*If you are here to police grammar and spelling, this may not be the post for you. Excuse any errors, I’m busy, I use AAVE, and this is a long post. Thanks! 🙂
Ok. First of all, watch this video if you want to hear what I’ve been up to in way more detail! If not, the gist is in this post.
The year is 2020 and I teach kindergarten. Virtually. 40 of them. Virtually. What?! So, I am going to share MY experience in this post (emphasis on the MY because we will get to that.) Actually, let’s get to it now. Please read this before you leave comments talmbout “that wouldn’t work for me” and “my school won’t let us do it like that.” Guys. I get it! We are all experiencing something different with the returning to school during a global pandemic. So again, this is my experience. Take what you can from it and discard the rest.
Let’s get logistical questions out of the way so that you know where I’m coming from. I am:
-Physically reporting to school and teaching virtually from my classroom.
-My kids are in school, for now. The numbers are low enough for them to do social distancing and masks are required.
-My district has offered a choice- parents chose to send kids in person or enroll virtually.
-I teach KINDERGARTEN. Remember this as you read. What I speak to may not apply if you teach another grade.
-I am fortunate in that I have been given the freedom to roll this out and make it work for me. I was given guidelines/suggested times to work towards- but I don’t have a situation like I’ve heard from some teachers where they were mandated to follow a strict schedule where they are basically online all day…yeah, nah. I couldn’t do it.
#1 Over-communication is Key
I want to start out with this because I was thrown into my situation the day before school started. Our virtual numbers spiked and I was asked if I’d consider taking the virtual class. I’m not going to lie, it was a bumpy start. The students were on the original teacher’s class list and she had already communicated with them and told them there would be a zoom meeting. When they figured out that they were being switched to me, out the gate I had dozens, and dozens of messages flooding in with tech issues, device pick up questions, and wonderings on whether or not I’d be having a zoom meeting. I couldn’t have a meeting because I didn’t have a way to mass communicate with them yet. This left me feeling helpless, stressed, and worried. I decided that that was the light night for that. A few truths I had to tell myself:
- Technology is gonna glitch. Period. I’m not stressing myself over glitches ANYMORE. Because WHY??? What can I do? I can’t code, connect, or correct anything in technology that is set up at the district level, so why would I sit around fretting over a failed connection? I can’t do what I can’t do. So I practiced a few customer service responses to let parents know that I’d communicate with them the moment I knew anything.
- This is new for everyone. Quick question: Who is nailing this? We have an entire country full of school systems that are literally figuring it out as they go along. For me, that means that I am going to work as hard as I can during my contract hours and then for the sake of my mental health and the fact that I’m a wife, mom, business owner, etc… I have to check out. I can’t spend hours and hours outside of contract time on something that no one even has figured out. This doesn’t make me a bad teacher. I stand by that. So, let’s tie this back to over-communication: this was also one of the first things I conveyed to my families. I told them that glitches were inevitable and I assured them that we would eventually work everything out.
- Flexibility is the name of the game.
I found one very important truth: families are caretakers seem to be 99% happy as long as they know what is going on. That’s it. I kept them informed every step of the way. Not hear me when. I say this: that doesn’t mean message them every 30 minutes. It means that you want to make sure you craft really specific and pointed messages to send out to families. They just want to know what’s going on. I’ll give you some examples of my first messages and videos:
See? Pointed and simple. I send 2-3 messages a day but I plan to get that down to 1.
Another really powerful move was to share my weekly goal board with my families. This began as a personal goal for me but I quickly realized that I could simply share this outWith the families as well. I wanted them to see where I was headed and what it would take to get there. I simply did a screengrab of my own document and posted it in our communication tool. I got a lot of messages back from the parents telling me how great that was. That way everybody knew what to expect.
