Many parents, students and teachers navigating virtual education for the first time say the things they miss most are the human interaction and relationship-building that occur in real classrooms.
Enter Craig Bergum, a teacher at ARISE Virtual Academy who is focusing on keeping those relationships alive.
Bergum retired four years ago after more than 23 years with the Janesville School District. He teaches sixth grade at ARISE this year and hosts “Breakfast with Bergum” at 8 a.m. each Wednesday.
Students join a Google Meet video conference and eat breakfast together. They can talk about anything, from their pets’ names to what they plan to do over the weekend.
Bergum said the get-togethers are one way to help boost morale when kids need it most amid COVID-19’s uprooting of everyday life.
“This program is pretty intense,” Bergum said of ARISE. “The kids are working very, very hard on a rigorous curriculum. What I was noticing early on was that it can become pretty stressful if they don’t have the opportunity to do something interesting.”
After a student mentioned that he enjoyed cooking and had created a cookbook with lots of breakfast recipes, the class wanted to give one a try. Breakfast became a Wednesday staple.
“It’s about a half-hour of gabbing and just getting to know each other because they don’t know each other as well in an online school,” Bergum said.
A Gazette reporter was invited to Wednesday’s meeting, which was full of story time, perfect pancakes and plenty of student reflection. One student ribbed the reporter about his relaxed attire, which included a sweatshirt and baseball cap. Students laughed when the reporter joked about his cat, Leona.
Sixth-grader Makhi Miller showed his classmates his famous pancake recipe, and Bergum followed along. Other students ate cereal or eggs as they talked about their week.
At one point, Miller jumped in to remind Bergum to flip his pancake when he started seeing bubbles.
Student Austin Bier said he enjoys the Google Meets because he gets the chance to talk with his friends about something that doesn’t involve mathematical equations or sentence structure.
For Lucy Andersen, the calls provide something she misses about learning in person.
“I really like ‘Breakfast with Bergum’ because I really get to connect with the kids and Mr. Bergum on these calls,” she said. “I feel like it’s really important when we’re not in school talking to each other that we get to do it online.”
As Halloween approached last month, the kids talked about how much they would miss ordinary trick-or-treating and celebrations. Bergum decided to organize a virtual spooky movie night for the kids over Google Meet, where the kids discussed what was happening in the chat.
They plan to keep that going with a movie night each month.
One student took the class on a virtual tour of her farm, and another introduced her peers to her pet rabbits and dog.
Since the weekly get-togethers started, Bergum has noticed growth in the students’ self-confidence and their willingness to help each other when they are stuck during homework or lectures.
He admitted that it’s hard not to get emotional watching the kids delve into online learning and a new classroom environment together.
“The relational portion of working on school virtually is incredibly important,” Bergum said.
“The kids are more isolated than before, so it’s important that they get to know other kids in the class, and so it brings them together. They get to talk about something other than school, and then it’s about building a relationship as a teacher, as well.”
He said virtual school required adjustments from both himself and his students, but he is glad he came out of retirement to join ARISE this year.
Bergum’s students said they look forward to Wednesdays. Joshua Delao-Cardoza said it is all thanks to eating breakfast with their favorite teacher.
“He’s the best teacher I’ve had in my whole life.”