Q: Tell us about yourself and your involvement with summer school at SVUSD.
A: I love watching children learn how to read and create a learning environment where they see themselves in the literature, and develop a sense of identity that propels their sense of inquiry and curiosity. I have dedicated my professional life to support the vision of academic excellence, identity, curiosity and joy! To that end I am coordinating the K-12 summer school program to help students continue that journey of learning this summer.
Q: What are you most optimistic about for students?
A: The technology skills they have developed this year are like no other year of learning. They had opportunities to learn technology skills that otherwise would not have been available. I have watched student presentations on environmental issues and read powerful persuasive writing about what children want in their schools. My optimism is rooted in that this generation is living a historical event that has challenged and changed all of us. Children have developed skills and knowledge as a result of this experience. I have watched children champion causes in their community to help serve a greater good. This awareness may not have developed had it not been for this epic moment in time.
Q: Why is summer school important? Will it be different this year?
A: Summer school helps support the ongoing development of student learning. In person learning time was limited this year and therefore summer school is more important than ever to help kids build their academic muscle for the fall. We know there are opportunities gaps for many students, and summer school is a good place for them to get that extra attention they need for their continued growth. Summer Literacy will expand to include math instruction.
Q: What message would you like to give our community?
A: I think it is important to build on the strengths and assets we have as a community of learners. The educational experience of our students was disrupted this year from what we have come to know as normal. Some students found success in an online environment and many need in person instruction to thrive. Taking the lessons we learned from this period of time and applying them to future educational programming could inspire some innovative opportunities for our students. There is an opportunity to revolutionize how we do education. Our teachers made dramatic shifts in their teaching from spring 2020 to fall 2020. They are innovative and responsive, we don't want to lose that energy!
Ms. Gray values humor in the classroom and looks forward to resuming her infamous Greek Mythology plays in person.
Q: During this very challenging year of Distance Learning, what are some ways you have tried to keep your students engaged? What worked? What did not?
A: One of my gifts is humor, and throughout distance learning, I have tried my best to use it to engage students. One of the ways I know it works is that my students tell me that I should make my own YouTube channel because I am so funny -- yes, I get compliments from teens, and I know how crazy that is. While I am no Mr. Gibson, nor am I Mr. Tierney, I think I bring that similar type of comedic banter but at a 9th-grade level (fart jokes for some and beauty guru drama for others).
I have also implemented a "QOTD" (Question of the Day) at the beginning of every class. Most recently, a battle broke out in the Zoom chat over whether a hot dog was a sandwich; the class was divided, and I loved every moment of it. Why? Because I am in the midst of teaching the research paper where I am trying my best to hone their argumentation skills. It was great to see them try to make their points by pulling definitions from various sources online unprovoked. They were so passionate about it, you would think we were arguing about politics or religion (granted, a really good hot dog can be a religious experience if made right).
Q: What has worked?
A: Teaching literature that is both engaging and showcases the human condition has definitely worked.
Q: What has been trying?
A: Teaching about a real-life issue where it requires the student to do research and come up with their own educated opinion has been quite trying. While this is difficult every year, I wonder whether it is more so this year as students are bombarded daily with the very serious concerns we have in our society right now (the attack on the Capitol, Covid, etc.). However, this skill is incredibly important and especially so this school year. While teaching research has been difficult, I think this is one of the reasons I am so happy that we were able to figure out how to continue ABU (independent reading) so that students were still able to enjoy a bit of escapism.
Q: Is there something that was introduced during online learning that you hope remains when students return to class?
A: I think the ability to connect with students on a video chat is great, and I am so happy we all learned how to do that this year. When a student is absent or if a teacher is willing to meet on a weekend to offer additional support on an assignment, both teachers and students will be able to now because we all know how to. I also think this is great for when parents need to meet with teachers but are unable to make it into school. Moving forward, this is something I plan to continue using when necessary.
