WARREN, NJ - Woodland School fifth-graders sat in groups of four and five on Dec. 7, discussing “A Dog’s Life: The Autobiography of a Stray’ by Ann M. Martin as part of a seemingly typical reading lesson.
Not so typical was the video conferencing equipment in a corner of the classroom that allows a former classmate, 10-year-old Peyton Walton, to join in the conversation from her home 200 miles south in Maryland.
“I think the author wants to show what stray dogs have to go through when they are separated from their family,” Peyton says, in response to a question from a fellow student.
Peyton was diagnosed with a rare form of liver cancer in June as she and her family were relocating from New Jersey to Maryland. She had immediate surgery to remove a large tumor, followed by rounds of chemotherapy and radiation in Washington D.C. and New York.
Hoping to “give Peyton a chance to feel like a normal kid,” Woodland fifth grade teacher Colleen Krumm invited her former student to participate in so-called Accountable Talk sessions, a student-centered approach to reading that encourages students to think more deeply about the text and to ask and respond to higher level thinking questions.
“Peyton is a keen observer and very mature for her age,” says Krumm who taught 4th grade last year. Peyton and many of Krumm’s current students were in her class.
The equipment used to connect Peyton to her friends at Woodland is on loan from Cisco, arranged by Stephen Krause, a Woodland parent who works for the technology company.
“Peyton misses a lot of school and the ability to participate in classroom activities virtually continues her growth and progress so that she can make a smoother transition when she returns to school on a regular basis,” Krumm says. “Her mom always tells me that she really enjoys our sessions and talks about them long after they’ve ended.”
Peyton also uses a robot she controls with an app to attend her new school in Maryland. Her face appears on an iPad screen attached to the rolling base that enables her to see and hear her teacher and classmates and to respond back. It has made her somewhat of a celebrity. She has appeared in print and television media reports, most recently in the Washington Post.
“I really like math and science, so I just like being there and learning what they have to teach me,” she told Washington Post reporter Donna St. George, about using the robot she calls PAVS for “Peyton’s Awesome Virtual Self.”
Both communities – new and old - have rallied behind Peyton and her family. To date, a GoFundMe fundraiser has generated more than $20,000 to pay for Peyton’s robot and to offset her medical costs. Friends and family in Warren participated in a “5K Walk for Peyton” in October.
On this particular Monday, dialed in remotely to her former school, Peyton wears her signature knit hat. (This one is striped red/white.) She listens intently as her group discusses the novel, raising her hand when she wishes to contribute. As the lesson comes to a close, her friends gather round to wave goodbye. She smiles and waves back.
“Peyton has been in and out of hospitals,” says Krumm. “She didn’t have much time to get to know her new friends in Maryland and I know she missed her friends here in New Jersey. This technology gives her the opportunity at some normalcy.”