Every Thursday, Janie Norby's first graders join her Google Meet classroom at 12 o'clock—not for a lesson or a curricular activity, but for what Norby calls "Lunch Bunch." This special meeting is hosted from Norby's kitchen counter instead of her home office, where she teaches for the rest of the day. "It's a time for us to have a meal together ... to create bonds," said Norby.
"At Lunch Bunch, [students] ask each other questions and ask questions of me. Students share what they're having to eat for the day ... and chat about whatever they please." At a recent meal, students brought jokes to share and spent the whole time laughing, Norby recalled.
"I always come with a prompt question or two prepared, but I never have to use them," she said. "They are connecting with each other on a social level. No one is presenting to them at Lunch Bunch. They just get to connect with each other."
Before accepting the role as an e-learning teacher this fall, Norby served as a reserve teacher for Minnetonka Schools for 12 years. "I wasn't sure what I was signing up for at first, with the whole technology piece of the job," she said when remembering the start of the year.
Learning to use new apps and tools as part of her online classroom was a good transition, Norby shared, but she soon realized that her technical skills were not the most important part of teaching in an e-learning environment.
"The kids are not concerned with the beauty of my Google Slides, but with connecting with me and with each other," said Norby. "That was my lightbulb. I said [to myself], 'Janie, start planning ways for these kids to connect. You need to connect with these children as much as possible!'"
Norby began to brainstorm ways she could nurture relationships with her students beyond their regular school day. In addition to hosting live Google Meets for Lunch Bunch, she came up with another idea: Mrs. Norby's Bedtime Stories. Norby began to record herself reading children's books and shared the videos with families to play for students in the evenings.
"Reading bedtime stories is another way students can hear my voice and see my face as part of their day," said Norby. She said the response to her videos has been great, with students sending her messages to thank her for reading to them. "I always end the videos by saying, 'Sweet Dreams!' and students have written back to me, saying 'Sweet Dreams, Mrs. Norby!'"
Norby and her students refer to their class as their "classroom family."
"Families eat together, talk together and share what's on their minds," said Norby. "So, in our classroom, we do a lot of that."
By innovating new ways to nurture connections, teachers and students create environments of belonging in their classrooms. Minnetonka Schools is proud of the ways our teachers, students and families have gone above and beyond this year to build our community.