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The 2020 STA Winners Share Their Distance Learning Stories

We are thrilled to celebrate and recognize all our Sanford Teacher Award Winners for exemplifying inspirational instruction in the classroom and remote learning settings. Over the past few months, educators across the country have worked tirelessly to provide engaging and inspirational distance learning to students. School closures and stay-at-home orders have emphasized how important educators and school resources are to the well-being of their students. Many teachers are implementing strategies like they are pilots building their own planes mid-flight. This sense of urgency has fueled creativity and compassion, and we are excited to share distance learning stories and strategies from some of the 2020 Sanford Teacher Award winners in their own words.


Melissa Collins

John P. Freeman Optional School

Memphis, Tennessee

Melissa Collins has developed a highly interactive remote learning experience for her students by connecting with another class outside their district and involving parents in everyday learning opportunities. She also honored students by getting their families involved for a surprise drive-by celebration to commemorate their promotion to the next grade. Read her story:

My class has collaborated with a New Jersey class and we have completed several projects together. We combined the pen pals to host a virtual cooking class with a real chef from Memphis. The students made a strawberry shortcake, turkey and cheese sandwich, and salad. Parents helped the students to create the meal as well. We completed a STEM project together. We created instruments out of recyclable items and played the instruments becoming One Band making One Sound. Also, my students have talked to STEM professionals for an entire week. We had a doctor discuss COVID-19, and I invited a psychologist to talk to students about their feelings and emotions.


Mary Wentland

Lakeland Union High School

Minocqua, Wisconsin

Throughout the school closure, Mary Wentland has made it a point to brighten the lives of her students and their families with check-in letters. She has creatively packaged this important communication in fun, lighthearted ways, like this delicious note wrapped in a popcorn box:

I was just “popping in” to say “Hi” to see how my students and their families are doing.


Alejandro Diasgranados

Aiton Elementary School

Washington, D.C.

Alejandro Diasgranados and his students have felt the heavy impacts of COVID-19 in their community. Facing a technology gap, Mr. Diasgranados’ school district distributed devices for completing online work and learning packets for families without internet access. Using all sorts of communication tools, including video chat and phone, he has stayed connected with students and created spaces for them to connect with each other. Read his story:

During a time like this I believe it’s important for students to still be able to engage in non-academic discussion and conversation with their classmates. I’ve provided them with a space to converse and provide support for each other much like we would during our Community Circles… Many students have lost loved ones, some parents have lost jobs, and others are working multiple jobs.

I’ve also been able to support them through the tragic incidents that took place with Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Providing students with social emotional support is critical during these times, so the majority of my conversations with students have been fun and lighthearted, similar to our classroom environment. We’ve made lunch together, talked about sports, music and video games, and they’ve also taught me a few new dances that they’ve learned.


Maggie Murphy

Piney Creek School

Piney Creek, North Carolina

Maggie Murphy is proud of the entire staff at Piney Creek School for stepping up to care for students and families in practical ways. Together, they are all doing their part to help the community stay healthy and connected even at a distance. Read her story:

Our staff has all taken turns during the weeks to ride the yellow school buses to deliver meals to our families in need. My teaching partner and I have begun a Book Mobile to safely deliver books around the county. We load them in the back of the car, open the hatch from the inside, let kids get hand sanitizer, and then choose a book, garden kit, journal, etc. It has been so fun!! Our K-2 teachers also sent out “Flat Stanley” versions of themselves to the students to go on adventures. SO many great things happening!


Michael Ginicola

Nichols Elementary School

Stratford, Connecticut

Michael Ginicola, creator of The Phys. Ed. Depot, has been helping students and their families stay active while sheltering at home with limited space. Read his story and watch the video of Mr. Ginicola’s Virtual Field Day:

I was really proud of running our first ever “virtual field day.” We saw wonderful results even as parents are struggling at home. We gave students a day off from other school content so they could focus on having fun at home with P.E. challenges. Being in a Title I school of 470 students, we never know what we’re going to get for engagement… so the results were overwhelming to me.


Watch the video highlights that the parents shared!

We are incredibly impressed by the 2020 Sanford Teacher Award winners as they demonstrate kindness and compassion while adapting to support the needs of our communities. It is an honor to share their stories. Check back with Inspire News as we continue to feature voices from the STA winners and their inspirational journeys.