This week I am attending a virtual conference from my makeshift (and yet somehow more and more permanent) office in my dining room.
It is an annual conference for fundraising professionals hosted by Blackbaud, the platform Easterseals uses to manage donor data.
Initially, I wasn’t super excited to be glued to my computer for Zoom Keynotes and Zoom breakout sessions and Zoom networking (what even is that?). That PLUS my regular Zoom meetings seemed like maybe too much zooming.
Then, the people at Blackbaud scored Amy Poehler as a keynote speaker.
(If you don’t know Amy Poehler’s alter-ego Leslie Knope from the long-running TV show Parks & Rec, you *must* go right now and binge-watch it on Netflix. It is a definite pandemic pick-me-up.)
#BBCON, you had me at Amy Poehler.
Leslie Knope is known for her commemorative scrapbooks and detailed event binders, her dedication to her job, and her enthusiastic encouragement of absolutely everyone to be their very best. She is the ultimate development professional: nothing gets her down, she can always find a way to work around a “no,” and she has never-ending energy.
(I kind of love Leslie Knope.)
But it was the actress, not the character giving the keynote, so I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Turns out, Amy Poehler is her own brand of Leslie Knope, having recently started “Amy’s Smart Girls,” a nonprofit “dedicated to helping young people cultivate their authentic selves.”
She was amazing.
She talked about the physicality of doing her voice work as the character “Joy” in Disney Pixar’s Inside Out. She talked about the world right now, about finding happiness in uncertainty, and about philanthropy.
Two things she said stuck out to me.
First, she said “Do work you are proud of with your talented friends.”
CHECK. I am proud of the work we do at Easterseals. It’s SO hard right now because of COVID pivots and uncertainty, but I know that what we are doing makes a difference in the lives of the kids and families we serve. And boy do we have some amazing talent. From our teachers and assistants to our PT/OT/Speech and Music therapists to our Assistive Tech Department and even accounting, we have staff that work here because they love it, and it shows.
Then, when talking about philanthropic giving, she said “Giving is self-care.”
It feels good to do good.
Leslie Knope couldn’t have said it better herself.
As we approach the season of giving, I don’t want our donors to “give till it hurts.”
I want to help our donors learn more about what we do, about how we serve people with disabilities, and how we continue to serve families through COVID. I want donors to get Leslie Knope-level excited about our mission. I want them to understand why their gifts are so critical (especially now), and to see the absolute joy on a child’s face when they achieve a goal… a goal made real in part because of our donors’ gifts.
I want our donors to give until it feels good.
I’d even be willing to make a scrapbook to commemorate the occasion.
This summer marked my 5th year as an ESY (Extended School Year) teacher for Lower Merion School District through Easterseals of Southeastern PA. I have worked with students in the program from grades K to 12, and while I mostly work with students in their own homes, in past years I have meet with kids at local camps, equestrian farms, libraries, churches, and even cafes. All work is provided by the child’s special education teacher and I track data for each goal highlighted in the child’s IEP. I LOVE this program and the all of the students I have worked with throughout the years. I normally have a new group of kids each summer, but I have met with some students multiple years in a row. Every family I have met has been warm, inviting, and grateful for my summer help.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, this summer was the first time I completed my tutoring sessions online. At first I worried that I would have trouble connecting with each student in a virtual format, but each child’s personality was still able to shine through. I had one student who bonded with me over our shared love of guinea pigs. At the final session, she showed me her pigs, and I held up all three of mine. I had another student who was very into technology. Each session he had a different virtual background waiting for me to see. I learned a lot of new Zoom features by working with this child!
I struggled to figure out how to teach over Zoom, using the scanned paper and pencil tasks that had been left by the students’ teachers. I ended up using the “Snipping Tool” to “cut” the daily tasks we would be completing together. I then pasted each activity into a Google Slides presentation. I made a new set of Google Slides for each session, and started each presentation with the objectives for the day. I locked each task so that it could not be moved, and then added text boxes on top of the task so that the student could type the answer. We also used the line feature for matching activities and the scribble tool for multiple choice questions. Students were able to work in Google Slides with me during the session, which made our time much more fun and interactive. When it was time to send materials back to the teachers in August, I was able to include a document of Slide links, instead of scanned pictures or individual materials. What I thought was going to be a more difficult summer of adjusting to teaching online, actually ended up being much calmer and organized than I could have planned. I am excited to return to my regular position of teaching second grade, where my district will be fully virtual until at least October 2.