Another thing that has been absolutely amazing is pre-recording myself teaching a concept. For example, I have been teaching the "dreaded" annotated bibliography for years, and every year I try to figure out how to teach it better as it can be frustrating for both the teacher and student. Last summer school, I decided to prerecord myself modeling how to type one (the format of it is the Olympics of formatting for most high school students). I have never seen a better set of annotated bibliographies and my co-teachers who used my video said the same thing. If it is in a video format, students can replay the video, speed up/slow down the rate of speech, and even add closed captions to it, which means that this is an absolutely excellent scaffold for English Language Learners and students in SPED.
Q: What are you most excited about when you and students return to school?
A: I am excited to see their faces! Many students keep their cameras off and/or pointed to the ceiling. While many keep it off due to wifi issues/poor-performing devices, many do so for a myriad of personal reasons. This can make it difficult to foster a connection (mind you, not impossible). It is also difficult because much of teaching is seeing their reactions to something. Nothing screams louder that you do not understand something than a look of confusion and a pencil down; when the camera is off, one of our most important tools is gone. Thank goodness for incredible tools like GoGuardian where we can see what is happening (or what is not happening) on a student's computer screen.
Finally, if we come back soon enough, I cannot wait to, maybe, put on some of my infamous Greek Mythology plays - costumes and all. Former students generally talk to me about how that is one of their absolute favorite memories of my class, and I long to give my current students the same Mrs. Gray experience. While I would definitely have to alter it to meet Covid restrictions, I am confident, time permitting, that I can make this hope come to fruition.
Matt Pope, who spent a year in the Peace Corps (Honduras), has been teaching with SVUSD for 21 years.
Q: During this very challenging year of Distance Learning, what are some of the ways you have tried to keep your students engaged? What worked? What did not?
A: I always strive to make things fun and humorous for the students. We never know what is truly happening at home so I like to lighten things up. I always start the day off with a song of the day and talk about the artist briefly. This will often turn into a spontaneous dance party. It's very fun to see kids jumping around in their little boxes. Our grade level has also found time each week for our students to meet in breakout rooms just to socialize. They get to pick who they want to be with and there are no guidelines as far as what they talk about. This, we have found, has been something that they look forward to and helps address the void of the social-emotional component of learning that so many students are lacking right now.
Another thing that has worked well is having "Virtual Field Trips" each Friday. We always try to tie them to what we are learning about. For instance, our theme last week for language arts was the different ways that you could fly so we showed them a live video of a hot air balloon over Sonoma Valley and skydivers in wingsuits soaring the cliffs of Sweden. These field trips are always a great way to start a Friday.
What has been challenging is trying to give help to the students that need it. Some subjects are extremely more difficult to teach online than others. Math, for instance, is probably what stands out the most. Trying to reteach concepts without having the manipulatives for the younger ones and not being able to see what they are doing in real time also adds to the frustration. Apps like Kami, Dreambox, and Bridges Math Apps are definitely helpful but not in comparison to what we have and use in the classroom.
It's also been difficult to meet the needs of the students who don't have parent support at home. Many of my students are with grandparents, neighbors, or in a different place everyday. I think that this is a hard way for a student to find a rhythm with their learning when they are trying to attend class in a noisy multipurpose room, at home with younger siblings, or even at times in the back of the car as it is driving.
Q: Is there something that was introduced during online learning that you hope remains when students return to class?
A: I would like for the district to consider using Zoom and Google Meet for things like parent conferences. I think for some parents having that flexibility to be able to connect with their teacher via a device would be very practical for those that have a hardship of meeting during the day. As far as learning goes, I would hope that certain online learning platforms could still be made available. Things like EPIC, Raz-Kids, Dreambox and many others are excellent resources for reading and for math practice. They make it easy for teachers to monitor progress and provide assistance. Platforms like this would be great to supplement the learning happening in the classroom.
I would hope that we would consider having students and adults wear masks during the flu/cold season. Now that masks are normalized why don't we make this a standard practice at schools during the winter months? If a child is sick and cannot stay home, is it too much to ask them to wear a mask while inside the classroom? This is the first time in over 21 years teaching that I haven't had a cold. Knowing how much learning is lost due to sickness, I think it's something worth considering.
