A Parent's Story: How A Sycamore Parent Saw Distance Learning Work

As part of our ongoing series on distance learning, and how parents, students, and teachers adapted during the end of the 2019-20 school year, we talked to Sumi Maun, who is a parent of a Middle School student and a soon-to-be 5th grader at Sycamore.  She opened up about what worked with distance learning, what was a challenge, and how did they overcome it.  She also talked about communicating with teachers, the importance of breaks, and how her math skills are apparently not very good.
“Teachers were my heroes through the whole process.  It was obviously a tough situation that everyone was thrown into unexpectedly, but the teachers were great about soliciting feedback and making changes as needed until they found methods that worked.”        --- Sumi Maun / Sycamore parent
For the mom of two Sycamore students, Sumi Maun was confronted with the challenges that many families were faced with in mid-March when schools closed their buildings and went to a distance learning model for the rest of the school year: suddenly, the kids were at home, doing their school work, while the parents were also working from home and having to figure out where everyone will do their work, how they will get fed, take breaks, and not feel like it was all too much. “At first, it definitely felt like drinking out of a firehose,” Maun says of the first days of online learning. “We were having to go online each day to figure out where assignments and posted videos were and to read teachers' feedback. Teachers quickly figured out what was overwhelming for the kids and kept making adjustment.  Many of them started sending out assignments on a single daily or weekly sheet, so the kids could plan ahead.”
She says that there were moments that, as a parent, surprised her, including how her kids figured out what they needed to be successful. “I was pleasantly surprised by how much the kids were able to adapt and adjust to this new reality,” she says. “They took everything thrown at them and rolled with it.  If anything, they learned how to better manage and organize their time since they were checking their emails and noting the different times that Zoom calls would take place each week on their own. I loved how the kids found new ways to connect with friends with Facetime, Zoom calls, Google Hangouts, and online video games.”   
Maun says they figured out early in the process they needed to have built-in recess time and breaks at set times. “My kids would schedule interactive video game sessions with their friends every day to get that social time,” she says. “They both also insisted on a set lunch time daily since they get that at school. So, at 12:00pm, we would all stop everything we were doing, make lunch together, and try to fit in an episode of "Survivor" during that hour.”
The teachers, Maun says, made sure her children had what they needed to be successful, “Teachers were my heroes through the whole process.  It was obviously a tough situation that everyone was thrown into unexpectedly, but the fourth grade and middle school teachers were great about soliciting feedback and making changes as needed until they found methods that worked.” 
For her fourth grade child, she says they loved the small math and reading group Zoom calls the teachers had with the students, and how the weekly homeroom check-ins helped son to socialize with his friends and teachers without having to think about work. “The teachers were awesome about reaching out individually to students if needed, complimenting them on jobs well done or reminding them when there was more to do,” she says.  “Mrs. Wright knew how much my son likes math puzzles, so she would send extra ones to keep him occupied after his school work was done.  She was a teacher and a counselor and a listener at the same time”
As for her Middle School son, Maun says he loved all classes with Zoom calls because it allowed him to feel connected to his classmates and still interact with the teachers. She says teachers got creative in keeping the kids engaged. “Mr. Young had some really great end-of-year review sessions in a trivia format to help the kids prepare for the final exam,” she says. “He offered one-on-one video help to any student who needed the extra assistance.  Mrs. Simpson created awesome interactive discussion boards and Flipgrid projects that gave the kids some of that collaboration they had been missing.  Mr. Schuth and Dr. Wendel did video demonstrations of fun science labs, and Mr. T kept the morning math program going by creating electronic submission forms, and he created opt-in teams for various online math competitions if kids wanted to participate. My middle schooler had advisory group meetings with Ms. Mihm, and she would have frequent Zoom check-ins to see how the kids were holding up.” 
On the last day of school, she says Mr. Tormoehlen organized an online scavenger hunt competition between the 7th grade advisory groups and Maun says her 4th grader even “joined in on ransacking our house to find items” for points. “I love the idea of more interactive sessions like this - it changes it up a bit for the students, and it provides that sense of community that kids are missing by being out of school.” 
While there were lots of success stories, she learned that having patience and an understanding of how hard everyone involved was listening and learning to make the environment work was important to riding the roller coaster of emotions.
“I had to proctor some tests for the kids, and the teachers converted some less intensive tests to Google Forms so the kids could take them online,” she says of a couple of the adaptations. “There were definitely in-class experiential activities that the kids had to miss out on because of distance learning, but teachers pushed the curriculum forward.”
Maun also learned that she was not as good at fourth grade math as she thought she was. “My son had multi-step word problems that involved calculating areas of odd shapes with curves in them as just the first part of the solution. He had questions on a few of them, and when I wasn't sure if I was helping him correctly, I told him to check with the teacher during her daily office hours - and I secretly listened in so I could learn how to do the work too.”
Some of the biggest behind-the scenes saviors for the Maun family turned out to be the technology department. “After the first week of distance learning, we quickly realized that we didn't have enough electronic devices for all of us at home. My husband and I were working from home too, and there were instances when we all four had Zoom calls at the same time,” she says. “I emailed technology to see if there were any devices we could rent or borrow, and within minutes, (Director of Technology) Patrick Cauley offered to drop off a Chromebook at my house. Another time, my fourth grader's shared distance learning folder was having technical issues, so John George worked over a weekend to reset my son's first folder and re-create a second one for him in case the first one kept having glitches.” 
One of the nice memories for Maun, and an example of how it all ended up working for her family, was when the school year was concluding for her Middle School son, and he was doing his Language Arts reading. “Everyone just made e-learning work,” she says. “One of the books he had to read for his Language Arts class was To Kill A Mockingbird,” she says. “Seeing him read it at home and hearing the students discuss the book brought back so many memories from when I read it back in my high school days.”
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