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Teaching kindergarten at a distance: What a rookie and a veteran learned.

“It’s obviously not perfect, because they’re 5,” teacher Allison Sawyer says.

When word came that COVID-19 would shutter Florida’s school buildings this spring, kindergarten teachers Allison Sawyer and Tammy Hickey had almost identical reactions.

“We were worried,” Hickey, a 23-year veteran Pasco County teacher, said of her Veterans Elementary School team. “Because how do you teach kindergarten online?”

For Sawyer, a first-year educator at Hillsborough County’s Pizzo K-8, the scenario appeared even more daunting. She had barely gotten the hang of having her own classroom.

“My 5-year-olds had begun to know how to act,” she recalled. “It was getting a whole lot easier, and coronavirus happened, and we’re not in that groove anymore.”

Remote learning has faced its share of criticism and concern since starting in March. Parents have revealed their frustrations with the demands, right alongside some teachers. Fears have emerged that low-income students with little access to technology will fall further behind.

The challenges only multiply when dealing with the littlest students, with their limited attention spans and need for adult supervision. It could have been easier to just start over after the health risk fades.

But that really wasn’t an option for the educators who refer to their students as “my babies.” Rather, they determined to make it work.

While their situations are different, they’ve arrived at similar conclusions about distance learning in kindergarten. Sawyer, 23, works in a heavily low-income community where many children are still learning English. Hickey, 56, serves in a more middle-class neighborhood.

“It was very overwhelming the first four months,” Sawyer said. “I was like, ‘I don’t even know what I am doing.’”

She came to Hillsborough County schools this past fall after graduating from college in Nebraska. She had one semester of student teaching in kindergarten, but never had made a classroom schedule before.

A reorganization of her school’s kindergarten team helped get everything on an even keel. By the time spring break rolled around, Sawyer was feeling good about her students’ progress, and her own.

Then came word that classrooms wouldn’t be reopening. Spring break became planning time, spent preparing materials and slide shows.

“None of it worked,” Sawyer said with a grimace.

It turns out that not all kindergartners can click along with the class. Some barely could log in without help. And working parents didn’t necessarily have time to troubleshoot technology.

She needed to retool.

“We took advice from our parents,” she said.

Get off the school district’s laggy Edsby platform, they suggested. Stop using PowerPoint slides. Streamline the effort.

So Sawyer cut back on some of the demands, while keeping expectations high. She focused on just one platform for interactions and links. And she heightened communication with both children and parents, some of whom needed to learn how to guide their kids.

That led to regular live lessons, daily office hours and weekly one-on-one meetings with the students. For those who crave routine, she posted on her “classroom” wall a suggested time frame they could follow.

Sawyer also asked her students for their ideas. Keeping them involved is key to participation, she learned, moreso when everyone isn’t in the same room.

They hated the daily writing log, so it got replaced. They loved lessons identifying words by sight, so those increased. They wanted to do more Zoom conversations with their friends, so that happened.

She’s not asking kids to be online too long. Her YouTube lessons generally are less than 10 minutes. And when students log in, she includes “brain breaks” and activities to keep them involved.

She also offered extras, such as a virtual field trip and lunch with the teacher, as incentives.

“We try to make it as fun as possible,” Sawyer said.

Yet through it all is the reality that only about a third of her class is regularly “present," no matter what she tries. Some do paper lessons. Some have no access. Some have language barriers.

“We just keep reaching out to the parents,” Sawyer said, stressing that in distance learning, especially in kindergarten, parents matter.

“It’s really hard,” she added. “After Christmas, we saw all those light bulbs go off. To have this huge setback, it’s super hard.”

Tammy Hickey, a kindergarten teacher at Veterans Elementary School, prepares to caravan in her students' neighborhood before distance learning began in March.
Tammy Hickey, a kindergarten teacher at Veterans Elementary School, prepares to caravan in her students' neighborhood before distance learning began in March. [ JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times ]

Hickey hasn’t faced a participation problem. Her Wesley Chapel school had only a handful of children who have not regularly logged in.

But, like Sawyer, she said teachers are “in a partnership with parents” to ensure the 5-year-olds learn.

Parents can text her with problems and she’ll quickly respond.

Because the Pasco district largely provided the online curriculum, Hickey said one of her main priorities is to maintain close bonds with the children, both as a class and individually.

She offers one live lesson per week, and holds individual student conferences weekly. They can talk about their work, she said, or just chat, as they like to do.

“Mainly, I just want to see them,” Hickey said.

She records videos of herself reading stories for the class. The kids post reactions and other writings in an online portfolio. They’re starting to write to one another as pen pals.

Many parents have asked for extra work, such as handwriting lessons. Even the couple of children who began remote learning late have worked hard to catch up, Hickey said.

She admitted feeling lucky not to have experienced some of the struggles that other teachers and schools have seen. But she also knows her class could have faltered, too.

“You never know what is going to happen,” Hickey said. “Every day I go, ‘Oh wow, we are actually doing this.’"

She and Sawyer agree on many of their lessons learned.

Parent input is critical. Strong relationships hold the class together. Communication can make up for shortcomings. Routines matter. Kindergartners need breaks — lots of them — and movement, not just sit-down lessons.

And still, that works for only some students.

Some need face-to-face instruction so their teachers can better determine if they’re learning. Others don’t find motivation from afar, no matter how fun their teachers try to make it.

Inspiring a 5-year-old to keep working when it no longer seems like school can be tough.

“But I’m still trying,” said Hickey, who worried that children already on track will be fine in first grade, but those who were struggling will probably struggle more.

First, they need to finish kindergarten. And that means more learning, and maybe some sort of event to mark the end of a crazy year.

Sawyer said she wants to give gift bags to her students and their parents to honor all they’ve accomplished.

“I feel like these are my babies. They’re my first class,” she said. “And they’ve worked so hard.”

• • •

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