Q: What are you most excited about when you and students return to school?
A: I am most excited to hear student chatter, laughter, and just to see them physically. I am also excited to be able to teach someone and not be at the mercy of having to share my screen, or unmute my mic, or turn on my camera, and not being interrupted by slow internet connection.
Q: Anything else that you would like to share with the community?
A: I want the community to know that Sonoma teachers are very dedicated and care deeply for their students and families. I can't think of any teacher (except for the ones that have specific needs that factor into whether or not they can return) that would prefer to finish the school year this way. We have been wanting to come back for a long time now and we are happy that this is finally happening safely and that teachers have been able to cooperatively work with district administrators so that we have a say in what our work conditions will be.
Lastly, COVID 19 has highlighted the inequity that exists between the haves and have nots. This is very evident in Sonoma Valley. The students in my class who are going to be the least affected by this are mostly the same ones that are consistently showing up for class and turning in their work. In almost all of these cases, these students have at least 1 parent at home that can help and can afford faster internet. Many of these families are not burdened by having to physically show up to be able to work. How are we as a community going to address this inequality as we move forward?
Meet SVUSD's Interim Superintendent Esmeralda Mondragón & Bilingual Family Tech Support Specialist Heather Harrison
Dr. Esmeralda Mondragón, interim superintendent for SVUSD
We recently caught up with Dr. Esmeralda Mondragón, interim superintendent for Sonoma Valley Unified School District. She brings a wealth of experience to this role, which she will hold through June 2021 while the district completes the search process for a new superintendent.
Q: Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you came to fill the interim position?
A: I retired as superintendent of the Calistoga School District in 2017. Since then, I have been consulting with districts in Sonoma County, coaching and mentoring new administrators and supporting district staff in the completion of specific projects.
Q: What are your major tasks as interim superintendent?
A: My responsibilities include overseeing all aspects of the functions and operations of the school district–the same tasks that are expected of the sitting superintendent. I am particularly passionate about focusing on decisions that are in the best interest of students, as well as understanding and valuing who our students are and what they bring to us when they step into our schools.
Q: What are you most optimistic about for our students?
A: Our students live in a disruptive and rapidly changing world! The pandemic disrupted the traditional classroom setting and pushed students to engage and learn in new and different ways. For example, they are learning time management and becoming independent learners. I believe that this is an opportunity to break down the classroom walls and provide more choices for our students to learn from anywhere and at any time.
Q: How do you stay positive during these challenging times?
A: I am optimistic and have faith that the pandemic too shall pass! I strongly believe that each child/student has the potential to succeed. Working on their behalf brings out the best in all of us.
Q: Do you have a message you would like to give our community?
A: I thank the community partners for their commitment and generosity to the children and youth attending our schools. They are the future of tomorrow so we must support them in their journey to adulthood. We are grateful for your support.
Heather Harrison, Bilingual Family Tech Support Specialist at SVUSD
Thanks to a generous grant from the Sonoma Valley Catalyst Fund, we have been able to help the school district provide a family technology support helpline so families can receive personalized assistance with their Chromebooks, hotspots, and more. We spoke with Heather Harrison, the new bilingual technician, about how this program is making an impact.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and your history with the school district.
A: I moved to Sonoma at a young age, and attended El Verano, Altimira, and SVHS. After graduating from UC Santa Barbara, I studied and lived in Chile for three years. Later I received my bilingual teacher’s credential from SSU.
I first started working for SVUSD in 2015, first as an instructional assistant, and later as a library media specialist. The new family technical support position is a perfect opportunity for me to continue supporting students and families during distance learning and beyond.
Q: What are some of the ways you've helped students already?
A: I help students understand it is normal to feel frustrated and upset when experiencing technical problems with their devices. I also give them simple steps to resolve some technical problems on their own, which gives students a sense of empowerment and independence.
