One teacher’s journey with a group of distance-learning 1st graders – with some parent perspective thrown in, too
Charleston Walter, Charly for short, has been working with children for the past 7 years. She currently lives in San Anselmo, California, and attends University of Redlands as a graduate student in the Education, Teaching & Learning Masters program. She also works 30+ hours per week facilitating a distance learning group, or “pod,” for a small group of 1st graders in nearby Fairfax.
Mia Pritts, Head of Early Care and Education at Wonderschool, is one of the parents being supported by this pod.
This conversation details some of the background, logistics, and ups, and downs of distance learning experienced by both during the fall season of 2020.
Charly: I’m a pod teacher for a group of amazing 1st graders. My roommate saw posts online of families needing group teachers to support distance learning for their children and introduced me to the pod I’m now working with. She and I had always talked about getting a job and saving money so as to complete our master’s program student teaching uninterrupted. With the pandemic, student teaching wasn’t available this semester so it was a very natural choice to dedicate effort towards working with children in this new way, during this very uncertain time for everyone.
Mia: Being a working parent of 2 young children was already hard, and has become exponentially more so due to the pandemic. After a really rough spring of distance learning, we were able to get both of our kids (2 yr old and 6 yr old) back into child care and summer camp, respectively, and were thrilled to see them both blossom being around other kids again every day. We knew that we wouldn’t be able to do a repeat of Spring distance learning, in the format it was offered, and realistically be able to do our own jobs, support our children, and stay sane. Something had to give.
Through my work at Wonderschool, I learned a lot about “pandemic pods,” and by a stroke of luck we have a group of four 1st graders in our immediate neighborhood whose families had already become our “social bubble.” All of the parents in our “bubble” work full time and we were all struggling to imagine how we would be able to effectively exist as multiple people performing multiple roles at the same time. Distance learning is a fairly terrible option for young children and I worry about this all the time – the screen time, the one-dimensional learning, the disconnect from peers and more. Having Charly has helped mitigate these factors, and given our children a small but mighty community.
What’s Gone Really Well for You and the Kids?
Charly: The kids have the opportunity to socialize in a safe setting, every day. This is really, really important to their development and well-being. I also can interact with them in a safe setting, and can apply different types of teaching and support that are catered to each individual child’s learning style because it’s such a small group. We can do more things they’re interested in – in this group science, hands on, nature, and exploring are important and we’ve been able to fine tune to their interests. We’re also able to get them off the screens a lot more than the students at home on their own.
Additionally, I get the opportunity to learn a lot from the regular 1st grade teacher which has been really valuable. I am able to watch her interact in the various online platforms with the class, as well as in class meetings, and communicate with her myself via email and Zoom check ins.
Mia: Having Charly to help provide support, guidance, new experiences, boundaries, patience, love, and energy has allowed all of our kids to remain connected to a small community during a time of great upheaval, and additionally, to receive direct support in each of their journeys as young learners. As parents, it’s allowed us a chunk of time each day to focus on doing our jobs, without as much guilt and without anyone performing antics in the backgrounds of our zoom meetings.
What’s Been the Hardest?
Charly: So many things. Everything is against us, and by that I mean specifically where we are in Northern CA the air quality was an issue due to fires, the age of the kids in the pod means they’re naturally unfamiliar with the technology required for distance learning, and having to get used to it on top of what they’re learning in school academically, home school setting is a challenge. A 6 year old reacts really differently to their Zoom app crashing mid-meeting than an adult does, and that seemingly minor unexpected interruption can impact the rest of their day (as well as the other kids’ days, too).
We also have added elements that aren’t typically encountered in a normal classroom setting: pets, parents working nearby, all their toys, moving locations every week, not used to having to be school-productive in the same space that they eat breakfast, etc. These elements can create more frustrations for the kids.
Mia: There are a lot of interesting and complex dynamics at play at all times when you’re effectively combining families, and I’m not sure any of us parents knew to expect that. Our kids have all had various moments of success, struggle, challenge, triumph, and all the normal things a 1st grader experiences on a daily basis, plus the extra that comes from being in a pandemic AND disconnected from their broader group of peers AND working with multiple teachers AND being in a different environment each week (our pod rotates from house to house each week, so we’re spending time in each family’s home which helps all of the working from home that’s happening simultaneously).
As parents, we get a really lovely vantage point of school up close and personal that we wouldn’t have otherwise had, but it can also be hard to see all of these things really up close and not want to interrupt your kid when they’re just being a kid. The cost is also something that was unexpected; we were finally able to cut down some of our child care costs when our daughter went to kindergarten last year, but here we are again right back in it. I know each family has had to make adjustments.
Pumpkin volcano – bringing learning to life!
How Have You Been Able to Figure Out Who Each Child is and What They Need? To Meet Them Each Where They Are?
Charly: It took a while, and was and sometimes still is challenging, but we have all settled into a rhythm. I make sure to take advantage of 1:1 time, gauge each child’s interest, and notice in advance when they’re beginning to get frustrated. I carefully watch what they like, and have seen preferences and interests change over time.
I’ve also been observing their communication throughout this time period – they’re good at explaining what they need, but they can also fall apart trying to remember things like using their words and being patient with each other (normal in kids this age!).
Brain breaks are important for each child, but they might not all need the same kind of break on the same day. There can be lots of tears over things that wouldn’t stress out an older student, as this hasn’t been something they’ve experienced or had to do. It’s hard for them and I love that I can support them through this period.
Mia: Charly has seen our kids through ups, downs, highs and lows, lost shoes and lost teeth, anxious parents, anxious children, bee stings, skinned knees, crankiness, massive silliness, hiking adventures, stinging nettles, and learning to read, write, and grow their math skills to boot. To say that she’s met our kids where they are is an understatement.
Testing out our self-constructed boats. Spoiler alert – they worked!
What Would You Recommend to Other Educators Interested in Starting a Pandemic Pod or Microschool?
Charly: Definitely a few recommendations here:
Communication with the “homeroom” teacher is critically important, so establish a relationship right away.
It takes the burden off parents to have one point person (the pod teacher) to manage class work, assignments, turning work in, giving and collecting feedback from the grade level teacher, so plan to take those extra steps and communicate it to the parents.
Schools need to find funding to support more families being able to access pods, especially as the pandemic continues.
Just like adults, kids are going through a lot during this extended pandemic. Be ready to support them through a lot of ups and downs.
What Would You Recommend to Other Parents Starting or Joining a Pod?
Mia: realize that you’re basically combining families, and are going to share a lot more than just your houses. Realize your child will have good days and bad days, and so will the other children, and everyone is under a bit of a microscope due to the close quarters. Establish a consistent communication channel among parents, to work through topics and challenges that come up along the way. Extend grace to each other, to the children, to the teacher(s), and to yourselves. Advocate to your school district for support for funding to facilitate pods for more families to access – the longer distance learning goes on, the more detrimental things become for children, and especially for young children. Learning together, in safe settings, should be the goal for all of us.
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