Educators & Heroes

HOW CHARLOTTESVILLE TEACHERS ARE GOING ABOVE & BEYOND

​​If we could have a regular Halloween this year, I would want to see lines of kids marching up to my door dressed as teachers, grocery store clerks, doctors and nurses, because these are the superheroes of right now. When the pandemic first struck, we thought we’d be able to shut down regular life for a few weeks, flatten the curve and hop right back into “normal.” Instead, six months out, we’re still wrestling with the best practices for how to meet our community’s most basic needs.

As schools begin to reopen—a lot of them virtually—it’s the perfect time to reflect on the extraordinary efforts teachers have been making, and will continue to make, to meet the needs of our children.

​Back in March, teachers had only a few weeks’ warning that they would have to recreate the remainder of their carefully planned school year into an online format. Faced with new technologies to master, special community needs to meet and a myriad of challenges that come with working from home, teachers dove into creativity, bent over backwards with flexibility and figured out how to be present for their students. The near-instant switch to a virtual classroom challenged educators to master new technology and adapt lessons to the venue at breakneck speed. “It was a quick learning curve with some ups and downs,” says Children’s Specialist Anne Lindberg, who is also the interim branch manager at the Scottsville branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library, as she recalls having to manage Zoom’s ins and outs to be able to continue library programming.

 

 

How Local Teachers Are Reaching Their Students

For Lindsay Lowdon, a sixth through eighth grade language arts teacher at Charlottesville Catholic School (CCS), “I had to learn how to have meaningful conversations on Google Chat with kids [and] to learn quickly what would … be positive and worthy learning exercises for these kids, since I couldn’t be in front of them and get a dialog going.”

​How can you teach kids who can’t access that technology at home though? “We’re glad that our outside area, with tables and chairs, allows [Scottsville-area] families Internet access if they need it,” Lindberg says.

“I really miss seeing the look in the kids’ eyes as they walk through my door,” says Lowdon.

When Elena Kryzhanovskaya, an ESL teacher at Walker Upper Elementary School, learned other teachers were handing out Chromebooks to their students, “I realized I could do that, too. I started delivering Chromebooks and Wi-fi hotspots.” Just as inspired when she heard other teachers were delivering lunches, “I went to the distribution centers and handed out face masks to our kids and adults,” says Kryzhanovskaya.

​Another major hurdle for teachers and their students was the loss of human contact. “I really miss seeing the look in the kids’ eyes as they walk through my door,” says Lowdon. “It tells me volumes about how available they are as learners on that particular day.” For Kryzhanovskaya, “the biggest things I was missing were the hugs and smiles.” Tina Panella, a lead teacher for Head Start at Hollymead Elementary agrees, adding, “The classroom becomes so intimate by March.” Even at the libraries, “Our storytimes are based on … the ‘mood in the room,’” says Lindberg.

​Lots of screen time can be fatiguing, too. Charlottesville Day School rising sixth grader Sid says, “At first, it was really annoying because being online for so long can give you big headaches, but I figured you wouldn’t get headaches if you went outside and laid down.” Yet, this kind of flexibility often turned pandemic lemons into lemonade.

 

Lemons Into Lemonade

Making the most out of the virtual capabilities, teachers and librarians collaborated and worked towards bringing learning opportunities to students at home. One collaboration among local children’s’ librarians yielded a special aquarium “visit.” “During normal times,” Lindberg says, “this would’ve been a live visit with a few creatures in a tank. The live virtual version enabled hundreds of people to attend, and it was also possible to see some of the animals that the presenter wouldn’t have been able to bring to an in-person program.” Opening up the chat feature on Zoom also allowed participants to ask lots of questions.

​For her Hollymead students, Panella turned her class’s weekly online newspaper into an interactive platform where parents posted videos of students completing assignments, which in turn motivated other students and gave them a chance to see each other. Panella also launched “Science Fridays,” where she would do an easy experiment. “I’d always use food coloring because it made it more fun,” she says. “It created opportunities for families to see … ways we can learn with everyday objects in the home.”

​Over time, Lowdon found that the virtual dynamic prompted her to deepen the discussion questions she prepared for her classes, yielding some profound student responses to George Orwell’s Animal Farm. “I thought up questions they could relate to modern day events,” she says. When she assigned them to write allegories of their own, she says, “I learned so much about the issues that were foremost in their minds, issues related to bullying or climate change or fears associated with that—some of these very personal causes these children champion.”