Q: What do you hope to do for/with students in this role?
A: Technology is ever changing and there is always something new to learn everyday. My hope is to help students and families build confidence and give them tools they can use when common technical issues arise.
Q: How can parents and students contact you if they need help?
A: Please call our hotline at (707) 385-9408, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Click here to read Anna Pier's Q & A with Angela: https://tinyurl.com/y6clyc97
For the past 10 years, Readers' Books has held a holiday book drive asking their customers to buy new children's books and donate them back to children in the community. This year, Sonoma Valley elementary school students will be a recipient of your book donations.
This is a terrific opportunity to support not only local students, but also one of our beloved local businesses during the pandemic.
Through your donations, teachers at our five elementary schools, serving students in TK through 5th grade, will receive read-aloud books to share with their students during distance learning. The teachers have created a great book list, including both English and Spanish-language books, focusing on diverse populations. You can see the book list below.
It’s easy to participate! Shop in person or online at Readers' Books (on the Sonoma Plaza) (www.readersbooks.com) and tell them you’d like to donate a brand new book to your local elementary school. Or you can donate funds directly through the Sonoma Valley Education Foundation website (www.svgreatschools.org) and we will apply 100% of your donation to purchasing these read-aloud books for our students.
As always, thank you for your incredible support of our Sonoma Valley students!
TEACHERS' BOOK LIST
Our hard-working PTO parent volunteers want you to know that PTOs are still active during this pandemic, working behind the scenes and looking for your support. Sonoma Valley Education Foundation is proud to support our PTOs this year with $500 matching grant opportunities to aid their fundraising efforts!
Last week, PTO volunteer representatives (pictured below) from every school in Sonoma Valley came together to share their challenges, their projects, their ideas, to collaborate and support each other.
Vote - Vote - Vote! Check out the SVUSD Board candidate forum hosted by SVHS juniors, as well as interviews held by Prestwood and Sassarini students!
The forum provides a comparison to the four candidates running for the SVUSD board. Local activist Anne Ching and Incumbent Britta Johnson are running for Trustee Area 5; Troy Knox and Adam Lobsinger, both new candidates, are vying for Trustee Area 4. And, Prestwood students interviewed their area candidates Anne Ching and Britta Johnson. Gio and Evelyn, students at Sassarini, interviewed their area candidates Troy Knox and Adam Lobsinger.
SVHS Juniors Caroline Studdert and Jimena Echeverria, the hosts of the forum, are the founders of Sonoma Valley Youth Rising, a new SVHS club whose mission is to reach out to a diverse student population and encourage all students, especially those of marginalized groups, in decisions that affect the student body.
Based on the positive response to these interviews and with the support of Principal Stefanie Jordan, Sassarini is piloting a Student Voices series featuring a COVID Q&A session with Chris Kutza, PharmD at Sonoma Valley Hospital. Stefani and her students will also interview a senior Google executive next week.
Distance Learning won't prevent SVHS engineering students from experiencing hands-on learning. The engineering department recently purchased Arduino kits for each of the students in the program to use at home. Nearly $12,000 in Distance Learning grants were provided to SVHS career technical education teachers in September and October by the Sonoma County CTE Foundation. The Arduino kits were purchased with this funding.
"These small but powerful kits actually have many of the components they would have access to in our engineering lab," said Engineering Teacher Drue Jacobs. "They're obviously to a smaller scale, but it still allows students a hands-on experience."
These kits allow students to effectively demonstrate certain types of circuits, why they need capacitors, and what they accomplish. They also give students a working knowledge of Ohm's law and how to wire LED lighting in series versus parallel. Adding in the Arduino portion allows them to explore some object based coding.
The TinkerCad website has a virtual Arduino kit, allowing the students to digitally build and debug before physically building their projects.
"I love the virtual space and what it allows us to accomplish," says Mr. Jacobs, "but I strongly believe understanding how things fit, function, and interact is better understood by holding it directly in one's hand."