At Staples High, Distance Learning Is Far From Remote

Staples High School’s distance learning experience got off to a bumpy start.

Though administrators and teachers had made plans in case schools closed, it took a few days after the sudden shutdown on March 11 for staff and students to figure out what really worked.

New technology was part of it. So was adjusting to new ways of interacting, new rhythms, new expectations.

But teachers and teenagers soon settled in. Since September they’d built relationships, bonds and trust. All were needed as they navigated unfamiliar educational waters.

Since March 11, Staples High School has been empty of students and staff. (Photo/Lynn Untermeyer Miller)

The other day, principal Stafford Thomas asked students for feedback. Emails poured in. There were pages of praise for teachers of subjects that can be taught somewhat easily online, like math and English, and those that are more difficult (music and culinary). Students praised administrators, counselors and paraprofessionals too. Someone even cited School Resource Officer Ed Wooldridge, who visited a student on her birthday.

Here’s a tiny sampling:

“Mrs. Howden has remained a beacon of positivity. Her care and compassion for students is clear in every email she sends, call that she makes and Hangout that she hangs out in. She attempts to connect with her students every day, provides great reassurance they can do the work, and praises them when they produce.”

“Mrs. Herzog has been very understanding and kind throughout this process. She truly cares not only about her students’ success in class, but their mental health as well. It is because of her that I have been able to push through in these dark, scary times.”

“Mrs. Colletti -Houde set up Google Hangouts to talk about workload and changes to our schoolwork. She lightened up our classes by having us make a ‘class playlist.’ Her group assignments allow us to mimic in-class activities and have a little fun, while still learning as much as we would in the classroom.”

“Ms. Neary always supports her students, through our educational and laughter-filled Google Meets, the numerous recipes she posts to liven up our monotonous schedules, or her daily posts that brighten our day. She constantly goes the extra mile. She always asks how she can improve her teaching for us.”

“Mr. Giolitto is very flexible. He allows you to time manage yourself, while still helping us feel connected with other classmates. He takes time to carefully craft our assignments.”

“Mr. Young writes us a letter every day about what we are going to do in class, why it is important, and how he misses us. He is awesome, and makes me want to read and write more.”

“Ms. Lin recognizes what it’s like to be in our position. She’s so open with letting us know we don’t have to be perfect all the time. She has taught me the importance of just taking this (and life in general) one day at a time.”

“I can video call Ms. Wirkus after class. She explains a difficult concept to me, even while taking care of her own children.”

“Mr. Abraham has gone out of his way to record teaching videos of himself. Something as little as hearing his voice, as opposed to one he found online, has really boosted my spirits. And he responds by email the minute someone asks a question.”

“Ms. Delmhorst made a folder where we put things like birthdays, videos, recipes to boost morale. She is very organized, which makes things less stressful for me.”

“Mrs. Thomas has kept math lessons consistent with her teaching style the rest of the year. That means a lot to me, because I need a structured curriculum.”

“Mr. Rosenberg constantly teaches us new and interesting ways to sing well.”

“Mr. Baskin (substitute teacher) works with me daily, helping shepherd a resistant 10th grader towards completing her research paper, making videos with me so we can show Intro to Journalism students how to conduct them, giving feedback and life lessons to World Literature and AP students. What an asset to our community.”

Radio production teacher Geno Heiter earns raves for the way he conducts his virutal classes.

It has not been easy. World language teacher Joseph Barahona admits, “the first 3 weeks were a total nightmare. I felt like I was a new teacher, working 11 to 12 hour days. Having 8- and 11-year-old at home, trying to help them with their distance learning while trying to come up with a modified curriculum and new platforms was the biggest challenge.

“Fielding a slew of emails from parents and students was exhausting. I am the least tech person in the world, so switching online was challenging and frustrating.

“I also had to temper my high expectations for students, trying to find the sweet spot between the right amount of challenge but not too much. I reached out to them to see if I was giving too much or too little work.”

Like her colleagues, English teacher Barbara Robbins missed seeing her students every day. Once she began using Google Meet, “it began to feel more like we were back in our cozy classroom.” Seeing their faces and hearing their voices lifts her spirits. She keeps meetings small to increase engagement, and meets every day with students for individual help.