This was my first summer taking part in the Easterseals program for ESY, working with high school students in writing. After several years as a professional writing tutor for a couple of universities in the area, I took the chance to broaden my experience by working with students at a different grade level. Online tutoring, as a result of the pandemic, is a mixed bag: on the one hand, I’ve done totally virtual tutoring in the past, so the transition was smooth for me. I point that out because, conversely, students were still adjusting to the shift from in person learning to using computers from home, logging on to school and tutoring. The readiness of distractions, coupled with the separation from a dedicated learning space, made for difficulty early on. As the first couple of weeks went by, students started to adjust to this new situation. We established routines and had clearly defined expectations for each session we met for.
This year, everyone needed to adjust to these new circumstances: teachers, parents, and students. ESY was no exception, as families were forced to cancel vacations, children had to stay inside away from friends, and both present and future were uncertain (and remain so). While ESY may not have been most students’ first choice on how to spend this new summer vacation, I believe it did help to bring some sense of normalcy to their lives. No matter what else may have been going on, there was at least the knowledge that “I’m going to be doing writing work later this week.” While keeping skills sharp during summer break, ESY gave the chance for routine, which is important for anyone during times like these. I feel great knowing that working with Easterseals helped provide not only learning, but structure for these students.
Our Takeaways to Remember for Online Learning:
1) Keep an open mind: While virtual teaching is different from the in-person learning we are used to, it has many positives. Students can interact with coursework in new ways and show off their computer skills. There is still time to bond with each student, so look for their interests and help foster connections with those.
2) Keep to a routine: Students thrive from routine and structure. If possible, use the same link for each session and meet at the same time each day. Structure your activities in the same format such as: warm-up, mini lesson, practice, fun review game. Students will know what to expect and will feel more confident participating.
3) Be organized: In an online format activities and lessons need to be easily accessible and ready to go to maximize time-on-task with students. Consider placing your lesson into a format like Google Slides or Google Docs that students can complete with you. If students are not completing tasks on the screen, these formats can still be used for organization when you share your screen. Use easy to use fonts and do not overload each slide with excessive pictures or colors. Keep student interest by alternating text with videos, games, and other activities.
4) Set expectations: Telling the students the objectives of the lesson upfront will help them stay on task as the lesson moves forward. When working with students with IEPs, tell them which goal you are working towards and why. Students are often much more motivated to complete tasks if they know what they are working towards. Some students are also competitive and want to beat their own scores when they notice a pattern in assessments and have a set goal. Celebrate their victories when they move closer to their goals or surpass them. Consider graphing their progress each week to add an extra element (and some math!) to the process.
5) Be flexible: Everyone is adjusting to new territory this year and many students are going through more than we know. Try to be patient and encouraging with students by allowing them to keep their videos turned off, allowing time for snacks, and factoring in some movement breaks. Sometimes allowing for something this simple can keep the student working hard throughout the session.
Matt Parsons is a professional writing tutor and adjunct professor at two local universities. Melanie Solano works as a second grade teacher and the LMS Curriculum Coordinator for Springfield School District in Delaware County. They both love teaching and helping students meet their goals.
I don’t think anyone would disagree that the past five months have been a whirlwind. Our lives were turned upside down and sideways. Was I anticipating that the Covid pandemic was going to last this long? No I wasn’t. As the days went by I found myself drifting away from family and friends. Regular interaction with co-workers was mostly halted due to the appropriate decisions to have the staff work from home. Those of you who know me, know that I am a pretty upbeat and positive soul. I felt like I was starting to lose some of my shine. Not having any of the normalcy I was used to, that I’ve taken for granted, was starting to wear on me. Can’t do something as simple as have breakfast at the Diner before I go food shopping. Oh, and let’s not talk about the whole process of food shopping. I miss the kids. I so miss the kids. They are the best part of my work day.
I realized I needed to connect. I needed to bring some of the sunshine and joy back into my life. I needed some Mung therapy. Just in case you have never read any of my blogs, Mung is a student that graduated from Easterseals a couple of years ago. I bonded with him and his family while he was a student here and we have kept in touch. Usually meeting up a couple times a year for an outing. So grateful to his family for sharing him with me. For his summer break I had planned to meet up with him, take the ferry from Penn’s Landing, go to the Camden Aquarium and feed him to the sharks. Ok, I wasn’t going to feed him to the sharks. Unfortunately, circumstances squashed my plans. I thought about it. If I’m feeling disconnected, how must it feel for the kids. It was time for me to get selfish. Time to bring a little unexpected sunshine into his life. Selfish because this would probably bring me more joy than he would get out of it. I have a little inexpensive pick-me-up I use on occasion. It is a Cookie Card. Its $6.00, shipping included. You get to send one cookie in a decorated box with your message on the label. I got so excited at the prospect of bringing joy that it helped bring that spark back. I couldn’t wait for it to be delivered.
