Despite assertions at the end of the last school year that I couldn’t predict the requirements my district would consider and eventually implement to accommodate remote learning opportunities for students and families this year, I’m glad I decided to take part in a summer workshop geared toward virtual/online learning that was recommended to me by a former administrator. Bitmoji Classrooms (which are just really, really busy Google Slides if you’d prefer a simple definition), equity in education, tech resources for devices, platforms, and newbies to it all, digital newsletters, podcasting, and my favorite tool since Pinterest, Wakelet boards, have all been resources I’ve utilized and content that I’ve shared with interested and receptive colleagues this semester. I have added more content to my boards and created new ones whenever I’ve stumbled across useful resources. Building a bank of awesome Linktree contributors has helped prevent me from having to create or recreate every digital activity or material, so that particular board has grown the most.
Developing and settling into a new groove for planning, collaboration and instruction was a big shift, but one I haven’t had to do alone. Though initially dismayed at having been assigned to an additional remote-learning kindergarten position, my partner has demonstrated determination and has had the energy to put her all into her instruction, our synchronized adjustments each time we’ve gained a student (or six) due to quarantines from on-site classrooms, and frankly, collegiality. Having a co-worker who actually says “good morning” and shares some of the normal goings-on in her life on a daily basis and in turn, listens to some of mine, has helped to make this strange situation easier. She’s a finder and a sharer, an asker and a suggester. Kind people who rock reciprocity are cool.
Despite my love of educational technology, I’ve always varied the tools I’ve put into my previous students’ hands and learning environment, so following a digital-tools-only mandate was never going to work for me. Suggestions for at-home materials such as math manipulatives have had to run the gamut from balls of Play-Doh, rocks from the neighborhood playground, Cheerios, and Barbie shoes. I’ve used my monthly copy-count only twice over the past four months to create bi-monthly work packets of pages that families shouldn’t have to print and that are beneficial to students. Students at home should be able to assemble thematic unit and holiday crafts just as their on-site peers do and are just as deserving of the magic of memories and keepsakes that are usually made within the confines of a school building. I don’t intend to ask for permission (again) or for forgiveness: providing students more, not less, continues to be the right thing to do.
Before finding out that my job assignment would be as a remote kindergarten teacher at the beginning of the year, I already knew that new protocols and restrictions would be in place for me and my students. I tried to brainstorm ways to balance limitations with new opportunities, such as alternative greetings to hugs and high-fives, and opportunities for digital collaboration rather than physical partnerships at learning centers or my reading table. For remote learning, opportunities abound for students who are sitting on their couches, at the dining room table, on the floor in the basement, or at a makeshift desk tucked into an alcove in the hallway originally intended as a mud space, though a quick scan of some teacher groups on social media makes it abundantly clear that a lot of other teachers don’t feel the same way when it comes to having very little control over learning environments. While not making light of the issues of poverty, the lack of interest for some families in being the best guide on the side that their child could have, or issues with technology (equal access, availability, and general glitchiness), I have to say that I love that my Super Stars can come to each Zoom session with their favorite blanket, stuffed friend, and even a snack. It doesn’t bother me in the slightest. I have witnessed more awwwwww moments through my laptop camera and iPad screen this semester simply by looking up as I read a story. Multiple frames of five-year-olds hugging blankets and squeezing their stuffed bears, t-rexes, and frilly frou-frou unicorn/princess/octopus whatevers while sucking their thumbs and gazing intently at their iPad screen have stopped me mid-sentence on more than one occasion. And the learning spaces created or adapted for each of them? No one-size-fits-all table, no siree! From little offices or cubbies that resemble clubhouses or forts, to special placemats arranged in a breakfast nook or pillows crammed in a laundry basket underneath a tall table, my students have had a say in the structure of the areas where they have been tuning in.
My own adjustments haven’t been all sunshine and rainbows... specifically, my own auditory processing issues. While most of my students hear me through their headphones, I hear EVERYONE’S background noises when students unmute themselves, and so do all of the classmates who are captive audiences during instruction. Dogs barking, doorbells ringing, parents loudly managing multiple learners, other teachers’ voices booming from devices used by older siblings in the same room who would rather not wear headphones, younger siblings screaming, spouses teleworking and shouting above everyone else in the next room just to be heard, it’s all excessively jarring and headache-producing. I hear it all at the same volume, which has nothing to do with a knob or setting on a sound mixing board that I can control. And for the only-once-so-far-please-let-it-not-happen-again “I don’t give a SH*T IF YOUR TEACHER CAN HEAR ME! THIS IS MY GOD-DA** HOUSE AND I’LL DO WHAT I WANT” event… well, yes, that one resulted in both a headache and a charley horse as I leaped from the reading table to the rolling cart that houses my laptop and extra camera/speaker in an attempt to “mute all.” My Super Star was mortified, his peers were confused, I was concerned and trying not to scream out in pain, and well, obviously Dad was stressed. Not every hour has been our finest and not every day’s successes have been the ones originally hoped for.
I miss working in a room full of kindergarteners and their artwork. Not enough to request a return to teaching in-person, though. The same goes for all of the eavesdroppings I used to be able to do every day as Super Stars worked through their daily activities, learning centers, recesses, snack, and instruction within earshot. I miss it but still end up on the receiving end of some kindergarten and parent funnies via Zoom. Teaching remotely while limiting all of our exposure to COVID remains a reasonable trade-off for me.
I continue to change two of my bulletin boards and some of my classroom décor monthly, even though my Super Stars are likely to never see it all in person. Not putting up bulletin board displays was a line I couldn’t cross. Goodness, I even hang up the results of my own directed drawing activities that my students and I work through during daily writing. Twenty-five years of teaching will do that, I guess. Our classroom can’t just look the part for students, it must feel the part to me.
As curriculum publishers scramble to produce quality digital content and a huge gap continues to exist between teachers who find the use of tech devices and resources intuitive and those who feel it beyond their capabilities, I appreciate not only those teachers who share the content they’ve created (either freely or at cost), but those who collaborate in order to customize the resources that will benefit their students. I don’t have to recreate the wheel when it comes to putting Google Slides activities at the fingertips of my students, and I’m thankful that I know how to create my own content as well. But finding resources and putting them into the queue takes a lot of time, time that would have usually been spent in years past preparing materials with a grade level partner, mentoring a first-year teacher, or helping a colleague restructure her learning center organization during prep. Many teachers trying to make the leap from their file cabinets to their touchscreens are experiencing true stress right now, as are their colleagues who find themselves stretched so thin that they have very little left to give to their teammates, especially as they try to keep something of themselves in reserve so that they can make it home with enough energy to make dinner, clean house, and help their own children work through projects and lessons. Teachers in 2020 are finding it near impossible to do “just one more thing” even if heavy loads in years past were made lighter by many hands. There’s a lot not getting done that needs to be done, and there's really no point in priortizing the fascade that we're making everything as "normal" as possible. Sometimes we must dive into the deep end instead of continuing to dip our toes into the kiddie pool, no matter how frightening it may be. And sometimes, we have to do it alone. Bless anyone who has done their part to be the waterwings, buoys and lifeguards in education.
My mind will return to school-mode a few days before I return to the classroom as it must if I’m to create graphic organizers such as a weekly plan, choice boards and instructional slides, organize materials and schedule activities in Google Classroom, and frankly, iron clothes for the first academic week of 2021. But until then I am hoping to enjoy winter break with my family and get some much-needed sleep, which is also my wish for anyone reading this post.
Happy holidays to you. Stay safe, healthy, and hopeful.