LIVINGSTON, NJ — After a successful first week of remote learning in Livingston, community members have taken to social media to praise the creativity and preparedness of Livingston Public Schools teachers over the last week, and many have been so impressed that they have contacted principals and the superintendent directly to congratulate the district on a job well done.

“I’ve probably gotten more feedback about the first few days than any single thing that we’ve done, and the overwhelming majority of the feedback has been incredibly positive,” said Livingston High School (LHS) Principal Mark Stern. “I could not be more proud of the entire Livingston community—and obviously that includes our teachers—but this only works because our entire community has made great efforts to make it work. That goes for teachers, that goes for students, that goes for parents and everybody involved.”

Superintendent of Schools Dr. Matthew Block echoed Stern’s thoughts, stating that the LPS staff “came out of the ‘remote learning gate’ strong this week with their characteristic professionalism, enthusiasm and creativity.” 

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“What is most noticeable is their passion for educating students,” said Block. “All of the images, messages and reports I have received demonstrate that our educators know the importance of connecting with their students.

“Teachers are going above and beyond to be sure to ensure that they interact with their students, and that students have the chance to interact with one another. The academic lessons are impressive under the circumstances, but the human element and the caring our teachers have demonstrated is what I find most inspiring.”

Stern reiterated that the district “decided almost last minute” to “flip the script” on the scheduled professional development day and make it about remote learning. He said that the willingness of all teachers to start learning brand new programs and to learn how to use them “in a way that is more meaningful to others” was inspiring to see.

“We’re talking about some of the most creative educators that I know saying, ‘Okay, how can I take this lesson and be able to make it work for students who are not in the same room so that there is still opportunity for connection and so that we’re not just posting assignments but having conversations and touching base either one on one, in small groups or as a whole class to talk about material?’” he said. “And then [they’re still creating] opportunities to dive deeper and experiment and explore the information even though we’re in a different setting. It’s been inspiring to watch the teachers be able make this happen.”

For some teachers, like those whose elementary-level students don’t typically use technology in the classrooms, the transition to remote learning posed some unique challenges.

Greer Gelman, kindergarten teacher at Collins Elementary School, said the elementary teachers “had to act quickly” just like everyone else, but that daily video conferences with Principal Michelle Cebula have helped the teachers stay on the same page thus far. She also noted that the district at-large was extremely lucky to have the leadership of its “amazing superintendent, who quickly and calmly put a district wide plan into action.”

“This looks different for all grade levels,” said Gelman. “For Kindergarten, we all had to gather materials that could be sent home in advance and put to the side in case they were needed. Each day, we Email an agenda to the parents walking them through the expectations of each day. 

“We also make phone calls to check on our students throughout the week, which allows them to hear our voices and to feel the comfort and support from their teachers. This has been the best part of my day—hearing each of their voices warms my heart.”

She also said that the school is “trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in an anything-but-normal time,” adding that Cebula sends out recorded morning announcements each day along with birthday shout-outs, the flag salute and a reminder of the Collins School motto. 

“The phrase is true: ‘It takes a village,’" said Gelman, adding that the support from the parents has been overwhelming. “For the younger kids, they need the support of an adult to complete the assignments. We are trying to maintain a sense of normalcy in an anything but normal time.

In the older grades, the transition was also challenging for those who teach elective classes that are outside of the core subjects, such as art, music, photography, television, robotics, etc.

“Preparing to teach Television Production from home was challenging since we are a hands-on class,” said Steven Milano, a television teacher at LHS who described what the TV Production students are doing at home. “The AM Wired class is doing what they always do, but doing it from home. They tape alone or in small groups and send the footage to people who are editing that day's episode. It's not that different from what we do in the studio, but without the live component.

“TV 1 students have minimal experience at this point in the year, so we started by making videos to help give them instruction on things that would normally be taught in class. We have given them things to look for, identify and explain about the TV shows that they chose to watch at home, and some videos that we are preparing for them. In the near future, they can start using their phones or home cameras to create hands-on video. They can also collaborate using video editing software that they have access to on their school surface computers from home.”

