What’s Harder than Teaching Pre-K? Teaching Pre-K Virtually.
VERMILLION, La. (AP) — Pre-kindergarten teacher Darlene Humble kicked off Wednesday morning’s class at LeBlanc Elementary School the same way she always does, with the “good morning song.”
About 10 students, most of them 4 years old, sang and clapped along with her and paraprofessional Kathy DeRouen to “wake up their brains” before they would tackle lessons on the letter B, the color brown, stars, reading and math.
And they did it all from a distance.
Humble and DeRouen sat in different areas of their classroom in the Abbeville “brick school,” as Humble calls it, while their students were logged in on tablets at homes across the school district with parents close by.
“It’s phenomenal that we can offer such engaging lessons to our students from a distance,” LeBlanc Elementary Principal Rachelle Brown said. “At the beginning, when all this started, it seemed so impossible, especially for our youngest students.”
Brown said she’s observed Humble’s virtual class and an in-person pre-K class in the same week and said it was clear “the kids are able to get the same thing.”
“We’re doing what we intend to do, which is prepare them for kindergarten,” Brown said.
TEACHING PRE-K IS ‘ORGANIZED CHAOS’
Humble calls it “organized chaos,” which she said is true for pre-kindergarten in general, virtual or not. She should know, having taught this grade for more than 19 years.
But this is Humble’s first year teaching from a distance, a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. She, DeRouen and Vermilion Parish Early Childhood Facilitator Lola Thomas spent the weeks leading up to the start of this school year figuring out everything they’d need to make it work.
Humble, a self-professed tech lover, practiced before the first day of school and quickly realized she needed two monitors to be able to see her kids at the same time as her content.
“I need to be able to see the kids for pacing and to check on other groups during small-group activities,” she said. “I need to see their reactions and emotions so I can react effectively. Even in virtual, all these things are important.”
She also found she needed a document camera, like a smaller, much improved projector, so kids could see the pages of the book she was reading or the ABC bingo cards she pulled. She had to get longer cables so she could move around her classroom and give demonstrations, like the one Wednesday in which she rolled a baseball down an incline to talk about force and energy.
Humble does all this inside her LeBlanc Elementary classroom, which is still colorful and decorative. There are learning centers for science, dramatic play and more arranged throughout, but the learning materials and toys have been put away in cubbies and wrapped in plastic bags to keep them sanitized and away from any potential exposure to the coronavirus.
Her large bulletin board is mostly empty, as is the “watch me grow” chart on her wall. But she finds ways to incorporate such things into her virtual class. At the end of Wednesday’s session, she showed a slide made to look like a bulletin board all about “Star of the Week” Jevon.
“Jevon has been doing a fabulous job following virtual class rules,” Humble said, listing Jevon’s favorite animal and what he wants to be when he grows up. His classmates clap for him, on mute, and Aliahna holds up a small whiteboard where she had a parent write “Congrats Jevon.”
Humble started the year with more than 20 students, but some have left for different reasons, like scheduling conflicts or student learning style.
“For some, it just wasn’t a good fit,” Humble said.
Now she has 12 students, most of whom she sees in real time for about two hours every weekday morning.
“They’re doing (distance learning) for the same reason I am — health,” Humble said. “Either the child or someone in the family has health problems. I have had to manage asthma, so I was anxious to get this.”
She also records every day’s session and posts it to Google Classroom for students to catch up if they miss, but they have to prove their participation with photos and videos of the kids cutting or writing letters and their completed work — things Humble would see for herself during a live class meeting.
THIS TAKES A LOT OF PLANNING
Humble and DeRouen have worked together for years, which has been a big part of making this new virtual reality a success.
The other key ingredient has been planning. The pair have tried to think of everything their students and families might need and get it to them in time for lessons. They put together home-learning binders for every student, complete with activity sheets for each week’s focus letter or math concept, ABC bingo cards for game time and more. They’re working on the next round of binders now.
“Mrs. Kathy has probably cut, copied and laminated more this year than in any previous year,” Humble said.
Like the rest of this experience, there’s a lot of trial and error and a few hiccups along the way. As Humble called out letters for ABC bingo Wednesday, one parent had to cut in to say those materials weren’t in her son’s binder. Humble and DeRouen made a note.
“We’ll make sure to get him one (set) in the next packet we’re preparing for y’all,” Humble told the mom.