Lastly, videos are golden. I communicate by using videos when I need to say something short and important. Like… don’t help you kids with their assessments! 🙂
#2 Schedules and The First Days of Virtual Learning
There’s a lot to think about when you create your schedule. Not only am I’m not positive that the schedule that I created is the most effective, but I’m not even sure it will be the same schedule a month from now. Remember when I said flexibility is the name of the game? This is what I mean. I sat down and mapped out a schedule with my coworker who is also teaching the virtual class. We decided that we would be synchronous before lunch in asynchronous after lunch. We know that we have a lot of working families that are unable to dedicate an entire day of instruction to their kids. We utilize Zoom and Seesaw as our primary platforms for virtual learning. Here is a copy of the schedule that we are working on now.
So, what did we do on the first few days? Morning Meeting. That’s it. Literally we met for about 45 minutes and we sang, played games, etc… and said “goodbye!” I am trying to set children up for long haul success. They are 5. I need to allow them time to get acclimated. The fastest way to crash and burn IMO is to place a 5yo in front of a screen all day. Slow rollout. Add a little more every few days.
The rest of our morning meeting? Well, I decided to create a PowerPoint with the names of all of the students. I knew that I would eventually add their photographs to it but for the first few days of school, their names would have to do. We sang a really simple song (sang in the video) to introduce each student to the class period. I told them that when we sang their name song, they could let us know that they were here by sending an emoji. Of course, this was a hot mess the first few days -but as I write this, we are about 8 days in and they’re getting better and better every day.
They love to come into the morning meeting and hear a personalized greeting. So, as we are waiting for all of our friends to join- I’m going through and I’m calling out every student that I see by name. “Good Morning, Lilly! Morning Chase! Happy to see you Barry!” They light up! I teach the entire lesson on mute an I disable the option for them to unmute themselves. Is this ideal? Absolutely not. None of this is ideal. I would just much rather be able to get a lesson out that everybody can hear versus all of the background noise that comes when you Zoom with 40 families. After we go through the PowerPoint to sing good morning to everyone, we do fingerplays, we read books, we take brain breaks using GoNoodle… and if you watch the video included in this post I go into these things in great detail. I do a calendar, counting, and other normal routines that you’d see in a morning meeting. Then we say goodbye!
During the first few days when there was only a morning meeting, I was very careful to communicate with the families that in the afternoon the students should be busy getting acclimated to Seesaw. I told them to get in Seesaw and PLAY! I wanted them to get into Seesaw and figure out how to send videos, how to record themselves… all the things. I also reminded them every day that while we were only having this one meeting now, we would be picking up the next section in a few days. Again… parents love over communication. It was almost like a countdown! “OK boys and girls don’t forget… tomorrow we’re going to add on reading workshop to our time together! Aren’t you so excited?”
I also focused on playing on Seesaw this because I knew that I wanted to begin assessments on Seesaw as soon as I possibly could. I have too many students to schedule out 40 zoom meetings to assess each child for EVERY skill- every few weeks! My school collects data all the time, so I have to get them savvy with Seesaw for assessment’s sake.
I wanted them to be able to record themselves identifying letters, numbers, shapes, etc so while they thought they were just playing, what they were really doing was setting themselves up to be able to access our learning tool.
#3 Engagement and Building Community
Let’s quickly talk about engagement. I got so many questions about engagement during virtual learning. After thinking about it, I feel like we might need to reframe our expectations for what engagement is going to look like. If we truly think that we’re going to have a class full of students sitting at attention, perfectly dressed, with no distractions in the background… we’re not going to do anything other than frustrate out.
Now… I taught my students the expectations that I had for virtual learning. I showed them how to get a quiet spot, how to sit up nice and tall and listen, and how to keep their eyes on the screen and guess what?
Everything under the sun is going on with 40 different children staring at me.
But guess what else?
I don’t care.
