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How's distance learning going?

In just eight days, schools have changed the way they educate students. It’s a challenge schools have never faced before.

As students across the region, the state, the country, adjust to learning from home, teachers and administrative staff, too, are working to make the transition as smooth as possible.

“I’m blown away by the creativity and thoughtful lessons the teachers have created while maintaining our high academic rigor,” said Melissa Livermore, dean of Academic Support at Holy Family Catholic High School in Victoria. “We’re staying true to who we are and keeping relationships at the front and center.”


No matter the grade level, or the class subject, or the school itself, the one constant is the importance of organization and communication with distance learning.

“Routine is your friend. Students like to ‘know the game plan’ more than ever now,” said Carlee Kocon, World Literature and Creative Writing teacher at Holy Family Catholic High School. “I also think students have learned that they have to actually open their email and read it, since, when you’re at school, assignments are said aloud, posted on the board, posted online, etc., but now the physical reminders aren’t there.”

Communication from student to teacher also has showed what is working and what is not. Kocon said everyone is learning together. “(It) doesn’t have to be scary, but it does mean we have to follow directions and work together to find solutions,” she said.


So much of a school day is about the interactions between student and teacher, and student and student. Keeping that connection is something teachers are trying to do.

Sometimes it’s a video message each morning to an elementary class. Sometimes it might be a Zoom meeting. Ian Parzyck, science teacher at Holy Family Catholic High School, has used social media to connect.

“I’ve created a Twitter account (@WhiteBoardMrP) that has become my virtual ‘whiteboard’ in a way that has daily plans posted, pertinent links, and funny daily items to keep some sort of connection. I’ve been willing to share more of myself on social media to show a side of me that my students don’t normally get to see that much. For instance, I’ve been doing training videos with my son and posting them on my track and field Twitter account.

“Seeing their old coach with a blown-out hip slugging his way through workouts with his rambunctious 8-year-old son I think is comedic gold. And I hope that it brings a smile to my students and athletes to just keep slugging away in whatever situation we are dealt in life,” he said.


What works with Parzyck and science might not work with other subjects. Holy Family Catholic’s Shelagh Gamble, who deals with all things clay, painting and drawing, teaches a very hands-on course.

“Each course has been designed with multiple interactive assignments online. The goal is for students to have daily engagement with something, this includes video work (via Flipgrid), collaboration posts (via 365 Teams) and sketchbook entries. I will often respond to students individually or as a group on these platforms,” Gamble said.

She also meets live on Zoom or 365 Teams once per week for “show and tell.”

“This live session allows me to interact directly with everyone, and also for them to see their peers, which I’m sure is a very missed part of life right now,” Gamble said.


The first week of distance learning was met with some challenges. Online learning sites have seen server interruptions.

Balancing working from home and helping children with their school work also has made for long days for parents.

“The teachers did a great job in preparing materials. But it’s tough! Hard to keep focus for elementary kiddos, and hard for two adults to continue working while trying to assist the distance learning. But it’s just week one! Hoping that we find a routine,” said District 112 parent Gina Rutter.

“My fifth-grader is doing really well; the teachers have communicated the work clearly, they gave a schedule to keep routine, and even gave some extra items to try for additional learning. But she misses connecting with friends,” said District 112 parent Patti Williamson.

“So far so good. Our teachers have been great! They have laid everything out so well. A few kinks that needed to be worked out the first day, but all going well since. The kids are engaged for a couple hours a day. It is not too overwhelming so far,” stated parent Michelle DeBolt Donahue, on the Chaska Herald Facebook page.

“My students have stepped up big time,” said Annie Lund, a biology teacher at Chaska Middle School West. “I had near 100 completion of their first assignment. I made a video giving directions and background. The kids seemed very eager to get started and I think they understand this is a unique time in our history and they are doing their part for this country by putting their best foot forward. My own kids at home are going above and beyond as well. These kids are going to surprise us!”


Juli Currie of Chanhassen has been a homeschool teacher for her seven kids, the oldest now married, the youngest at the end of elementary school age.

She agrees a daily routine is necessary. Students need structure, whether in the classroom or at home.

“A starting time in the morning is a good beginning. Whatever works with your family. I know some that start at 7:30 and we start closer to 9 a.m. Treat it as if you were going to ‘real’ school. So, whatever your morning was like (work out, shower, breakfast, etc.), complete and be ready to roll at the designed time,” Currie said.

A specific location in your home for work is also helpful. Expecting a child to work on the couch with the TV feet away is an unnecessary distraction.

“Whether it is the kitchen table or a child’s desk, a place to be at the time encourages getting to work,” she said.

