When school buildings closed in Milton in March, Milton West Elementary School first-grade teacher Mackensie Wade, like all the district’s teachers, prepared to teach her students from home. Wade said tending to the emotional needs of young students was high on the list of priorities, and, she said, first-grade teachers needed to get creative when it came to developing lessons because, unlike older students, their kids are still learning to read.
“School is so different right now. The biggest way it is different is most teaching values reading, writing, math, but also relationship building with kids, and that’s how I used to spend about 80% of my day, because kids can’t learn if they don’t feel safe,” Wade said.
Building social and emotional skills in young children is hard to do from home, she said.
Too young to read
“Teaching has become a 12-hour a day job; It’s not an 8-3 job anymore,” Wade said, adding: “There are families that are still working and our kids are not old enough to work independently so some kids are working on their activities in the evening. They are working on their assignments at 8 o’clock at night because that’s when their parents are home to help them.”
Twenty to 22 students might be included in a typical kindergarten or first-grade class at Milton West, Wade said.
This year, she has 17 students in her first-grade class.
“That’s an awesome low class size. Seventeen is a dream,” she said.
March 16 was the last day she and her students were together in a classroom. The teachers, at the time, believed they would be teaching at home for maybe two weeks, Wade said, adding: “We thought we might come back after spring break. Nobody thought you’d have to teach first grade from a couch.”
When the first-grade teachers began planning virtual lessons, she said, they developed a “menu of activities.” Students could pick three each day.
“When we realized the virtual learning would last longer, we started to write more interactive lessons and do more teaching,” she said.
The four first-grade teachers at West work together.
“All first-graders hear all our voices and see all our faces,” Wade said.
Wade focuses on creating lessons that emphasize social and emotional pieces along with academics, she said.
In a classroom setting, she said, lessons are taught at different levels of learning, working to accommodate the various levels of understanding exhibited by students.
Said Wade: “I might be teaching one lesson at seven different levels and tweaking how to deliver each lesson, but now, because the students are not in front of us, we are teaching to the average.
“The challenge is that kids who struggled while at school are the majority of who is struggling now.”
Teachers are using tools like Google Hangouts to see their students’ faces and work towards filling learning gaps, she said.
“In kindergarten and first grade there are a lot of levels because kids are shaped by what their parents have done for them, so their academic experiences are so vastly different,” Wade said.
Social and emotional skills
“All of our families are struggling right now and academics are really low on their lists and I’m ok with that because I know I can fix that. Our people are little and their scope of learning is smaller. I’m more concerned about social and emotional skills,” Wade said.
Adjusting back to life at school after being away from structure and routine may pose new challenges for some students, she said.
Students returning next year will be “a little behind,” Wade said, but added: “It will be the whole country that’s behind.”
As the school year winds down, teachers have already become focused on making plans for next year, looking at several scenarios, because, Wade said, “we don’t know what next year will look like.”
Wade also is focused on making herself available to students and their families.
“I’m always attached to a device so parents can always do a FaceTime,” she said.
Participation is strong in Google Hangouts, she said, because students are motivated to see their friends and teachers. She gets at least 90% participation, she said.
With YouTube assignments, she said, about 50% of her class is fully engaged.
The first-grade teachers at West meet once a week to determine lesson content. Using computer-mounted video cameras, lessons are recorded and made available to students through YouTube. Students then choose when to complete the work.
Some students watch the videos, but do not always turn the assignments in, Wade said.
Some families have struggled to learn new technology, she said.
A goal is to provide lessons that don’t require help from parents.
“Parents appreciate that because they are not teachers and we shouldn’t expect them to be,” Wade said.
“We read a kids’ bedtime story every night and parents like that,” she said.
Looking at the pros and cons of this unprecedented “new normal” year, Wade said, among positives: “Parents are more comfortable calling me and asking questions, and my relationships with parents now are stronger. They have to be because they are my eyes and ears.
“When we get back, we are all going to be very different teachers than we were in the past. There is new technology that I am privileged to use and I will use in the future.
“We are going to work better as teacher teams.”
The drawbacks, she said: “I can’t be with my students. No teacher ever signed up for a desk job and that’s what we have right now. I thrive on interaction and I don’t have that now.”