ELKTON — When Mindy Polansky started teaching in 1991, she couldn’t have imagined how her thirtieth year would begin — not in the classroom, but connecting with students virtually from a webcam in her basement. In the early days, her classroom had one computer, which students used to play Oregon Trail during breaks between lessons.
But with most Cecil County Public Schools (CCPS) students starting the school year remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Polansky did her best to replicate the look and feel of her typical classroom as a way to get students — and herself — in the learning mindset.
“I needed to feel like I was in a classroom in order to be able to communicate that to my students,” she said. “I hope it gives them that feel of transporting them into a classroom and knowing that here we are to learn, and Mrs. Polansky is going to take care of you.”
Polansky is a third grade teacher at Holly Hall Elementary School. While she had the option to go into school and reach her students virtually from her classroom, she decided to work remotely because her son is autoimmune compromised.
Despite starting the year amid such unexpected circumstances, Polansky is staying positive.
“Every year brings something different,” she said. “I try to reframe things, so if something happens and it’s not what I wanted to happen, I scream out, ‘Plot twist!’”
Still, preparing her classroom is part of getting ready for the upcoming year, and Polansky wanted to recapture the spirit of being in school. She explained that her husband helped outfit their basement room, using furniture from around the house to create a desk.
She brought some supplies from school to recreate her classroom. She has a ‘throne’ where she sits when she’s reading to the class. She uses a vowel wall to help students learn reading. She uses props, such as a big globe, to help them stay visually engaged. In setting up her home classroom, Polansky only spent her own money on a cart and a magnetic whiteboard.
“I wanted to create a culture of learning, even if it’s from my basement,” she said. “I knew I wanted to have some things from my physical classroom in my virtual classroom so that when we do go back into the classroom, it’s a seamless transition.”
Polansky said she’s excited to be seeing her students and is adapting to new technology to form connections with them. She described herself as a bitmoji addict, and said she has students use emojis or update their online statuses to make lessons more interactive.
“The heart of any learning experience is that connection, that relationship,” she said. “I make sure I use their names throughout the lesson. When they turn in their work, I put little comments on it so that they know that even though I’m not physically there with them, I’m emotionally there for them.”
She commended Holly Hall’s second grade teachers, who abruptly shifted to online learning mid-semester in the spring. Her kids, she said, are familiar with how to use technology. Still, she misses being able to see them in-person.
“I’m very big at looking at body language,” she said. “I like to read the room when I’m in a classroom, so this is the one challenge I’ve had — not being able to see all my students at one time.”
In some lessons, like reading, the in-person aspect is even more crucial.
“With my students who don’t have a strong foundation, they need to really be able to see my mouth, the position of my tongue and my teeth so that they know how to accurately make the sounds and then connect them,” she said. “It’s really important that I have a good camera.”
As CCPS considers plans for a broader reopening as early as next month, Polansky said she’s ready to get back into the classroom. She’ll set an example for students, wearing her mask and washing her hands thoroughly.
She said her journey through education has prepared her for this year.
“All the things that guided my instruction for the past bazillion years — it’s not going to change just because I’m online,” she said. “I just love a puzzle. I love a good challenge.”
As Polansky continues to find new ways to reach students amid an ever-shifting pandemic, she’s doing her best to go with the flow. Plot twist!