June 2020

Distance Learning Success


Looking for the silver lining in a COVID cloud, or making lemonade out of viral lemons? Choose your metaphor for what’s happening around Santa Cruz County now that we’ve parented and educated through quarantine.

Educators around the county, at first teaching by the seats of their pajama pants, not only learned to adjust and cope, but also to consider the bright side of this new teaching model they were thrust into. Below we share insights and successes from preschool through high school, from public school to private school.

Our teachers are a resourceful, committed bunch!

Westlake Elementary

As a paraeducator, I don’t usually get to interact with the parents of my students. I’m not in the IEP meetings or parent-teacher conferences. However, the distance learning model has changed that. Classified staff like myself have been asked to reach out to families directly to help them support their children’s learning at home. It’s been an “all hands on deck” approach to do what we can to equitably deliver education during the pandemic. The unexpected silver lining for me has been that I’ve gotten to work really closely with a handful of my students’ parents. One mother shared with me that her son has an amazing auditory memory and is able to learn anything presented to him in the form of a song. What a wonderful insight! I was able to craft a math lesson around Hap Palmer singing the doubles addition facts and a language arts session featuring sight-words set to music. The mom and I text back and forth about what is working and what needs tweaking. There is a genuine feeling that educators and parents are collaborating to help students learn at home. I hope these strengthened relationships carry over into regular school settings.

Stephie Tucker, Paraeducator SPED

Monte Vista Christian School

Remote learning with a student population that is spread across the US and the globe has its challenges. At MVC, one of our chemistry teachers has been approaching chemistry in creative ways, reaching students here, New York, Washington, China, Taiwan, and in South Korea. Classes are being held at the scheduled PST and then again at 6:00 am, 7:00 pm weekdays, and on weekends so that all students have access to learning and in-person attention from their instructor. Not only has this personal touch made a difference, Mrs. Tarr has had to facilitate at-home labs, so that students can apply what they are learning, reinforce underlying concepts, and prepare for AP exams.

In one lab, Mrs. Tarr challenged the students to consider the ingredients and reactions they have studied to make a soap recipe. One student not only completed the at-home lab but also made additional soap using her personal “recipe” to take to her neighbors as gifts to encourage them during shelter-in-place restrictions. Consider the challenge of a chemistry teacher in this unexpected season. Mrs. Tarr, along with many of our teachers, have been able to flex with unforeseen circumstances and creatively teach—to not only apply advanced concepts but to also see their students’ learning extend beyond the classroom to bless their community. This big investment has important outcomes.

Susie Swing, High School Principal

Ocean Alternative Education Center, Live Oak

Every year, Ocean Alternative students look forward to the winter theater program.  With the lead of Terri Steinmann from West Performing Arts, the magic of theater fills the classroom for 8 weeks.  Our play this year was a spoof of Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”  The students were in their final rehearsals when the district announced that schools would close for a week.  The performance was scheduled to be on March 20. 

Initially, the students committed to reviewing their lines until school would be opened again.  When the news came that school was closed for the rest of the year, many of our students were deeply saddened.  We had several eighth graders who were hoping for the opportunity to shine in front of an Ocean Alternative audience one more time.  Ocean Alternative teacher, Deb Bell, recognized the importance of this performance for her students.  She researched and practiced and gathered the students together on a live virtual chat to record an oral performance of her actors.  It was a celebration of determination and commitment by Deb Bell and the whole acting crew.

Mary Sauter, Principal

Good Shepherd Catholic School

Our creative PS/PK teachers took a different spin on the “Flat Stanley” idea and made “Flat Teachers” that were mailed out to students. The idea came about so the students would feel a sense of “closeness” to their teachers during our distance learning. They are challenged to build castles for their teachers, read books with them, sing songs, etc. The hope is for them to find a little comfort and fun. To make sure each students’ wishes come true, the teaching team does birthday drive-bys.  They Zoom once a week for both classes, having virtual scavenger hunts, guessing games and individual and small group Zooms of 4 for social emotional support.  In fact, they also provide virtual childcare while parents need to make dinner.

From Maureen, one of our parents:

I am a big fan of the Facebook page. As much as I am trying to minimize screen time, I get on it as often as I can and have my son watch the videos. We ALL enjoy seeing you all through the videos and it doesn’t feel like we haven’t seen you in so long, so that’s been a great highlight in our days. I’m a fan of the coloring pages and links to ideas, I’m going to cut out the cupcakes today.  You all are so creative and quick to create such a wonderful resource for us – THANK YOU!  Thanks SO much for ALL you do! You are amazing!

