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Local teacher doing her part to lift the spirits of area residents

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Hartington — In the wake of all the changes brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, teachers are not having to do quite a balancing act.

They must now adjust to both caring for their own children who are now being taught at home and adjust to teaching their students through distance learning.

When a preschool teacher was asked about her life changes since they learned about the Coronavirus, she had these insights to share about their coping mechanisms.

Jen Bensen, preschool teacher at Hartington-Newcastle Public School has 27 preschoolers in two different sections.

“I miss them all like crazy,” she said. “I am blessed to have amazing and supportive parents.”

 Since school was dismissed she has been sending out weekly packets for the students to complete if they choose.  

“I try to create work that is fun to do, promotes family/child interactions and covers the five developmental areas,” Bensen said. “I give specific worksheets or coloring/cutting pages for them to work on.  I also break down activities or games that focus on certain areas of development (adaptive, social-emotional, language and literacy, physical (fine and gross motor), mathematics).’’

One example of an activity for children to do at home is: Putting coins in a piggy bank to help with fine motor skills, counting, recognizing and naming money, etc.

She wants to see and talk to the students to make sure everything is going well.

“I have been in contact with parents via text, email, Bloomz (classroom communication tool-similar to Facebook but just for the class).  I had students sign up for times and I used Facetime to talk with students individually. I talked to them about what they’ve been doing, what activities are their favorites, they showed me their pets and bedrooms and siblings.  We sang songs and talked about the big get together we would have this summer to celebrate (maybe a pool or park party).” 

She also did Zoom classes with  small groups of kids and doing a fun activities together.

Helping her own kids with their school work has also been a challenge.

“I have always wondered what teaching in a one-room schoolhouse is like, and now I know,” she said.  “I have five of my own boys in grades 7, 5, 3, 1 and kindergarten.  It took a lot of trial and error in the first few weeks to figure out what worked best for our family.”

She tried several things before hitting on something that seemed to work well.

“I tried sitting down individually with each child and completing homework with them.  I found myself sitting for four to five hours everyday and not being able to get things done I needed to do for my preschoolers.  We went back to all five kids at the table at once.  I made a poster board for them to see what they needed to do each day.”

Keeping a good schedule is very important, she said.

“I’ve found I need a master calendar to keep track of everyone’s zoom meetings and specific times they need to be online.”  

“At our house we’ve done our homework, played card and board games, gone fishing, went hiking on trails up by the lake, Dad has taken each one to work with him (Beau Bensen Construction), they’ve built bike ramps, we’ve cooked food, etc.  Learning isn’t always on paper or computer and it’s important to integrate all of those things into everyday,’’ she said. “One amazing thing the school is doing is providing lunches for any child age 1-18 for free in the district.  This is such a blessing for our community.  My five boys are always so excited to get the meal. It’s a little piece of school that they can still enjoy.  We are so thankful for everyone working so hard to make this possible.”

A survive-the-virus project that started elsewhere has caught on here with Cedar County residents.

“I am taking part of the #frontstepsproject.  I am offering a quick photography session for families on their front steps.  I will shoot from the sidewalk or street.  That will take place next Tuesday evening. Their payment is a donation to the local food pantry,’’ she said. “One thing that I keep telling my parents is whatever they are doing right now is enough.  Some parents are home all day with their children.  Some have to still work full time.  Some are trying to work from home.  Some parents have lost their jobs and are worried about their financial situation.  Some parents are nurses and are doing everything they can not to bring this home to their families.  There are so many emotions and feelings during this time and every single one of them is okay.  If they are completing everything the school sends home, great!  If they are letting their child pick and choose and only doing some things, great.  If they are cuddling under a blanket all day with their child, great. If they are outside exploring with their kids, great.  They are enough, they are doing a wonderful job and whatever it is they are doing, it’s enough.’’

Bensen also added some videos on Facebook “Mrs. Bensen’s Preschool.”

Here are some things that she has shared to parents or friends:

“Last night was just amazing! We drove around town and the excitement and smiles in the kids faces and cheers and blown kisses...tears running down my cheeks the whole parade but my heart so happy, teachers are hurting big time and would give anything to wrap each one of these kids up in a HUGE hug.’’

Bensen said she walked through the gym the other day and it was dark and quiet. 

“This season is hard. We are all struggling in our own ways. Nothing feels right. I hated that empty gym. Then I realized that the school is only an address,’’ she said. “We are Wildcats and no matter where we are, WE ARE THE SCHOOL! We’re writing letters to nursing homes and people who are not allowed to have visitors or get out of their houses. We are putting up teddy bears and rainbows in windows to bring cheer to others. We are learning and growing everyday! We are learning life skills. We are learning to listen and follow directions. We are getting close to nature. We are exploring and thinking outside the box. We aren’t giving up, no matter how hard it is.’’

“Look around and see all the good coming from a tough situation. It’s everywhere,’’ she said. ‘’Parents- you are doing an amazing job in juggling all your hats. You ARE doing enough and you are doing it beautifully. Teachers, paras and administrators continually think outside the box and want to do everything possible to connect with students. Students you are wading in uncharted territory. This is going to be remembered for the rest of your life. You are doing it with kindness and grace,’’ she said. ‘’I am proud of this town and community and school. Together, no matter in the school or not, we are #wildcatstrong.’’