​For Kryzhanovskaya, “The most creative thing I did was make videos of American History topics, like the American Revolution and the Civil War. My own kids [ages 5, 8 and 10] were the actors,” which kept her kids entertained (and learning) and was a huge hit with her students. Kryzhanovskaya also took part in a special Google Meets event, where she and other ESL teachers talked about their own cultures, building on an annual fall tradition of International Day where students celebrate their cultures of origin. “I was able to share about Pysanky eggs, which I had just decorated for Easter,” she says. Originally from Kiev, Kryzhanovskaya was an ESL student herself at Venable Elementary.

 

Personal Touches

Teachers spent a lot of energy finding ways to make their virtual classrooms more personal. “Teachers are personal,” Panella says. “Teaching is personal. I zoomed with one kid just to watch him ride his scooter around the room.” Nurturing these individual bonds is central to the work. “I’ve reached out to families to find out what books they might … want, and since [they] can’t come into the library to browse [at the time of the interview],” Lindberg shares, “I’ve picked out books for them, allowing us to introduce more children’s titles to families than they might’ve normally known about.”

​Lowdon says, “I added extra learning sessions during the course of my day. If I put out certain assignments and made myself available … when they worked on it, that added time really made a difference. Sometimes, I’d just offer a kid … a chance to work on something [one-on-one] together if it was a particularly hard assignment.”

​Sharing books with students was another way Kryzhanovskaya reached out. Well into the summer at the time of this interview, “I’m still going once a week to a student’s front yard to hear her read to me and to talk about books I bought her. That’s something fun, for me and for her. She knows that I’m coming to check on her. She’s not alone.”

Lindberg shares, “I’ve picked out books for them, allowing us to introduce more children’s titles to families than they might’ve normally known about.”

​Grander moments begot grander displays, too. Remember all those signs that cropped up in yards of graduating students across our community? For CCS students, “Every middle school teacher got in his or her car and created a caravan and literally went to every eighth grader’s house,” says Lowdon. “We put a sign in the yard and a bag of gifts, and stood in their front yard and called out accolades. We drove for 9 hours straight… from inner Charlottesville to North Garden to Waynesboro to Gordonsville to Keswick.”

​Charlottesville Day School celebrated its end of the year with families caravanning by campus. “Teachers would be spread out around the sidewalks, and they’d make signs and have balloons and cheer for people as they drove past,” says Sid.

​Not every pivotal event stems from a happy one, though. After George Floyd’s death sparked international outrage and infused new energy into ongoing movements for racial justice, Kryzhanovskaya instituted a special summer read-aloud program featuring BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) authors and characters, and she plans to extend antiracist reading programming into the future.

 

Looking Forward

Many area schools will kick off their new years virtually. This time, teachers and students will face the challenge armed with experience, earned wisdom and fresh ideas. Among other new programs, Lindberg hopes “to introduce a format for kids to review books and recommend them to other kids.” Kryzhanovskaya is “looking forward to incorporating some mindfulness strategies with my students, mainly because I am going to need them!”

​Like many teachers, Panella says, “I greatly prefer the classroom, but I saw families banding together. I saw parents really working hard with their kids. We can do this.” So, families, reach out to your teachers. “Teachers will be very open to that,” Panella says, and with that participation, “there’s a lot of room for success and a lot of happy surprises.”

 

Tips for Parents & Caregivers

Many thanks to the educators who contributed to this helpful list: Elena Kryzhanovskaya, ESL Teacher at Walker Upper Elementary School; Anne Lindberg, Children’s Specialist and Interim Branch Manager at the Scottsville branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library; Lindsay Lowdon, sixth- through eighth-grade Language Arts Teacher at Charlottesville Catholic School; and Tina Panella, a Lead Teacher for Head Start at Hollymead Elementary School.

  • Follow a school-day schedule. Kids like structure, and it helps them succeed.
  • Build time into the schedule for exercise, going outside and getting away from screens.
  • Set up a workspace for your child. It can be quite simple, but a specific space can invite them in and help them focus.
  • Whenever possible, be available when they’re working on their schoolwork and encourage them.
  • Ask your children about what they’re learning and reading.
  • Motivate them with little rewards.
  • Communicate with teachers yourself, and encourage your child to reach out to teachers when they need help and to keep in touch.
  • It’s okay for kids to get bored. Encourage them sometimes to figure out how to solve that problem without resorting to screens.
  • Partner with your child positively about schoolwork, using a mutually agreed upon approach, so your child feels supported and motivated.

And, remember: It’s okay to get frustrated and to lean on each other. So, let’s collaborate, support each other and communicate.

 


JODY HOBBS HESLER wishes she could’ve squeezed all the passion, heart and creativity that these educators shared into this article. Let’s all celebrate and thank our community’s frontline workers as often as possible!


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