After two days of remote learning, I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cried. My breaking point came when I found myself lying on my bed, lights off, trying to picture myself back in my classroom. No teacher ever imagined teaching young students this way and yet Covid19 has forced us to go against everything we know unexpectedly, in order to create a meaningful, remote experience for our students.
Amidst my worry and uncertainty, I keep reminding myself that this is a unique opportunity to creatively teach the curriculum and explore new platforms. Will it be the same as I taught before? Most certainly not. Can I still make creative and dynamic lessons that are aligned with my specific units? Perhaps. Will I help further my students learning in some way? Absolutely.
And I’m lucky: unlike many schools around the world, I’m teaching in a community where students have access to food, clothing, support, and online learning, even when they aren’t in the classroom. Our school and our families aren’t facing hardships on the same level many others are, which is one reason why we're able to completely adjust our curriculum to meet these new challenges.
And now, here I am two days into teaching seven-year-olds remotely and I have already gleaned some very valuable insight. I have been pushed to think creatively and asked to work harder and more dynamically than ever before in my career. I am doing my best to stay true to my calling as a teacher: to reach our youngest learners. It hasn’t been easy, but I have found significant handholds already. Below are a few ways I’ve found I’m able to coach, connect, and create with our elementary-aged students during this unique time:
Be flexible. It’s important to adjust your expectations of what your students will achieve. Yesterday, a student started playing with her cat in the middle of my lesson! Don’t worry about reaching certain benchmarks and instead focus on what you can do presently to help engage your students. Educators and parents alike should understand that there will not (and should not!) be eight full hours of homeschooling. There will be a lot of outside stimuli that will be a distraction, so let go of the little things and go with the flow.
- In terms of curriculum and units, think opportunity instead of obstacle. What are the projects/ lessons that could never happen in the classroom? What investigations are better to do at home than in a group? For example, since our students are missing out on creating their own class restaurant, instead of compromising on a whole class menu, each child will now be able to test out their own unique recipes and report back on how they turned out.
- If parents are working and can’t help their child, scan in worksheets for their child to do independently. The app TinyScanner allows you to scan documents at home and send it to families or caregivers over email. Any type of learning is beneficial. Don’t be afraid to send structured activities if it means a child can get extra time learning, but be clear with parents that students aren't expected to finish everything in one day.
Bring consistency to your students. Just like in person, routines and rules offer a structure for successful learning. Maintain as many of the same expectations that you held in your classroom when conducting online learning: be on time, be respectful, be responsible. This may feel nearly impossible for young students, especially those who are using online learning tools for the first time ever, but encourage it and stay committed to it-- you’ll see eventually how helpful it is.
- Create a digital morning meeting. Youngsters follow the traditional greeting, share, and activity while counting the days of the week. Build in a sense of community by giving them time to express their feelings and provide opportunities for connection by sharing their favorite books or project at home.
- Send a suggested schedule home to families who may need support in outlining their days. Family Education offers a sample schedule for youngsters, as well as lists resources for families who are taking on homeschooling responsibilities alongside educators.
- If you are using video conferencing tools, try to sit in the same room with the same background, no distractions or extraneous noise, every time. Young students will see the same visual of their teacher on the screen and understand that that’s the cue for learning. Here are a few more best practices for video classrooms as you schedule your day.
Make it DYNAMIC! Interactivity and engagement are key— young students will be much more compelled to complete their work at home if they are inspired by it and can share the experience with others.
- Whatever the students have access to at home, encourage them to embrace using that new material for learning. Since my first graders were unable to create a restaurant in our classroom, we asked them to give it a try at home, crafting a menu, logo, and decorations for their very own restaurant using whatever craft supplies they found on hand. This dynamic flexibility can be useful across subject areas: newspaper and cardboard can stand in for construction materials; a deck of cards can be used for a math game; pinecones from just outside the homemade be perfect for an art project.
- Get families and friends involved! While not all parents or caretakers have the luxury of time right now (many are still working full-time at home while managing their own family’s lives!) offering opportunities to connect with loved ones can be extra special. Ask young students to read aloud to a sibling at home or a friend over the phone; encourage children to call their grandparents and ask them questions about their childhood.
Be okay with imperfection. Everything goes out of the window with remote learning. You will absolutely make mistakes but the more you laugh about them and provide self-compassion, to yourself and to students and their families. This is perhaps the most important and hardest lesson I’ve learned over these past two weeks. I’ve seen parents who have taken out their fears and frustrations on our faculty; I’ve seen students cry because they don’t know what’s going to happen. I’ve also seen our community come together in meaningful and monumental ways, lending a helping hand to someone in need or sending a kind email to a teacher or a parent who is doing their very best.
- Try to receive difficult conversations, emails, and messages with compassion. You have a right to stand up for yourself as an educator who is working hard to manage remote learning, but it may also help to remember that everyone is scared and uncertain right now. Elena Aguilar, in her book, Onward: Cultivating Emotional Resilience in Educators, dives deeply into the strength within educators.
- Prioritize your own self-care. As an educator, you are enduring new stresses and processing new emotions right now, so it’s more important than ever to stretch and exercise, meditate and have fun, and take care of you.
Eventually, remote learning will come to an end and we will resume our normal schedules and routines. Remember to reach out to your fellow teachers and administrators if you need support. Be kind to yourself, allow for mistakes to happen, and know families are grateful for any learning opportunities you can provide at home. Good luck-- we’re all in this together!
Yael Cushman has worked in elementary education for over 13 years. Originally from Marin, CA, she now teaches first grade in Palo Alto, prioritizing project-based learning and holistic curriculum. In her spare time, she loves running and hiking outdoors, as well as befriending any and all adorable dogs.