Currie suggests writing out all daily assignments as a checklist. Let your child work as independently as they can be. If a child is struggling with a particular assignment, take a break from it and come back later.

“Our house rule is school work first. So no other activities until your work is done. I have had kids miss practice/after-school activities because they choose not to finish their school work on time,” she said.

Her No. 1 takeaway from her experience of teaching her kids from home was the bond that was formed.

“I have found it is not worth screaming at a child for any lesson. My relationship with that child is way more valuable than any math or whatever subject. And don’t forget to laugh! I try to remind myself of how lucky I am to spend all this time with my kids. It is time that I never regret having with them. I especially appreciate this as yet another graduates (fifth of seven) in a month,” Currie said.

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If it's Monday, it's Michael's Monday Madness: Join the Brindisis for happy hour

Sheltering at home doesn’t mean routines need to end. Like happy hour. Or more specifically, Mad Monday Happy Hour at Brindisi’s Pub.

Since the pub is currently closed, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Chanhassen Dinner Theatre Artistic Director Michael Brindisi and long-time CDT actor Michelle Barber Brindisi (the Brindisis are co-owners of CDT) brought happy hour to the CDT Facebook page.

From 5-5:45 p.m. Monday, March 30, the Brindisis kicked off a livestreaming happy hour from their Chanhassen family room. The inaugural happy hour/talk show included Michelle interviewing Michael about directing theater, the show “The Music Man” (currently on hold), and reading and responding to the online Facebook comments from viewers.

“Everyone loved it,” said Kris Howland, CDT director of public relations. “The two of them are the most positive human beings on the planet. People thought it was refreshing to hear from them. It was calming; it brings normalcy to the day. It makes you feel normal again. Here we all are, distancing from each other, but it’s little things like that, through technology, that make us feel better.

“It was really fun for them,” Howland said, “but they realized, (45 minutes) is a lot of time to fill.”

“We realized we want to have more talking points, focus a little more and make it engaging,” Michael said. “I know Michelle enjoyed interviewing me about the process of directing and I’m sure there’ll be more of that. We’re planning some song parodies; actually she’s taken over that project.”

“It was so enlightening,” Michelle said. “To see how many people tuned in, and how many actors from the past contacted us.”

The idea of doing a series of interviews with Michael came up three months ago. “We thought about doing a podcast series. With Michael’s depth of knowledge about theater and directing, I thought it could be really interesting,” Michelle said.

Stay at home

And then COVID-19 swept the country, shutting down everything.

It seemed a perfect opportunity to reach out, not with a podcast, but via Facebook, to the CDT family, staff, patrons and theater fans.

Nick Haug oversees CDT website and social media. He helped the Brindisis set up the equipment, aided by emailing photos of devices and step-by-step instructions back and forth. “Michael and Michelle aren’t that techy,” Haug said. “Under normal circumstances I’d be there in person setting it up for them.”

“The idea was so interesting, so genius ... but when we were doing it, I thought, ‘Oh, crap!’” Michelle said with a laugh. “What are we going to talk about?’

“So we bulldozed through the hour. I talk a lot when I’m nervous. But it was so much fun to hear what everyone is up to and to have people call in. We heard from Amy Silverman who is in New York. She was in “Nunsense” and “Nuncrackers,” Scott Gilbert, one of the best tappers ever, who’s now teaching. I thought, ‘This is pure gold!’”

Alongside the many “We miss you,” “Love the CDT,” “Can’t wait until you open again,” were notes from their daughter Cat Brindisi Darrow. She was watching from Pennsylvania.

“More humor, please,” she texted, tweaking her parents.

“How like her father is she?” Michelle laughed.

Not her first rodeo

Michelle once hosted a program on a Twin Cities public television channel, KTCA, Channel 2. Her show was one of a nightly series called “Nighttimes.” Her program was “Nighttimes Variety with Michelle Barber.” Other programs were Nighttimes Sportsline and Nighttimes Magazine, which became the weekly public affairs program “Almanac.”

Michelle got the gig in 1980. She was doing “Annie Get Your Gun,” at the CDT and saw a big notice posted backstage.

“They were looking for singers/actors for this new variety show,” Michelle recalled. “I didn’t apply. But then the producers called me. ‘Would you come in?’ I was doing both music work and jingle work at the time. They wanted someone who could do both and it turned out to be a great job.

“MTV was just starting to come out and all the bands coming through (the Twin Cities) would come on the show for free. And, we had a lot of jazz people come through like Richie Havens, Max Roach. Doug Maynard, Willie and the Bees, Daisy Dillman, the Time. We always tried to get Prince. We knew he watched the show but we never did get him to perform.