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Northland Steps Up: Teacher uses lunch dates to keep students engaged

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DULUTH, MN -- After more than two months of teaching in front of a computer screen, Cindy Miller is happy to move the classroom outside.

On the final Wednesday of the school year, lesson plans and laptops were replaced by folding chairs, pizza and conversation.

That's because after Governor Walz announced that kids would not be returning to the classroom this year, Congdon Park School teacher Cindy Miller set a goal.

She wanted to have one-on-one, socially-distanced outdoor lunches with almost all 32 of her third and fourth grade students.

Wednesday, she reached her goal.

"We just come together," said Miller. "Students and I sit six feet apart. I bring my lunch and they bring theirs, and we just talk for half an hour and be together."

"It makes me happy she goes out of her way to see me," said 4th grade student Tenia Roley.

Roley has had a few frustrating moments while distance learning.

"Kind of me and my sister fighting over a computer," said Roley.

So a picnic in Roley's front yard was a welcome change of pace.

Miller says the lunches give kids a chance to open up in a way they haven't for quite some time.

"Talk about their family quite a bit," said Miller. "They've been spending quite a bit of time with their family. It's been a big life change not going to school for seven hours a day."

A teacher, aiming to give her students some sense of normalcy, in a world that right now is anything but.

"I think the connection with the students is the most important thing a teacher does," said Miller. The curriculum and academic learning will come and I'm not too worried about that, as I am for their mental health."

Miller also told us that while she is not aware of any other teachers doing the one-on-one outdoor lunches, many are still talking to students regularly over the phone or using technology to stay connected and engaged during this time of distance learning.

Dan Wolfe

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