Foster Elementary School second grade teacher Regina Sandora says it’s natural to think of certain adjectives when considering what school has been like during the pandemic. Challenging, changing, stressful, or exhausting come to mind.
“However, if we stop there, we do a real disservice to ourselves and our students,” she said. “Through the struggle, my second graders have shown flexibility, understanding and grace for me and for themselves. It has been nothing short of incredible to watch.”
Indeed, the pandemic has created opportunities that have led to educational successes. More than a year into this unique situation, there are many stories to rival the sun’s increasing warmth. Parents, teachers and students all have examples to share.
Such stories of success and joy in the classroom are part of Silver Linings, a new project created by the PTA. Every year, the PTA meets with the Mt. Lebanon Education Association (MLEA) to discuss how they can all better meet the needs of students and families in the district. This year, the main topic of conversation was, understandably, how everyone is coping with the pandemic.
“Part of the conversation veered towards the positive things that we’re seeing—changes in kids, in the way the teachers teach, in the way families can interact with teachers—and how great it would be if we could all focus on that rather than on the ways we are all struggling,” PTA Council President Bonnie Dougherty says.
The goal is to gather stories from teachers, parents, students and administrators—at least to start—and highlight some of them in PTA newsletters. Dougherty is hoping that these stories can serve as a “time capsule” for future students.
“In the coming years, there will be plenty to read about in terms of how challenging the past year has been for everyone,” she said. “It would be nice for students to have a written record of some of the positive things that came out of this situation.”
As Sandora says, executive functioning skills like time management, organization, self-control, attention and perseverance have been put to the test like never before. But the 7- and 8-year-olds in her class are independently participating and interacting with online tools like Zoom that even adults are still learning how to use.
“Technology literacy skills are being learned and implemented on the fly on a daily basis, like typing, recording, sharing and moving between online tools,” she added. “The home and school connection has never been stronger. It is with great admiration and gratitude that I make note of the consistent and incredible support my students receive from home.”
One of her students is Lucie, who discovered just before the shutdown last year that she’s completely deaf in one ear. Her mother, Stephanie Paolucci of Mohican Drive, said this year they’ve learned what an amazing student she is.
“You always hope your kid does well,” Paolucci said. “But seeing her ‘in school’ remotely was such an eye opener.”
Early on, the district helped Lucie get a microphone that plugged into the computer and streamed to her hearing aids. During that time, her teacher, principal, hearing support teacher and educational audiologist were kind, patient and responsive as they all figured out the best way for Lucie to “do school” remotely and hear everything.
The shift to hybrid was difficult, but as the days wore on, Paolucci says Lucie became more independent in her classes. Her math, reading and writing skills slowly began to grow and progress, along with her love for learning. “As hard as this year has been, I will never forget being able to see my child learn and grow from our dining room table,” said Paolucci. “Without the pandemic, we would never have been able to witness firsthand how independent, motivated and tenacious Lucie is. She is not a big sharer, so being able to be involved in her school day, even from the background or sidelines, has been an experience that I will cherish always.”
Sandora sent Paolucci a picture of Lucie in school with the title, “Yes she can!”
“It made me so proud,” Paolucci said.
Manisha Iyer’s son Arjun has also grown academically this year. The Fruithurst Drive family has lived here for 10 years but is experiencing the school district for the first time this year. The extremely shy and introverted Arjun was previously at Mt. Lebanon Montessori School. The plan was always to move him to Mellon for middle school. Due to Iyer’s severe asthma, Arjun has been attending remotely. After some technology-related hiccups the first couple of weeks, Arjun took off and hasn’t looked back.
“He’s managed to connect with each of his wonderful teachers who all go above and beyond during these very trying times,” Iyer said. “He’s learning every day and more than thriving. My heart swells with pride when I catch him paying close attention to his classes, making notes, raising his hand to ask questions. It is truly amazing. He has also made straight As so far. He even gives his physical education assignments his all, carefully following along with the video and thoughtfully completing the feedback. So far this year has been a stupendous academic success!”
Jefferson Middle School seventh grader Addie Young, Shadowlawn Avenue, credits her math teacher, Sabrina Keeley, for a phenomenal job in making this year enjoyable for students in the classroom and at home. Not only has she helped the students with their math, but since the start of the school year, she starts every class with an icebreaker question. Cake or ice cream cake? Ketchup or mustard? Would you rather win an Olympic medal or an Oscar?
