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Sarasota Wednesday, Jun. 3, 2020 2 months ago

Spirit of America: Jeanette Nowaski

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The Bay Haven kindergarten teacher has found unique ways to connect with her students while learning online.
by: Brynn Mechem Staff Writer

When Jeanette Nowaski greets her students, it’s not uncommon to find her dressed up like a hot dog or Princess Leia. Nowaski, a kindergarten teacher at Bay Haven School of Basics Plus, is always looking for unique ways to connect with her students.

“I say all the time that the best investment I ever made was the hot dog costume,” she said with a laugh. “All the kids now know me as the hot dog lady, but it’s worth it because it brings a smile to all their little faces.”

That sentiment was only amplified when the district switched to e-learning. Although Nowaski said it was difficult to keep up relationships with her students, she felt called to find a way to connect, even if it was online.

“One of my biggest passions is teaching children to be their best selves and be good people,” she said. “So I’m just trying hard to connect with them, not only on an academic level but on a social and emotional level.”

In the last months of school, Nowaski tried to connect with her students in anyway she could. She made herself available on Zoom, Skype, text, email, Class Dojo, FaceTime and Facebook.

She even had a private YouTube channel where she did weekly readalouds of some of her favorite children’s books. She bought special lights and a microphone and learned how to edit special effects into her videos for the segment.

As time went on, Nowaski learned what her students preferred and began channeling her efforts into those areas. The favorite among her students was a full-class Zoom, which can be challenging with 18 children aged 5 and 6.

“It’s interesting, especially with kindergartners,” Nowaski said. “They want to share their pets and toys. I had one student jumping up and down on the bed. Another was wearing a Darth Vader mask. I think it’s hilarious. It just cracks me up.”

However, the meetings were a great way for students to continue connecting with their classmates, which helped boost their mental well-being.

In addition to the Zoom meetings, the class participated in a weekly restorative circle where students read a story that promotes kindness or empathy.

Nowaski’s favorite is “Have You Filled a Bucket Today?” by Carol McCloud. The book teaches children about how being kind to others can make them and you happy.

“We share ideas on how they can fill other people’s buckets, and in doing so, they help fill their own buckets,” she said. “It’s just really important, especially right now, to express kindness. It’s good for their emotional well-being and increases their positive feelings.”

But Nowaski isn’t just focused on the kids. She also worked with parents to create individualized lesson plans for the families because she realized that some parents are essential workers and couldn’t help their students every hour of the day.

“I can’t imagine having to work full time and then be a home-school teacher and a parent,” she said. “It’s just crazy, so I wanted to help with that.”

Even though she had to work harder and find more creative ways to connect with her students during remote learning, Nowaski said she was more than happy to do it.

“It’s about the kids,” she said. “It’s not about me or how I may be feeling. It is about the kids and their experiences and their education. They shouldn’t miss out on that just because we’re not together in the brick-and-mortar school.”

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