That activity is part of two 15-minute small group sessions — one for literacy and one for math — that take place each day. Students rotate which activity they do during that time, which means Humble has to plan eight different small group activities a day.
“We use as many different avenues and mediums to get the concepts over to them,” Humble said. “I don’t think they’ll be lacking (going into kindergarten). Some are already ready.”
‘DO IT WITH PASSION OR NOT AT ALL’
Another part of planning that has taken a lot of time has been recreating all her presentation slides to fit her new technology. In previous years, she would use an interactive smart board in her classroom and its software for lessons, but now she uses Google Slides to limit the back-and-forth toggling when teaching virtually in Google Meet.
Humble has her own binder to stay on top of things, and it’s filled with pacing charts, schedules and more. She has two handwritten notes stuck to her monitor that serve as daily reminders — “Do it with passion or not at all” and “Don’t forget to record.”
“It is a lot of work,” she said. “To do this job I have to wear four hats” — teacher, curriculum specialist, technology expert and kid-lover.
To make it work she needs to really know her audience — the children in her class — to know the curriculum and to know the technology. But she said she needs not only knowledge, but a love and passion for all of these.
“It combines a lot of things I’m passionate about,” she said. “It’s fun and fulfilling. It’s not the same old.”
She knew virtual pre-K should have live instruction and emphasize connection and oral language development.
They started small in September, meeting for just an hour and eventually building up to two hours of live instruction.
As she added more activities and bathroom breaks, she was always cognizant of how long she was holding them altogether and that they were 4-year-olds who need to get up and move. She feels that, too. She’s used to moving around her classroom.
“The hardest things about this job is sitting in this chair,” Humble said. “I’m used to having 20 babies around me.”
Humble came up with a morning “scavenger hunt” after the Question of the Day, the letter song and a discussion on the color of the week. On Wednesday, she asked the students to find something brown, and they came back with an acorn from their yard, stuffed animals and even a real guinea pig.
‘WE’RE ALL IN THIS TOGETHER’
This activity started as a way not only to get students moving and engaged but also to give Humble time to chat with parents, who have to be with their children during class time. While the children searched for items, Humble reviewed her virtual classroom rules and set expectations for everyone involved.
“Even in a virtual class, you have to establish rules and expectations during the first few weeks,” Humble said. “It was as much teaching the parents as the students.”
Together, they’ve learned about keeping background noise to a minimum and resisting the urge to feed students the answer. Parents help by prompting them to think about what they’ve been asked and then use their words, because they can’t get away with just pointing in this virtual medium.
“The parents do a fabulous job,” Humble said. “I told them, ‘We’re all in this together. Let’s be kind with one another. Let’s be gracious.’ This was new to us, too. We had to learn the platform.”
She said parents and her administrators have been supportive throughout this unusual year.
“They trust me to do my job, and especially this year, I feel it,” she said.
NOT EVERYTHING IS DIFFERENT
Humble keeps the students in class for just two hours every morning, much shorter than an in-person school day. But that would include lunch, recess and naptime, she pointed out.
“I’m teaching solid for two hours and using the exact same curriculum — Wow Words (vocabulary), Second Step (social-emotional lesson) and we do minimum two stories a day,” Humble said. “They’re getting the meat on that lesson. We’re hitting everything we would hit for a given day.”
The only thing she thinks they’re missing out on — besides the hugs, she said — is seeing her write as much as they would in a face-to-face classroom and longer school day. They’re practicing writing at home with their sign-in and Friday journals she’s given them, but they can learn a lot from watching others write.
“True learning is taking place,” Humble said. “You can hear it in their answers to our questions and in the length of their questions, that language.”
Students also use online programs Ignite and Starfall for at least 30 minutes a week. These activities provide practice for them and data for Humble to see where they are doing well and where they need help.
She spends afternoons analyzing that data and planning for the next day, including about an hour of resetting all her slides with new Wow Words, new Question of the Day and so on. She also answers emails and requests from parents.
She ended her class Wednesday, their 58th day of this school year, by waving the American Sign Language sign for “I love you,” and students reciprocate and log off. That’s not so different from previous spring semesters.
“That connection has been formed,” Humble said. “They tell me ‘I love you’ just like they were here.”
This will be Humble’s last year of teaching. She’ll join her husband in retirement this May, after she’s trained others to take over virtual pre-K in Vermilion.
She’d thought she might teach one more year, but then the pandemic changed her mind.
“It’s an interesting way to turn a page,” she said.
By AP reporter Leigh Guidry