“Although these silly questions may seem little, I truly think they have played a large part in how well our eighth period honors math class gets along,” said Young. “We debate these random subjects for a few minutes before starting class and have such a great time while doing it.”
Not only does the class now have inside jokes, wherever they’re learning from, they’re able to have conversations and interact with each other. “It’s safe to say that everyone loves it!” Young said. “When we were in ‘normal school’ (no masks, no COVID), I can assure you this would not have been the case. There were friend groups in the class that didn’t interact with each other at all.”
For Encore teachers like Tania Conte, who has more than 300 students, being online has allowed her to learn a little more about her students’ home lives, personal interests and personalities in a way that she necessarily wouldn’t be able to in the building. The Spanish teacher covers first through fifth grades at Foster, Howe and the Cyber Learning Academy. Naturally, pets have played a major role in the online classes, as they’re often in full view and every kid wants to learn more about their classmate’s pets. Sometimes she has students go on a scavenger hunt (in Spanish), and learns a lot about them this way. An opening song with the fourth graders has become a challenge of who can sing it faster. “Frankly, it got students who don’t usually participate to join in,” she said.
Margaret Satersmoen, who teaches third grade cyber from home but is officially part of Foster, asks how to measure success in a pandemic. While her students are nearly universally demonstrating mastery of the learning standards, with many exceeding them, Satersmoen says she prefers to measure success in smiling faces, engaged learners and a vibrant classroom community. “By this measure, I judge our unusual year to be a success,” she said.
Her students login eagerly every day. They interact just as they would in person, but with the advantage of being able to bounce or twirl without disturbing anyone. “One student even climbs the wall, literally using the door jamb as his personal jungle gym,” Satersmoen said. Cameras go on and off as students moderate their individual environments to meet their needs. She’s especially impressed by the inclusiveness they’ve extended to one another. “They make room for each other and support each other’s learning via kind notes in the chat or lending a hand in a breakout room to get an assignment done,” she said.
There’s an intimacy in a Google Meet, Kristine Schuler says. The seventh grade English teacher at Jefferson Middle School says that when she brought students into her home and shared her workspace, family and pets, many wanted to share their lives as well. “So the perfect platform for learning was created,” Schuler said. “I have always believed that children learn best when they feel safe and comfortable. Not lying in bed comfortable (and I have seen that), but the kind of comfort that you feel when you know someone is interested in you and cares how you feel.”
One of the highlights this year was when the class performed A Christmas Carol from their homes. Interesting props, costumes and scenes were used that wouldn’t have been available in the classroom.
Schuler says she and her students have bonded through their experiences in a way that no other class has. “We are in this together. None of us has ever been through anything like this before, so it has unified us. We are more sensitive to each other, we care about each other, we reassure each other that we will get through this and be stronger than ever.”
She’s had days when technology wasn’t her friend and she had to change or scrap her plan. She joked with her students about upsetting the “technology gods” when they were studying Greek mythology. While she may get frustrated, she’s seen her young students patiently deal with the glitches. “They remind each other to leave the Meet and come back, refresh, or turn off their computers and restart,” Schuler said. “They also help me by advising and reassuring each other in the chat while I am trying to teach.”
Schuler has also learned how to adapt her teaching for the new medium. Class discussions had to be retooled. She quickly figured out that putting a document that the students can edit or add to provides even the shyest of kids an opportunity to “speak” in class. Sometimes in person, highly motivated students can dominate if left unchecked. An interactive document used for discussion allows students to really think through their responses. They don’t have to worry about being overpowered, and the playing field is leveled. Another benefit is having an actual product from the discussion, which students can continue to learn from.
Lately Schuler has been putting up a “discussion” with her students and then inviting them to talk about it. They’ll respond in voice, but more often she’ll see them talk in the “chat” where they feel safer. “This has been a good surprise for me,” she said. “I will continue to use this mode of discussion even when I have the option to have live, in-person discussion.”
Sandora, the second grade teacher at Foster, speaks for everyone when she says this year has been hard. But she feels lucky to have resilient kids to inspire her and remind her that there is always a bright side: “School is going remote? We get to see each other’s smiling faces with no masks! Half of the day is asynchronous? We get to practice skills independently to help us shine when in school! Have to wear masks and stay socially distanced while in school? We can show our care and concern for one another with these small acts of selflessness.”
Stories and photos for Silver Linings can be submitted to email@example.com. Follow them on Facebook at @MTLPTACouncil or on Instagram at @mtlsdptacouncil for project updates.