Robertson and Merchlewitz

Brand new Winona State University graduate Emily Robertson ’20 celebrated earning her bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and Early Childhood this past Friday with not one, but two virtual celebrations. As she looked forward to the university’s first-ever virtual event that evening, she was surprised by an early morning celebration as well – with second graders from Washington-Kosciusko Elementary School.

As an education major, the Mantorville, MN native spent her final semester at WSU student teaching in the second grade classroom of fellow WSU alum Luke Merchlewitz ’01, at W-K in Winona – an opportunity Robertson described as “packed full of learning.”

She served 21 “amazing seven and eight-year-olds,” she said, teaching a variety of subjects. Throughout the in-person portion of her experience, she was able to observe, as well as implement, various classroom management strategies. She also participated in weekly Professional Learning Community meetings and professional development opportunities focused on non-verbal classroom management, all while observing amazing collaboration amongst the school’s teachers.

Then came COVID-19. Robertson said that while the shift to distance learning was unexpected, her school met the challenge with a hard-working resilience, quickly organizing realistic and effective learning plans using Seesaw, a new platform. She said Merchlewitz led the way with a can-do attitude, dedicated work ethic, and a “thoughtful heart for his students, families and overall community.”

Throughout the remainder of her time student teaching, class began bright and early for Robertson’s second graders, who gathered daily for a class-wide 8am Zoom call to socialize and share. Students followed by moving over to Seesaw, where they found uploaded lessons and assignments in core subject areas such as reading, writing, math and science. Robertson regularly communicated with families throughout the day and stepped in when students needed help. She felt inspired by her students and by how the second-grade team collaborated and kept each other going.

Prior to the shift, Robertson was already experienced in online learning and how to utilize classroom technology, sharing that all her courses at WSU implemented technology. She also experienced online learning as a student, taking several courses that were offered remotely. Those experiences, she shared, taught her the importance of clear and concise instruction and directions, which she kept in mind while student teaching. Her professors, she added, “instructed me to be prepared for any obstacles and stressed the importance of adjusting instruction to meet the needs of all students,” which became even more important in a distance learning environment.

She continued to say that her coursework prepared her to conquer a new platform with determination, create new ways of delivery with resilience, and transition smoothly with patience. Not only that, Robertson said this challenge prepared her to an even higher degree, showing her the importance of effective communication with families and the value of distance learning methods – which can now be effectively utilized in the event of future snow days in the Midwest.

Merchlewitz shared that he was impressed by Robertson’s work ethic and creativity and wishes her all the best in the future. “She did an amazing, stellar job,” he said. “She made a difference in my life and the lives of the students. Students in the future will be lucky to have her.”

On the morning of graduation day, as a thank you for all her hard work, Merchlewitz organized a celebration via Zoom. Her second grade students held up homemade signs of appreciation and shared their words of gratitude, and WSU Dean of Education Dan Kirk conferred her degree upon her, allowing her to share the moment of moving her tassel to the other side with everyone on screen cheering in response.

Others from Winona Area Schools and Winona State offered words of wisdom and praise, including W-K teachers Luke and Brenda Merchlewitz, W-K Principal Dawn Lueck, WSU Dean of Education Dan Kirk, WSU Supervisor Barbara Rahn, WSU Professor Jim Schul, WSU Acting Director of Alumni Engagement Tracy Hale, and Winona Area Public Schools Foundation Director Shelley Milek.

A first-of-its kind virtual celebration, Robertson said it is something she will always remember and be thankful for.