I haven’t met any early childhood teacher who loves teaching virtually. Perhaps there are some out there, but overwhelmingly teachers want to be in classrooms – playing, hugging, learning and wondering with their students. We were plunged into distance crisis teaching last March, and we will be continuing this type of teaching for some time, I’m afraid. Embracing virtual or distance learning and looking for ways to make it work, and work well, is important, while acknowledging that this is temporary.
Carla Rinaldi, the President of Reggio said, “a digital experience is among the 100 languages – 100 possibilities – 100 ways of approaching reality – of the children. Digital is not an enemy – it’s a new possibility.”
How can we make distance learning the best it can possibly be – a new possibility for our children?
I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what worked and what didn’t work in virtual or distance learning for my kindergartners. I’m continuing to learn, think, explore and collaborate as I do Kitchen Kindergarten Summer Version – my district’s “continuity of learning” sessions. I will share a few things that I found are working quite well for whole group learning. I will tell you, I’m pretty “low-tech”. I start with what I know works well in the classroom and think about how I can adapt it to virtual teaching. I’m learning a lot more “high-tech” options this summer, but most of these ideas are in the “low-tech” category. I’m planning future posts on whole group, small group, 1:1 and play dates, as well as thoughts for how it might look starting with a new class of kindergartners.
A few ideas for whole group distance/virtual learning:
- Have a predictable starting and ending routine. We start each Google Meet with a hello drum song, greeting each child by name. We end each Meet with a favorite class song, “Skinnamarinkydink” and then send each other hearts with our hands as we say good-bye to each child on the Meet. Singing virtually is messy, but fun – and so worth the joy of coming together with a song.
- Plan activities that actively engage the children, rather than have them passively sitting in front of the screen. My kids all have white boards and this is a great way to have them be actively learning. They can write words, numbers, draw, etc.. I found this worked better than the chat box for kindergarten. We practiced letter formation, sight words, number formation, math stories, drawing, names, and played games with our white boards. Have the kids get up to dance, move, find things to share, etc. – just like in the classroom. We wouldn’t have kids sitting passively for 30 minutes in a classroom – it’s important to have lots of opportunities for active learning and movement while on a screen, too.
- Give children time to talk and engage with each other. We have time each Meet to share stories and show our pets, apartments, toys, backyards and family members. I share my dog, my garden and tell stories of my life at home. Kids share books they made, art they created, and the stories of their lives that we love to hear. Our time virtually is much less than a school day, but we still need to make time to share all those stories that would normally be shared during our school day. It’s how we stay connected and feel like a community. I start each Meet with share time and invite kids to stay on after our scheduled class time ends if they have more stories to share. We often go well beyond the scheduled 30 minutes, but it’s important to hear what they have to say.
- Hidden Pictures are a huge hit and a wonderful way to work on vocabulary, oral language and directional words and they are highly engaging. Highlights for Kids (remember the magazines in the doctor’s office when you were a kid?!) has them for free on their website. My kids LOVE them.
- Puppets! I worked with a teaching artist from Wolf Trap Performing Arts Center this past year and learned so much about puppetry, so it was natural to continue this into our virtual classroom. The children engaged so well with puppets and it is definitely a strategy I will continue to use. Stuffed animals of our favorite book characters, well-known class puppets and some new friends helped me teach new concepts like why we need to wear a mask, and also helped us with navigating big feelings we had, social-emotional learning, retelling stories and engaging with number talks and math stories.
- Read lots and lots of books and talk about them – just like we do in the classroom! I brought home a ton of books, but I found it was frustrating for the kids to watch me reading a book. They had trouble seeing the pictures, and if their Meets setting wasn’t right, if anyone else talked, their image would replace me. I made the switch over to reading books on a shared screen with a variety of tools. Open Library K-12 Student Library is where I look for titles of books I want to read first – they have so many books available for free. I also use Kindle for their many free digital books, and I’ve purchased some of my all-time favorites. I’m exploring Loom and using a document camera, too.
- Continue focusing on inquiry and play. Mystery Doug and SciShow Kids are two of my favorite YouTube video sites for exploring questions that kids ask. They are short (3-5 minute) videos that focus on a question and encourage kids to talk and wonder. I found them to be great introductions to a topic. I will show the video and then stop and have a conversation with kids. Then we will do some type of active learning and invitation for kids to try something at home. We explored how airplanes fly and then made our own paper airplanes. We measured how far they could fly with our shoes/steps and then read a book about how to make paper airplanes to give them more ideas. Finally, the kids revised their airplane to see if they could make it fly even further. One day we learned about trees and wondered “what is the biggest tree?” – Mystery Doug pointed out that “biggest” could mean lots of different things and showed us several really cool BIG trees. Then I cut an avocado and showed the kids how they could grow their own avocado tree with an avocado pit, a jar and toothpicks. I leave links and invitations on our Google Classroom after each session for kids to revisit what we did and extend the learning if they choose. It’s also nice for children who didn’t attend the Meet to see what they missed and engage in the learning on their own.
- Teach the kids how to mute and unmute because of background noise, but don’t control their voices. My friend Christy Thompson wrote a wonderful blog post about this here. Being able to use a tool like Zoom or Meets, where you can see all the kids is SO important. It’s easier for them to slide their voices into a conversation or raise their hands and it’s more like being in the classroom. It’s also so important to be able to see each other, show each other things and feel that sense of community that we all need. They want to see their friends. We have to let the kids see each other, talk and continue creating community in virtual learning.
These are just a few things that I’ve found work well. I’ll continue to share my thinking here. I truly believe that the teachers who have experienced virtual teaching and learning with children are the experts. We need to share our ideas and experiences with each other so that we can be in the best position possible to continue distance learning or resume when necessary this fall. What ideas do you have for whole group virtual learning? Please share!