Kristen Barkman, Preschool Director

Pacific Collegiate School, Santa Cruz

All of the PCS staff’s first concerns were for our students, and how we can help them. A few of my colleagues and I, from the history department, realized that many of our students would be producing primary sources of their experience during this time, such as poems, songs, videos, and writings. We wanted to craft an opportunity for students to enjoy and create their own primary sources of history. Our amazing AP US History teacher, Kelsey Flood, really took the idea to heart and let it blossom!

Here is what was written about Kelsey in our newsletter:

Kelsey Flood understands very clearly the demands of being a PCS student, having graduated from the school herself in 2009.  When the Shelter-in-Place order first came into effect, her immediate concern was for the mental well-being of her students, and how she could best help them to cope.

“I wanted to find a meaningful way to check in with my class, to discover how they were dealing with this unprecedented situation,” explains Kelsey. 

Ever the historian, Kelsey came up with the idea of asking the students to produce their own primary sources relating to the pandemic. “Our students are living through a historical event of enormous proportions, and I wanted them to create their own primary source that they could look back on in years to come. Each day in APUSH we analyze different materials for historical context, this project gave them the opportunity to create their own.”

Kelsey needed this to be a task that her students could enjoy, something that would both calm and inform. She told her class that she was happy to review any kind of material that they wanted to give her, never anticipating just how diverse that would be. To date Kelsey has read poetry and diary entries; viewed video chronicles and works of art; listened to reformatted music and original compositions and even participated in a COVID-19 workout routine!

Visit the PCS students’ site! https://sites.google.com/pcscharter.org/apush

Lauren Fitts, history teacher

Monarch Community School, Santa Cruz

After continued education and professional development around Restorative Justice, Monarch Community School continued to brainstorm ways of keeping their school community connected. One of the ways they did this was by creating the opportunity for students from the entire school to be part of a virtual concert, performance and art gallery. This performance and art gallery Zoom (hosted by Monarch teacher Shannon Blake) gave students the chance to share any musical talent, dance skills or artistry. Students joined in and shared their creativity in a variety of ways. It ranged from a Kindergartener playing Sonatina on the piano, a second grader playing the drums, a third grader teaching about her Baile Folklórico clothing, another showing his COVID 19 new friend—the cardboard box robot—to the fourth-grader singing Karaoke to their favorite song. It was a beautiful opportunity to connect the school and families, have students be spontaneous, and have a supportive audience while watching other Monarch students showcase their talents. It was the perfect opportunity to forget about the current pandemic and create a fun platform for community connection!

Michelle McKinney, Principal, Branciforte Small Schools

Mount Madonna School

 On May 1 in Mount Madonna School’s U.S. History class, sophomore students had a “guest speaker”: Lin-Manuel Miranda! Miranda is a composer, lyricist, singer, rapper, actor, producer, and playwright, widely known for creating and starring in the Broadway musicals In the Heights and Hamilton. As part of the College Board’s AP Master Class series, Miranda agreed to a live review session for students around the world who are taking the Advanced Placement United States History exam remotely from their homes later this month.

“I had my students Zoom in live with me so we could watch it together and discuss it afterwards,” shared teacher Tiffany Wayne. “It wasn’t so much AP test prep or tips that Miranda offered, but he gave a fascinating and helpful talk about how he was inspired by historical events and used historical sources and documents in his own work, and how different sources might tell different parts of the story. At one point he explained how the songs and scenes for “Helpless” and “Satisfied” in the Hamilton musical tell two different sides of the same event, first from Eliza’s and then Angelica’s viewpoints.”

On May 4, junior and senior students “embarked” on Zoom interviews with Washington, D.C. leaders. They concluded an array of interviews with such luminaries as former Secretary of State George Shultz, Senator Joe Manchin, Congressman Jimmy Panetta, Alyse Nelson, president of Vital Voices, and Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leader on May 8, and the “results,” chronicled on a student blog, reveal new perspectives, astute observations and unanticipated insights. 

“This year’s journey required us to imagine a new “double-distance” learning effort that took us into the virtual realm,” reflected  teacher SN Ward Mailliard.

“Along the way we discovered that this process is really working,” he added.  “We are doing something way ahead of the curve for students and it is really helping them to focus and thrive.”