Again… this is called doing the absolute best that we can in a situation that is less than desirable. So I am going to try to be as engaging as possible by employing a few strategies that I will share in just a minute but what we need to know is I’m not going to police any students for not looking like the “perfect virtual student.” I can only control so much and at some point when teaching virtually, we have to be ok with that. That doesn’t mean that we don’t give it our all…but it’s not going to be all that it could be if we were in person. Online learning is not comparable to in-person learning. Of course it isn’t. How could it be? There is no comparison between in-person, face to face instruction complete with eye contact and proximity, and a zoom meeting. I guess what I’m trying to say is think about whether or not you are trying to make regular school happen through a screen. SO WE DO THE BEST WE CAN. We reimagine engagement. We rethink strategies for building relationships. I don’t have it figure out AT ALL- but I have a few practices that might help!
- Use a class mascot. I know a lot of teachers do this anyway…I never did. But, I do now. We have “Piper Puppy” who makes random appearances throughout our meetings. He’s honorary and the kids think it’s so funny when he pops in. He is often used as an incentive for good listening/participation.
2. Build excitement in some way. It can be simple. Like so simple. Watch how simple: I have this thing where I told the kids that I love the number 8. Every day we review a 100s chart that is all covered with sticky notes. We take off one sticky note per day to reveal a number. I pretend like I do not know what number is going to be coming next and I told the kids that I’m always hoping that it’s going to be the number 8. When we peel off the sticky note and I am of course, “wrong,” the students think it is the funniest thing. Then I asked them to guess what the next number is going to be and they’re all showing me on their fingers how many will be next and of course I am going on about how I don’t believe them. Then I told them that I can’t wait for tomorrow to see if it’s finally going to be the day that I get to see the number 8. This will work for a while because after we get to 8 I will tell them that I can’t wait to see 18 and then 28 and so on. I got messages from parents that were saying how excited their children were to see what the new number was going to be for tomorrow. Little things like that build excitement and it makes the kids want to hurry up and get to their iPads so that they don’t miss class.
3. Use student names as much as possible. I call out their names and I pretend that I can hear them. I read their lips for verification and even if they aren’t responding, I speak to them as though they are. For example, if we are taking a brain break, and I want them to stand up, I’ll say “who is going to stand up first? Oh! I see Joe standing up! Wow, Amy popped up so quickly! Amazing!” And even though I cannot hear them say a single thing, they have no clue. Now, this is what I do when I’m teaching whole group- all 40. It’s tricky to make them feel like they are all heard and seen but we do the best we can!
#4 Virtual Classroom Environment
So…I teach at a Reggio inspired school. Read more about that here if you’d like, but long story short? I don’t use store-bought decorations. Like, at all. Number lines, alphabet charts, daily schedule signs…all co-created with students. But I ain’t got no students to make stuff, tho. So… I had to head to the dollar spot. This was a personal choice. I didn’t HAVE to do any of this. I didn’t HAVE to spend my own money. I chose to. I can still do my job just fine without it. (I am making this a distinction because want to be sure that you understand I would not spend my money on PPE in response to a global pandemic. If I choose to spend my money on something I want, then, in my opinion, that is fine. However- I see educators spending personal money on safety items… this ain’t that. I have a serious issue with some classrooms getting to be safer than others based on the personal ability of the teacher to spend their own time and money to build something for safety.)
Basically, what I’m trying to say is, I have decorated a corner in my room because since these students will not be physically here, I wanted what they would be looking at every day to “look” like school. Again, didn’t have to. Chose to. It’s nothing too fancy, but it “looks” like school.
The only thing you can’t see is the portable smartboard that is to my immediate right. That’s where I do everything from! I only use one screen at this point. I might get to add more technology if my district provides it- but for now, that’s it!
So, at the end of my video at the top of this post, I leave some words of encouragement. For me, it all comes down to this: breathe. Remember we are trying to do something that has never been done. Successful virtual teaching will absolutely look and feel differently than online teaching…but simply do the best you can. We’ve got this. I dream of the day we can all look back and say, “Remember when we taught during the pandemic? That was wild, but we learned so much.” It’s a temporary means to an end. Do your best and forgive yourself daily. Hourly. We’ve got this.