I didn’t have to wait long before I got a text with a picture and two videos of him thanking me aka “Wonder Woman” and Autumn (my daughter) aka “Bat Man”. He said that he loves and misses us. It was so nice to hear. I realize that you can start to lose yourself if you become too disconnected from the world and each other. We have to get used to a “new normal” and have to rebalance how that makes us feel, find the positives and take joy in the little things. It’s been real trying, but we’ll be stronger because of it.
As we enter another month in quarantine due to Covid-19 and our focus on maintaining our physical health continues, what about our mental health? Making sure we are mentally healthy is equally important, and many of us are facing challenges in doing just this. Our mental health is being challenged whether you are an essential worker and must be away from your family, or you are a stay at home parent navigating distance learning or are working from home while navigating distance learning with your children. Maybe you have a child with special needs or medical needs that causes you extra worry during this time. These, and there are many more, can challenge the mental health of any individual.
May is Mental Health Month, and I wanted to talk about this very important issue. Our mental health is always important but seems to be extra important during the Covid-19 quarantine. But let’s talk about it from the perspective of maintaining mental health of an occupational therapist. Occupational Therapists see “occupations” as a way to health and well-being. Occupations are not just our “job”, but the things we do throughout the day. These could be our morning routines, caring for our children, distance learning, exercising, leisure activities, etc. To help us engage in our occupations throughout the day, I’m suggesting that we take a few moments to focus on our breathing. Breathing sounds like such a simple and basic thing, but how we breath can have either a negative or positive effect on our well-being. We don’t pay much attention to our breath, but if you take a moment to do so right now, you may notice that your breathing is short and shallow. What if you expand that breath, taking in a full deep breath and feel your lungs fill? How does this make you feel? Often when we are stressed, angry, frustrated, sad, etc., our breath becomes shallow. Taking some deep breaths can help calm the mind and the body before we act on our feelings. Being in a more calm and relaxed state can help us engage in our occupations more successfully and purposefully.
Here are some guided breathing exercises that you can do yourself and with your children that are already posted on YouTube. The videos are short, 3-5 minutes. Doing these breathing exercises at the start of the day, when you are feeling stressed or frustrated, or just needing a break, can help you power through the next few hours of your day. I hope you will try them and let me know what you think! Let’s keep a focus on our mental health!
As you now know, Easterseals programs and community-based therapies are closed until March 27th in correspondence with the school district and state policies regarding the outbreak of Covid-19.
In the meantime, if you find yourself at home looking for therapeutic games or activities for your child, here are some ideas of things to do while keeping everyone healthy and safe.
Make a sensory bin by putting dried beans or rice in a tupperware bin with other small objects/figures like the ones here. Have your child dig through and name what they find.
Make slime with your child. Here is a recipe with items you might have. If you don’t have those ingredients, make “Oobleck” with cornstarch and water.
Tape pieces of paper together and create a mural with your child using paints, crayons, or markers.
Work on sorting shapes: Put tape on the floor in the form of different shapes and have your child sort objects from around the house into piles according to shape. Or, have your child sort small items by color into muffin tins. If you have a printer, here is a free printable that targets the same skill. (If your child is able, they can cut out the pictures with help!)
If you have access to a printer, print some worksheets and have your child name pictured objects, practice making circles and Xs, and work on visual attention with search-and-find or connect-the-dots worksheets.
Bake cookies with your child. Talk about and name the ingredients, help your child measure the ingredients and count scoops. Here is a simple cookie recipe with ingredients you might have around the house.
Go on a scavenger hunt around the house. Work on vocabulary for different rooms of the house, furniture, clothing, appliances etc. Run around and see who can get to each item first.
Read, read, read! With the books you have, read to your child as much and as often as they will attend.
Preschool Learning Games
Zingo: Have your child name and match the pictured objects. Practice saying “I got a [object]”, asking “Do you need a [object]?”, and answering Yes/No questions in response.
Pop The Pig: Roll the dice and match the color burger to the color on the dice. Practice recognizing and naming numbers 1-4 and then counting the target number when you press down Pop’s head.
Zimbbos: Work on saying “[color] + elephant” and fine motor dexterity as you stack elephants.
Uno Moo or Uno: practice matching and naming colors/animals or matching colors/numbers.
Memory Match games: flip over two cards per turn and say if they are the same or different. If they’re different, flip them back over. If they’re the same, you got a match!
If you have a deck of cards and your child is able, teach them to play Go Fish or a modified version.
Stay safe, and don’t be afraid to get creative with your child during this trying time!