Abby Normandin, a second-year special education teacher at Mott Hall III in the Bronx, said teaching students remotely has forced her “to be more creative; to see learning in a new way.”
Before the December holidays, she wanted to do something fun and engaging with her middle school students. “I wanted it to feel like a holiday party,” she said.
Normandin filled envelopes with hot chocolate, marshmallows, a spoon, a thermometer and paper math tools. On the outside, she wrote: Do not open until Friday science class. Then she mailed them to her 6th-graders.
During class, they opened the envelopes together and made hot chocolate at their homes.
They did an experiment about energy transfer, holding their thermometers above cold water and then above the hot chocolate to compare the air’s temperature. During math, they solved hot chocolate-themed problems about proportional relationships.
“They were so excited,” Normandin said. “They still ask me, ‘Are you going to send us more gifts in the mail?’”
Normandin had her career planned early. She came home from her first day of kindergarten and told her mother, “I’m going to be a teacher when I grow up.” She fleshed out the plan during high school when she volunteered for an organization that strives to enhance the lives of the disabled. “I got involved with Best Buddies and fell in love with special education,” Normandin remembered.
She took a detour in college, changing her major from special ed to public policy — with a focus on education — and then realized her first plan was the best plan. “Something always brought me back to the classroom,” she said.
She applied for a New York City Teaching Fellowship and, four months after graduating, she was a teacher at Mott Hall. Six months later, schools shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Having those months of normalcy really has been beneficial because I remember what it’s like to have a classroom full of children; I remember the special moments,” Normandin said.
When schools suddenly went remote, teachers all faced the same new challenges. “Most of my colleagues say they feel like first-year teachers right now. There’s definitely a sense of community,” she said.
Being the new kid did have one advantage. “I was able to step up with different technologies because I grew up with a lot of them,” the 24-year-old said.
Collaboration has been essential, and it’s something Mott Hall III does well. “Everything is a team effort at my school,” Normandin said. “I can ask my more senior teachers their thoughts on my lessons, and they can ask me for a cool technology to use with their kids.”
Normandin teaches 6th–8th grades, with about 12 students in each class — three in person, the rest remote. Her subject areas this year are math and science.
“It’s really exciting to work with so many students who have different ways of seeing the world and different strengths and different challenges,” she said. “And I really love the small class setting because I feel like I’m able to connect with my students. I have time to build relationships.”
The toughest thing about remote teaching, Normandin said, is trying to connect with students she has never met in person, about half her roster.
“I start every period with a check-in because I want them to know that how they are physically and mentally is really important to me,” she said. “I really value creating a classroom community. I want my kids to feel as safe and as loved in my remote classroom as they would if we were in person.”