Jennifer Greven

Grafton Village Elementary music teacher Jennifer Greven thought of ways to keep her students connected after schools shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Greven eventually began to get people together virtually and digitally. Upon learning that the annual teacher vs. 5th graders kickball game wasn’t going to happen, she asked both teachers and students to make videos of themselves kicking a ball and gave each side a point for videos correctly completed, then strung them together to make a short kickball video that went out to all.

When music teacher Jennifer Greven and the rest of the staff and students left Grafton Village Elementary in early March for spring break, none of them knew it was the end of in-person instruction for the school year.

Greven, who’s been teaching at Grafton Village for 19 years, said it hit many in the school family hard because they weren’t prepared for it, and they left school with no sense of closure. She was especially disheartened the week after school closed, when a choral concert and fine arts events were to have happened.

“On that Thursday, I woke up feeling saddened that we wouldn’t be having our concert, and an overall feeling of loss,” she said. “It hit me that what we were all missing so much was seeing each other.”

Her response was to seek a way to reach out and connect with every one of the 84 students in the school chorus. She started to do that by phone, but then the effort morphed into making a video for them.

Donning her Grafton Village Chorus T-shirt and getting help from a tech-savvy staffer, Greven congratulated the students for their work and then challenged them to respond with videos of their own. When they did—and parents gave their permission—the school posted all the student responses to its Twitter feed.

“We were all still connected,” she said, “still part of the chorus and our school.”

It would be the first of many efforts Greven and other Grafton Village Elementary staffers would undertake to reach out to students, staffers and parents as a way to maintain connections as most hunkered down at home.

For her part in inspiring, coordinating and sometimes creating those efforts to keep the school’s staff and families connected, Greven is a Hometown Hero.

Amy Pisciotta, the school nurse at Grafton Village who nominated Greven, said she did so because once COVID-19 hit, Greven went “above and beyond to be a shining light for our school” at a time when teachers, parents and students felt adrift.

“We have all felt the impact of not being actively involved with our students, parents, and staff. Jen immediately jumped in to find ways that we could still be connected to each other,” said Pisciotta. “[She] helped form a school Facebook page that families and staff could be a part of. It allowed parents to post some of the work that their children have done, give us news or just to check in. I cannot express how much this helped.

“I know she is not your typical hero in this coronavirus pandemic, but here is a nurse nominating a teacher that is truly a hero in my eyes,” Pisciotta added.

Greven had the same response that almost every person nominated for this honor has expressed: she doesn’t see herself as a hero. Instead, she sees herself like most teachers at the school who quickly came to see how much staff and the student body missed their personal connections.

The Roanoke-area native who attended the University of Mary Washington said the chorus video and response kicked off a coordinated outreach effort that lasted through the end of Stafford’s virtual school year.

“Our principal, Michael B. Sidebotham, asked if I’d think about doing some other social media challenges, taking that on,” Greven said. “I wasn’t sure what that would look like, but said I’d give it a try. It did make sense, as I was the chairperson of our school’s outreach committee.”

“[She] became the public face of our school and we have been so impressed with the ways that she has supported our school community and built connections with students and families,” Sidebotham said. “Throughout the process, she persisted and always found ways to make the plans come to life.”

Greven said one effort built on another, and that she created content and coordinated contributions from many teachers and staff members. GVES office staffer Kelly Davis partnered in her support of the social media delivery.

Efforts included challenging students to make art projects, videos supporting local medical professionals, Monday morning announcement videos, read-along videos, academic lessons, science experiments, regular Facebook Live meetings on Friday mornings and even an end-of-school celebration.

Greven wanted to establish a routine for kids at home, and posted updates about “what’s on today’s lunch menu at my house” and media challenges. By the end of the year, some fifth-graders took over making them.

She engaged students with videos of cooking demonstrations and outdoor obstacle courses, and shared work that students were doing on social media, saying it “provided a great outlet for parents to see what other kids were doing, and show what their kids were doing as an extra bit of engagement.”

Perhaps most impressive was the virtual “Teachers vs. 5th-graders Kickball Game,” an annual tradition she continued online. Both groups were asked to submit video clips of kicking a ball, with points awarded for each submission that met the guidelines. Teachers just squeaked out a virtual victory by submitting more clips than the students.

Greven said she and other teachers learned a lot about creating videos and online content during the effort.

“I think this sort of thing will continue even when we’re back to having kids at school,” she said. “With whatever combination we will have going forward, in-person or virtual, I think finding our new normal will involve more tech.”

Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415

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