She’s also chatted with her class about the importance of reading for pleasure during a time of hardship.

Barbara Robbins and her 12-year-old daughter Scarlett offer a message to students.

Social studies instructor Daniel Heaphy already had projects lined up. But he soon found difficulties contacting some students, and designing assignments that were both valid and practical. “As teachers, we’re used to things being one way, with our own standards. We had to adjust for the greatest good,” he says.

English teacher Brendan Giolitto notes, “It’s difficult not giving feedback face to face. You learn so much more about students based on body language, tone, etc. It was hard getting a feel for how students were faring in a digital classroom.”

He has given his students autonomy — choices in readings and writing topics, for example. If they have ownership of what they’re doing and feel their assignments are personal, he says, they can find meaning in this new style of education.

Math instructor Jen Giudice misses being able to draw a reluctant student into a classroom discussion. She also misses “the synergy of students working together, and discovering things in small groups.”

She is used to learning new technology, but not “all at once and in uncharted territory. I wanted so badly to have it all up, running and perfect right away. I didn’t want my bumps in the road to discombobulate thins for the students.  I wanted things from my side to be seamless — yet it wasn’t.”

English teacher Ann Neary maintains continuity by “dressing as usual.” She has learned to give “super concise directions,” and slowed the pacing of her lessons. She set up “virtual Socratic seminars,” small group book clubs, and records her lessons for those who cannot be there when class meets.

Her priority is “the well-being of my students”; her challenge is “maintaining community and building empathy.” To help do that she posts recipes for bagels, links to yoga videos, and photos of herself dressed as characters in the books she’s reading. Here’s a screenshot of herself teaching, and as Anne Morrow Lindbergh:

As teachers and students adapt to, and even embrace, distance learning, small moments stand out.

For Giolitto, it was reconnecting with his “Connections” class. That’s the program — introduced this year — in which teachers meet with small groups twice weekly, for 20 minutes each; they’ll stay together throughout their Staples careers.

“All year, we’ve worked to build a community at Staples. To have a majority of my group show up and discuss everything — school, positives that are happening in their lives, TV shows, even Tiktok — brought a sense of normalcy and comfort in difficult circumstances.”

Giudice — who praises her math department colleagues for their help through the distance learning effort — says, “each day, the simplest events keep me going. At the end of our Google Meet sessions, so many students say ‘thank you’ before signing out. All of their voices chime in. It makes it all worth it!”

The first time Barahona ran a Google Meet class, every new face that popped up on screen filled him with joy.

“Seeing them made me realize how much I truly love teaching, and how much joy students bring to my life,” he says.

One of Enia Noonan’s world language students brings his her pet snake to lessons. The class is learning about him — in Italian, of course — while other students have played the piano, ukelele and marimba.

Siblings who studied Italian at Staples before graduating have made guest appearances during her “virtual Italian coffee bar conversations.”

“We’re lucky that our students see the value in face-to-face interaction, especially while studying a new language,” Noonan says. “They play an important part in making distance learning effective. They are my raggi di sole — rays of sunshine — throughout this experience.”

6 responses to “At Staples High, Distance Learning Is Far From Remote

  1. Werner Liepolt

    Thanks for this extensive tour of the Staples experience during the Corvus-19 disaster.

    The students’ and teachers’ responses are heartening. They reassure one long associated with excellence in Westport schools that our high standards and care for each individual’s learning are surviving.

  2. This is why our schools are great; not how many kids make Ivy. The calibre of the teachers we give our children in this town is awesome. They are smart and obviously happy to help our children grow up to be confident and effective in the world. What I’ve always called well launched.

    My 2004 Staples HS graduate turned out trained to work hard, resilient and kind — well launched to take on the unforeseen mess we are all in today.

    I think she weathers these storms because of what her father and I and her teachers in Westport schools showed her and gave her — thank you.

    Will never again complain about my taxes!=

  3. Caryl Beatus


  4. I am tickled to see that my pet snake made a little appearance in here! Link the python been an eager honorable student and intertwined into our conversational portions of class.
    (Small note; I, his owner, am female. No offense taken though!)