Overall, however, Milano said remote learning has been successful so far and that he even plans to bring some of the things he has created for online learning back to his regular classes.

“We are doing some very unique things now,” he said. “I think future TV students will benefit from doing these lessons, even if they end up doing these activities while in back in the school building…Very few of us were prepared for this to happen, but Livingston is full of creative teachers, and the new ideas and the lesson strategies just started flowing naturally.”

Although the training was sudden and unexpected, Milano noted that in addition to the “great technology experts” who were able to train the educators very quickly, the training for LHS teachers primarily also built on the training they have already been receiving through the district’s 1:1 initiative. 

In fact, some parents who have been impressed with how well-prepared the district was to make this transition have cited the district’s implementation of the 1:1 program at LHS in ____ as one of the reasons.

Resident Evan Brody, who was a member of the technology committee formed at the time to discuss the various issues, challenges and solutions needed and to speak with other metropolitan-area schools about successful programs, said that the district’s diligence in bringing such a program to Livingston is what has allowed at least the older grades to experience such a smooth transition.

“The technical infrastructure and student laptops that were needed for that system are facilitating the remote instruction going on right now,” said Brody, who was among the community members to encourage the school to adopt a standardized 1:1 platform and supply the PCs rather than relying on students to bring their own device. “When LHS implemented the 1:1 program, they needed to have enough WiFi bandwidth, server capacity and software licenses to handle all the students connecting at once, which is much harder to support and repair; but now that this capacity was put into place, it makes possible much of the remote learning students are doing today.”

Other hands-on courses, like gym, are not considered elective and have still been made an integral part of the at-home curriculum.

At Heritage Middle School, for instance, physical education (PE) teacher Roger Rubinetti said it has been “an interesting few days of remote learning” for his department. He explained that the PE staff of Kathy Tuvey, Krista Faust, Shyella Mayk and Patrick Nann has been working together on lessons, while health teachers James Merlo and Melissa Gromek are currently completing their third marking period classes.

“Our health classes can pretty much continue on as if they were in school,” said Rubinetti. “[Merlo and Gromek] have worked together to devise lessons for health, and they also have an abundance of materials already online which can aid their lessons.

“Melissa, who also provides technology expertise for the district during in-service days, has been available for our entire physical education/health staff at Heritage and has helped us all with our own individual questions. James did the curriculum writing with several other staff members several years back, so he has a strong command of the material. The two of them have been working together seamlessly.”

In order to “give the students some diversity,” the PE teachers have decided to rotate their lessons.

Some lessons require students to read articles related to health and wellness, team versus individual sports, lifetime activities, etc., while other lessons have students participating in five-to 10-minute workouts via YouTube or similar sites. For these, written questions related to their workout experience are provided for students to submit.

Students are also being asked to create different workouts using criteria learned in previous fitness units at school, Rubinetti explained. Video conferences have been set up for teachers to check in on the students and answer any questions they have.

“The frustrating part for us has been answering an Email from a student who still can't figure out how to find the information we are requesting,” said Rubinetti. “You almost want to say, ‘Give me your number and I will call you,’ but we know that is not an option. We have told them to reach out to a friend in the class via a phone call and have them walk you through it, and that has seemed to work.”

Rubinetti agreed with his colleagues that the feedback has been “overwhelmingly positive” over the first week.

“Some of our staff who live in Livingston and are in chat groups sent screenshots from parents who took to social media with rave reviews of what we as a district provided for their children,” he said. “Many said we were way out in front of other districts due to our preparedness and friends of theirs in other districts were in awe of what we were running already.

“That was nice to hear, and much of the credit should go to Superintendent Dr. Block, his assistants, their support staff, our administrators and, of course, our technology gurus. They helped to set the foundation for what we as educators laid out to our students this week.

“I must tell you that when they say you can't teach an old dog new tricks, they lied; even I was able to get through the first days of remote learning.”

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