Q&A with an educator: Reaching remote learning students with personal notes

  • Sue Fountain, learn-at-home educator at Center Woods Upper Elementary School and Weare Middle School, poses with Valentine notes and goodie packets that were mailed out to her remote students. Courtesy photo

  • Sue Fountain—Courtesy photo

Monitor staff
Published: 2/22/2021 5:20:40 PM

Sue Fountain believes that small, meaningful, personalized connections can go a long way toward helping a student. This year, she’s doing that through the mail.

Fountain has been a teacher at Weare Middle School for eight years and has taught both fifth and sixth grade, but this year she is working remotely, teaching fourth and fifth grade learn-at-home students from Weare Middle School, Center Woods Upper Elementary and James Faulkner Elementary.

In an effort to connect with students during remote learning, Fountain has begun mailing them letters. The inspiration came from the book From Me to You by Anthony France – a children’s story about a rat who is lonely until one day an anonymous note written on bright paper changes everything and shows how far a little love can go. Fountain now mails personalized notes to all 46 of her students every month.

“Because they are all 100% remote, I felt like they need that extra connection,” Fountain said. “Instead of me being in person and being able to look at them and smile at them and say something kind to them, they’re getting a letter from me where I can do the same thing.”

Fountain lives in Bedford with her husband. She sat down with the Concord Monitor recently to discuss her letter writing project, and the challenges of teaching during COVID-19. The following transcript has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

Tell me about yourletter-writing project.

The first letter I wrote to them was in October. “I think you’re really amazing and I’m so happy to be your teacher.” It was just an encouraging couple of sentences on a piece of bright yellow paper. The next one I sent was in December, a green piece of paper inside the red envelope, “enjoy your vacation, enjoy your siblings, relax and unwind,” that kind of thing. Then in January I sent them a letter that had a piece of white cardstock so they could make bookmarks. I modeled it for them and said, “I want you to come up with five things that you can do to help you stay calm when you are feeling stressed or anxious or frustrated or angry,” so they can understand that they have some control over that in themselves. I said, “decorate it and send it back to me.” When we have class, I take notes when we do show-and-tell, so I have something to say to them in the letter in case I can’t remember. The school’s been really nice – I told them, “I’m going to be sending these letters to kids” and they supported me using the postage machine at the school. I purchased nice, bright red envelopes so they know, that must be a letter from Mrs. Fountain. It’s been a lot of fun.

What responses haveyou gotten?

I’ve started getting parents telling me, “My child loves getting these letters.” I kept thinking, who doesn’t like getting mail? It’s so nice seeing something hand-written, not typed on a computer. I did have a couple kids write me back, which I loved. I had a few students during remote classes, say, “I got your letter yesterday, it’s hanging up on my wall!” Then when they got the second letter, a parent emailed me and said, “My son has your letter on the wall” and they taped the second one right next to it and he gets a big smile on his face. That really just made my day.

What has been your biggest challenge of teachingduring COVID?

I think my biggest challenge is really making them feel like they are part of a community, part of a classroom still, and that they are seen and heard, even though it’s electronic. So that’s why I was really trying to think of ways I could reach them that was different. No one in the school is getting mail, just them. It’s kind of special. That was my number one thing, not having kids feel so isolated and separated from everything else going on in their community. Our virtual classroom is a community, and I stress that all the time.

Have you had any bigremote-learning successes?

At the end of every day I do a read-aloud with my fourth-grade group. I chose a book from an author who wrote a series of stories called the “Imaginary Veterinary Series.” I had a parent email me saying that her child – who hates to read – really liked the book. So I got the author [Suzanne Selfors] to do an author visit with us on Zoom. The author was so gracious, she did a 30-minute Zoom call with us and the kids got to ask her questions. She sent an order form special to our school and allowed the kids to purchase the other books if they wanted, and she inscribed them to the kids. This particular student bought all six in the series. So there were kids who got a renewed interest in reading because of the exposure to that. So I felt really good about that. That was one of the best things that happened to me this year.

What inspires you as a teacher?

I really get a lot out of when I reach a kid. The kid who, we’re doing a math lesson and he wasn’t getting it, he’d have this frustrated look on his face. And then yesterday he says, “Mrs. Fountain, after we got off the Zoom call, I looked at it again and I got it!” I’m really motivated by the kids and how they react. I’m really inspired by how they feel about themselves after being in front of me. I want to be that teacher that is the one who makes them feel like they can do anything they set their mind to. I tell them the story of Mae Jemison, she was the first Black female astronaut and when she was a little girl, she said, “I want to be a scientist,” and her teacher said to her, “[don’t you mean a nurse?]” And I read them that story and then I show them what this woman is doing today – she goes all over the world and speaks, she’s written books, she’s a mathematician, an astronaut, a scientist. And I say to them, “Look, you can do anything you want.” It makes me feel good when I feel like I am getting that message to them. 

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