San Lorenzo Valley Middle School

I am one of the fortunate teachers.

  • My own kids are old enough to be semi-independent students
  • SLVUSD instantly supplies teachers and students with supplies and time to quickly transition to Distance Learning for the duration of this school year
  • Collaboration continues within my school and department through video conference and phone calls
  • Teaching technology and math online were easy subjects to transition to online learning
  • Amazing parents, who have been stretched beyond their limits, have embraced the restoration of the family unit
  • And most of all, my students are living out the ideas of the “Growth Mindset” philosophy to persevere until they find a way to learn and complete a task to the best of their ability.

Overall, my successful students continue to be successful. The students who struggle throughout the year are having an even tougher time. Yet the biggest surprise are the few students who have chosen to be more successful and are independently completing assignments, communicating with me as their teachers, and being willing to re-submit assignments for higher grades.

I find students do best with these options are available to them:

  • Creative assignments like exploring Google Earth
  • Getting immediate feedback in Schoology and multiple times to redo the math assignment
  • Being given a choice on a topic or how to submit an assignment
  • Providing more time each Monday to complete work
  • Tapping into creative resources such as Virtual Field Trips to Mars, Africa, theme parks, National Parks, and museums
  • Providing plenty of positive feedback energizes students, families, administration, and the teacher who gets to send encouraging words
  • Encouraging communication of every kind through email, comments, video conferences, or phone calls

In many ways, these are the same effective practice teaching strategies educators practice every day in our classrooms. The challenge for educators is to utilize technology to create unique ways to communicate, inspire, motivate, and support all of our students, families, and staff from our own Shelters in Place.

Karen Snedeker, SLVMS teacher

San Lorenzo Valley Elementary

It has been a challenge to get everyone a chance to speak and respond to each other in Zooms like they would in person. Luckily, Julia Ordahl (one of our 5th grade teachers) found a website called FlipGrid that allows teachers to create a topic and the students record videos in response. They can reply to each other’s videos as well and add links and gifs to the images. They have been a great way to stay connected and keep some of our favorite things in place (like debates and book talks!). We use them almost daily!

Well, we realized right away that the kids could use it to connect. We started with questions like ‘how did you get active or get outside this week?’ and had so much participation! We followed it up with the students using it to show off their debate skills—and we were blown away by their ability to hear them talk about their trampolines, dog walks, and bike rides and then watch them shift right into academic territory by laying out all the ways that plastic bottles are harmful and giving their calls to action. We miss all of these aspects of their personalities and it is a great way to see the different sides of them and for them to see each other.

Honestly, it is such a fun tool. I made a ‘what weird thing do you miss about school’ flipgrid and I can’t watch it without crying—they miss the chairs, the desks, the transition songs we use—just so many little details. Makes me wonder what we will appreciate when we all return. So much we took for granted before!

Megan Glover Fetzer, 4/5 grade teacher

Back to Suki:

I’d like to end with a feature of one of my graduating seniors’ teachers at Harbor High School. As my son and I left the school on the day of this writing with his cap and gown, he told me about what happened last weekend. His biotechnology teacher, Nehal Pfeiffer, had gone to each and every student’s house—almost—and delivered cookies.

She had only stopped after 13 hours of deliveries because she ran out! (It’s a secret to my son right now, but he will know once he reads this that she actually has a special plan for his treat.)

Why did she do this?

“At first in the Zoom meetings their faces were their normal faces. After a couple weeks things started to change. The last week I did Zoom they looked like they were dazed. They were almost sleepwalking. The joy and the banter was gone and a couple of kids weren’t showing up.

“I wanted to see that they were OK. How do you ask are you OK in a Zoom meeting without putting them on the spot? I wanted to have the opportunity to ask if they needed anything in a private setting and to give them a little distraction.

“No one has knocked in my door in nine weeks! I thought, maybe this will give them something to talk about. Give them a little energy to finish out the school year with a little mindset reset.”

Ms. Pfeiffer, with the help of one of her students, gave to her students what she hopes that other teachers will give her own children someday: a hello, a smile, and an acknowledgement that even when we’re sheltering in place, we’re in this together.

Thank you, teachers of Santa Cruz County!

Suki Wessling is a local writer, teacher, and musician. Her two children graduated from Santa Cruz public schools, but in their years of education they got loving attention from teachers at parochial schools, charter schools, private schools, homeschool programs, and Cabrillo College. Read more at www.SukiWessling.com.

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