Students in Chelsea Izzo’s fourth-grade class at Yates Elementary School are receiving special packages this week full of new books, games and a friendly reminder their teachers supports them.
Izzo was one of a handful of teachers around the country who won a $1,000 grant from Donors Choose, a national nonprofit that helps educators raise money to buy classroom supplies and other resources. She used the money to buy supplies for her students now learning from home.
She learned last Tuesday she won the grant and spent the week communicating with parents and gauging student interest in what they could use at home, all the while trying to keep it a secret from her students that they would soon get a special delivery in the mail.
“For many of our kids in Schenectady to get a package addressed to them at their house is special,” she said.
The first deliveries made it to their destinations early this week, with Izzo collecting pictures of smiling students opening boxes. Some parents plan to pick up the boxes Friday when Izzo helps out at the meal pick-up station at Yates.
The grant came in the form of an Amazon gift card, about $50 worth of spending for each of her 23 students and aimed to bolster her ability to outfit her students with activities and essentials during the school closures.
Izzo had done a Donors Choose project over the summer to get new stools for her room’s reading table. When the pandemic started to close school buildings the organization contacted her and other teachers with a survey about what kind’s supplies their students could use while working from home.
She filled out the survey and the organization notified her that she was a teacher being considered for funding; last week, she found out she got the grant.
Izzo has been doing end-of-day “quizzes” with her class, using them as a chance to ask questions about how students are doing with the new learning environment. She said she used one of those to gather input on the types of supplies students could use at home.
“I kind of did one of those slyly,” she said of gauging her students without giving away the surprise.
She even asked her students, “If you could buy one thing from Amazon, what would it be?”
“One of my boys wrote a cure for corona,” Izzo said.
The surprise supply kits all include books – as many as three per student – including fiction, nonfiction and books on subjects of particular interest to certain students. She asked students what book from their classroom library did they wish they could have brought home. At least one student got the first book in the Harry Potter series; another student will receive a cookbook for kids. The deliveries include games and outdoor activities, including some for the whole family, with each package tailored and personalized for each students.
“One little boy and his grandma said he needed sneakers,” Izzo said. “So he got sneakers.”
The student messaged her Sunday, saying he loved his new shoes and thanking her for picking them out. The packages also included basic everyday needs like toothpaste and deodorant. A lot of her students requested art supplies.
“My class is very creative and artsy this year,” she said.
Last month on the Friday before city schools closed, as school closures started to sweep the state, Izzo did her best to explain to her students that she didn’t know if they would be returning to school on Monday. The first questions from students, Izzo recalled: How are we going to get lunch?
“I kind of put on a brave face and said we were going to figure it out together,” she said.
School has not been the same ever since.
The students are working on Google’s education system, using Chromebook laptops provided by the school district. Everyday Izzo posts a morning greeting and a handful of activities for the day. Throughout the week, she records and posts read-alouds and has students practice math skills through a program that allows students to compete against one another, video game style. She communicates with students in different formats; some prefer email, some use a Google messaging and some like to check in by video chat – though some of those students are really just interested in seeing Izzo’s dog, Duke, she said.
One student, who requested Izzo post the assignments closer to 6 a.m. so she could get an earlier start on her work for the day, emails Izzo a good morning greeting each morning.
“I wake up to that every morning,” Izzo said.
Izzo said she regularly checks in with parents to see how things are progressing and whether there is anything she can do to support them.
“The parents are on the front lines,” she said.
She said she is making new types of connections with her students, in some ways getting more one-on-one time with students than in class. But the remote environment also makes it difficult for her to read the all-important, unspoken cues that sometimes better tell her how a student is doing than in their own words.
She said the level of engagement from students ranges across the class and for individual students from day to day. She said some students are still trying to get set up with the technology to regularly participate while others log in and do all their work each day. Lesson plans are developed on a week-to-week basis and for some subjects it’s hard to introduce new subjects and concepts remotely.
“It’s tough because it’s not a normal environment, and I don’t have them in front of me,” she said. “Seeing them face-to-face, to have that connection and know they are OK … It’s hard I don’t see their faces.”