Fourth-grade teacher Kristin Lorbeski visits student Connor Riddle on Tuesday in front of his family’s Randolph home.

Kristin Lorbeski’s fourth-grade students are taking on a new project in the coming weeks.

It is one that will challenge the River View Elementary students to use their imagination and communication skills while putting them in touch with the world around them.

Teacher Kristin Lorbeski visits her fourth-grade students Tuesday in Gardiner. Kennebec Journal photo by Joe Ph Buy this Photo

Above all, it will keep them connected with their teacher.

“I’m sending them a little postcard with a quote on it that’s kind of inspirational,” Lorbeski said, “and I’m sending them a flat ‘Mrs. L.’

“They’re going to take it on adventures and do fun things with it, and either write me a story or send me a picture, (and) share it on our Google Classroom. We’ll see what fun things we can do with Mrs. L for the next five weeks.”

The project, which Lorbeski, 50, came across on an online teachers’ site, was inspired by the popular Flat Stanley Project, in which paper cutouts of the title character of the popular children’s book are sent with stories to friends, families or other students. They send back a photo of Stanley and an account of his adventures with them.

Forging relationships with students is core to Lorbeski’s teaching, and it is one of the things that makes her a good teacher.

Victoria Duguay, principal at River View — one of the elementary schools in School Administrative District 11 — has worked with Lorbeski for two years.

“You need to see Kristin in action in the classroom,” Duguay said. “That’s just where she shines. She’s just a natural teacher, and that’s where she belongs.”

Lorbeski is not the kind of teacher who sits behind a desk, Duguay said. She is typically walking the room or sitting on the floor with a group of students.

“She’s animated,’ Duguay said. “The kiddos absolutely adore her.”

Lorbeski is not trying to win a popularity contest with the 9- and 10-year-olds in her charge. She understands relationships are important because if her students do not like coming to school, they will not learn.

“So we work on that first,” Lorbeski said.

Fourth grade is an important year, Duguay said, because it is one of educational growth during which students are reading independently and starting to use the research skills they have learned to find information and answers.

“You need a teacher that can really bolster confidence so they can truly become that independent learner,” she said. “They’re just out of those little stages where they need help all the time and they can really start taking ownership in their learning. She gives them the confidence to do that.”

That confidence is built step-by-step.

Lorbeski said she is always willing to try something new alongside her students.

“If we’re trying a new app or a new website, I say: ‘You can’t break it. Let’s just see what happens,'” she said. “I make mistakes, and I say: ‘You know, that’s OK. Now we know we don’t do that.’

“I think my kids are comfortable because they know it’s OK if they make a mistake because I have shown them it’s OK. There will be times when we try something and it flops.”

Now Lorbeski and her students, like teachers and students across Maine and the nation, are trying something new. Their daily education cycle is no longer shaped by a school building and colored by specific times for lunch or recess.

Instead, their interactions are by internet or email as public health directives have closed down schools, businesses and government offices to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which has been a global pandemic since March.

That prompted school districts to put in place distance learning programs for all students for the balance of the school year.

For Lorbeski in SAD 11, that has meant learning the technology and helping students become used to it.  It means videotaping lessons to share on Google Classroom, reading aloud and sharing that online, and reaching out by email or telephone.

Fourth-grade teacher Kristin Lorbeski waves to student Connor Riddle’s family Tuesday when they came out to see her outside their Randolph home.

This week, Lorbeski is adding a dimension to her communication with her students by planning drive-by visits with her students, who live in Gardiner and Randolph.

Teaching children is Lorbeski’s second career.

She was working as a manager at Central Maine Power Co., training adults, when she told her husband what she really wanted to do was teach children. He encouraged her to go back to school.

About 18 years ago, she enrolled in the Extended Teacher Education Program at the University of Southern Maine, geared toward people who already have a bachelor’s degree. She completed her master’s degree in education, received her teaching certificate and went to work.

Loberski taught for a year at Warren Community School, and then started working in the Gardiner-area school district, where she has been for 15 years, all at the same school and room.

Duguay said what people might not understand from just a casual meeting with Lorbeski is how strong she is.

“Teaching is so important to her that she will basically do whatever she needs to do to make sure she’s reaching her students,” she said. “In this whole change, I didn’t see her buckle once. She’s like: We’re just going to start, we’re going to figure it out. We’re going to move forward.”

But the transition has been tough on Loberski.

“I have to be honest,” she said. “I cried a lot the first couple of weeks.”

In the Gardiner-area school district, as elsewhere, many students rely on school-provided meals for breakfast and lunch. But since the schools closed, districts have continued to prepare meals and have made arrangements to deliver them. They have also used school resource officers to check on students.

“I’m not going to sugarcoat it,” Duguay said. “We’re not used to being in a building without kiddos. We’re not used to not having our kiddos all around. And no one got into teaching to sit behind a computer. But we’re going to make it work and we’re going to do the best we can so we can come back together.”

While Lorbeski and her students are continuing to progress, she also has a keen sense of the opportunities that are being lost.

“I can’t kick myself, because we’re all doing this across the country,” she said. “But you think, how much could I have accomplished in 3 1/2 more months if we had all been at school together?”

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