After schools across the nation shifted their lesson plans online amid the coronavirus pandemic, students, teachers and parents were forced to adapt to the new normal, too. Although much attention has been paid to online teaching strategies at the high school and collegiate levels, remote learning has posed unique challenges for elementary school educators.
“Education changed overnight,” said Oceanside resident Kim DePalma, a second-grade teacher at Birch Elementary School in Merrick. “We worked hard and nonstop to meet students’ academic needs, as well as their social and emotional needs.”
Elizabeth Doheny, an East Meadow resident and DePalma’s coworker, said one of the main goals of the remote learning experience at the elementary level was to replicate “familiarity” for students. “We used many platforms that the students were already comfortable using and tried to stick to the curriculum as much as possible,” she said.
Katelynn King, an Oakdale resident and first-grade teacher at Reinhard Early Childhood Center in Bellmore, said her young students’ technological capabilities facilitated a smooth transition to remote learning. “I primarily used Google Classroom and was impressed by how quickly the students adapted,” she said.
To keep “class” interesting, King assigned a different thematic topic each week, which fostered a more active learning environment. “I asked myself, ‘What do I want my students to remember?’” she said. “Writing workshops were regularly their favorite activity, so I encouraged them to write and then read aloud to the class. Sometimes students would read poems they wrote while outside, and even add their own dance in as well.” King added that this active participation created the feeling of being in a real classroom.
Maintaining the social aspect of learning was another major focus of the elementary educators. “We always tried to keep a conversation and encourage students to interact frequently by providing each other feedback,” DePalma said. This required maintaining “flexibility” within structured activities. “If they wanted to share something in the middle of class, it was better to let them share and engage with the other students.”
Doheny promoted socialization by dubbing Fridays as “spirit days,” where students would express themselves by wearing their favorite hat or a fun outfit. King had a similar approach; her “Fun Fridays” offering “allow[ed] students to share discoveries they made that week and talk about what they were passionate about,” she said.
Coordination between teachers and parents also made remote learning successful. “We set up phone calls and emailed regularly just to check in and see if there was any way we could help each other out,” Doheny said. “It was a team effort.”
DePalma said these check-ins were “more than academic,” as they created a “support system and a close working relationship” among teachers, parents and students.
“My [students’] parents were my rock stars,” King said.
As schools wrestle with the uncertainty of what learning will look like in the fall, the lessons learned while teaching in virtual classrooms could serve as a guide. “We’ve shown that the kids and teachers can adjust and continue to meet students’ needs in the short term, but it’s not a healthy solution in the long term,” DePalma said.
“The remote learning experience taught us that there are so many great programs that we can incorporate back into the classroom,” Doheny added.
The biggest regret King had was that she did not “hug her students just a little bit tighter on [their] last day together,” she said. She hoped, however, that she would be able to see their smiling faces again come September.