to include review of appropriate priority areas that students experienced remotely and teach into the learning outcomes that students need most.

“I have never seen the staff work harder to teach/support my children,” said Lisa Carlson, parent and co-president of the Burr District Elementary School Parent Teacher Organization. “They have had to think creatively, learn new technology, work way beyond their tradition hours preparing and editing videos, receive work, check in on families, think beyond. We are so lucky to have this school system.”

Take a moment to thank the teachers of our district this week during Teacher Appreciation Week.

Photos provided by parents.

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