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Summer school during a pandemic: Crystal Lake District 47 teachers on remote learning

Bernotas Middle School special education teacher Cathy Mattoon meets with her summer school class from home June 12 using Google Meet in McHenry. "Kids are really rocking this," Mattoon said of the distance learning. About 17 children from kindergarten through eighth grade are registered for the Mattoon's summer school class.
Bernotas Middle School special education teacher Cathy Mattoon meets with her summer school class from home June 12 using Google Meet in McHenry. "Kids are really rocking this," Mattoon said of the distance learning. About 17 children from kindergarten through eighth grade are registered for the Mattoon's summer school class.

Because of remote learning, local teachers have had to conduct summer school in a different environment than usual, but they're not letting that stop them from connecting with students.

Crystal Lake Elementary School District 47 always offers two different kinds of summer programming, although this is the first year it has been conducted remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Teachers used a variety of tools, such as Nearpod, Seesaw, Google Meets and others, to reach students, although they couldn't be physically together.

Cathy Mattoon, a special education teacher at Richard Bernotas Middle School in Crystal Lake, taught a group of 17 fifth through eighth grade students in the Communications Development Program this summer from June 8 through July 1.

Since Mattoon had been teaching through e-learning since spring, when she had 14 students, she brought some of the things she learned into the summer program.

Every day, Mattoon’s students would have a Google Meet Link for the general classroom, but she also had a link for a separate meeting with her or the class’s para-professional, so students could still get one-on-one time.

While her students missed school, they still felt like they were in a classroom setting.

“We're still a unit,” Mattoon said. “We're just doing it a little bit differently.”

Mattoon acknowledges that there was a bit of mourning the students did when remote learning first started, especially as they were missing out on some end-of-year activities such as the annual picnic.

Mattoon said this is why they started, in her class, having 20 minute check-ins every morning, where the students could share any news they had, or draw and write how they were feeling.

“After you get the ball rolling, after you get past the first day or two, they're laughing, they're having fun,” Mattoon said.

This past year, during the schools’ spring break, most teachers and employees were taking webinars, and were in Google Meets together, Mattoon said, where they gained access to a wide variety of tools.

“They were fresh, they were new,” Mattoon said. “And a lot of it was sharing ideas: ‘What are you thinking? What have you found?’”

Although Mattoon has always enjoyed technology, these new tools she was given has opened new doors for her.

Some of these tools have worked so well that Mattoon plans to continue using them, even in a face-to-face setting.

“I think it's shown me a different way that education can move when we are back in the classroom,” she said.

Mary Paolella, a teacher at Glacier Ridge Elementary School, is teaching 14 students going into the first grade who are part of the district’s remote English Language Learning program this summer, through the district's Title I/Title III Summer School program, which goes until Friday.

A lot of preparation goes into teaching online, she said.

"There's a lot of things you're doing behind the scenes to make sure you're meeting the students' needs," she said.

As time went on, Paolella said she got used to remote learning.

“At first, when Zooming, I was very anxious, because I've never conducted a Zoom meeting before,” she said. “Now I feel like an old pro.”

One new thing Paolella implemented during e-learning were virtual field trips, which the students enjoyed a lot. They were able to virtually go to the Seattle Aquarium, and see live footage of the animals.

A more challenging part of remote learning was helping students make connections, Paolella said, so she gives her students some “sharing time."

One day at summer school, one student asked to show the class their dog, and Paolella gladly let her do that.

"Of course, everyone is very excited to see [their] friend's dog, so we all look and we learn the dog's name and then I try to bring everyone back to the learning," Paolella said. “It really does help them ... to make those connections."

Something that was actually easier for both teachers during remote learning was communicating with parents.

Mattoon gave parents a phone number where they could reach her during class if their child was "having a moment." Paolella noticed that sometimes, a student would be in one room in their house with their device, while their parent was working from home in close proximity.

"Then parents can jump in and we can talk a little bit more about what their child is doing," Paolella said.

Although there were some resources the teachers didn’t have because they weren’t in the classroom, they found new ones to use. In years past, when Paolella would teach her students about different vegetables with a pretend "farmer's market," she would buy produce for the classroom.

With remote learning, students were able to share what they had in their own refrigerators, made all the more special by the fact that many of the students in Paolella's class had different cultural backgrounds.

“It allows us to be more diverse, and to learn about other cultures,” Paolella said.

Zak Kalas, a student in Mattoon’s class who will be going into eighth grade at Bernotas Middle School this year, said he liked remote learning because he can stay safe and still get to see his friends and teachers.

“I was surprised [by] how long we have been doing it,” Kalas said.

Chris DeAngelo, another student in Mattoon's class, said though the technology sometimes glitches out, it's fun to learn online.

Still, DeAngelo looks forward to the day he can see his friends in person again.

Mattoon said she thinks this experience will create a “whole new generation of teachers" who will be ready for anything.

“Everyone's doing their best,” Mattoon said. “Parents are doing their best, teachers are doing the best, and that we need to have that growth mindset.”

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