Lessons Learned from Virtual Learning

Summer 2020

In March of 2020, PAMDS (like all other schools in New York City) was asked to shut down due to COVID-19. With the education of our students in mind, we decided to join thousands of other schools across the world in moving to a virtual learning platform. For my teenage niece and nephew, this transition came as somewhat of a relief, especially for my nephew, who began to thrive in school without the distractions of classroom life. However, at PAMDS, we have the very youngest of learners. What was this going to be like for them? And what about our teachers? No one learns in early childhood education graduate school how to run a virtual classroom. We are taught the power and importance of interaction and responsive teaching. This, on top of running a classroom from home, while also supporting one’s family, all felt like an insurmountable task. With the incredible dedication of our teachers, we adapted to virtual learning, and some very important lessons were learned and reinforced along the way.

Teaching Must Be Responsive

Having been a teacher for over 15 years, I thought it was crucial that I develop an initial framework and structure for my educators to work from. With so much uncertainty facing us during the pandemic, I needed to lift as much as possible from my teachers to focus on their children. Every class was asked to hold an Opening Circle and Closing Circle through Zoom every day. Teachers were then asked to create two or three specific assignments to be completed during the day that were shared with families via Google Docs. Our amazing music teacher and theater teacher also taught daily live classes to keep the program enriched.

Soon after teachers began to teach virtually, they realized that they could still be responsive to their children’s needs while working in this platform. Our 3s/4s teachers quickly discovered their group was ready to attend meetings longer than 20 minutes. They expanded their meetings to 45 minutes and even added weekly playdates with small groups as children wanted to connect and see their friends.

Our 2s/3s teachers understood that their group needed more one-on-one time with teachers to feel comfortable interacting on the screen. Technology is often a passive experience for children, and they were struggling to engage rather than just sit and observe. The 2s/3s teachers decided to add additional one-on-one Zoom sessions with each child over the course of a week. These interactions with teachers allowed work to be targeted and interaction to be encouraged.

Our 2s teachers recognized that they needed to slow down and keep things as consistent as possible while providing parents with more pre-recorded content. For their live Zoom sessions, the 2s teachers kept the format of the “circles” consistent with what they would have done at school by singing songs and playing social games. They also filmed a weekly read-aloud that parents and children could watch together at their leisure. Just like in a classroom with a good book, these videos were watched over and over again by our youngest learners.

The Power Of Connection

During this time of isolation, connection became crucial for everyone, no matter the age. In the busy life of running a school, I will confess that I can get sucked into my office, not emerging for an entire day. This moment stopped us all and forced us to slow down. I created a weekly call rotation that allowed me to talk to every single family in the school one time a week. There were parents who I normally would not have had a chance to connect with who I was now talking to every week. It felt like we were in this together, supporting one another on the deepest of levels.

Our teachers felt the same way. They took the time to call each one of their families two times a week. This allowed teachers to understand what was happening for each family during this traumatic experience and respond more deeply to children’s needs. Like me, teachers recognized that their connection with some families was even greater during this time than before.

Our children needed to feel connected too. Our oldest learners would spend upwards of 20 minutes talking to one another, telling jokes, sharing stories, and feeling heard by their friends. These connections occurred during the one-on-one conversations that our 2s/3s learners had with their teachers. Children wanted to share projects they had been working on, toys they were playing with, and just be heard by these important adults in their lives.

Our teachers needed connection as well. I shifted our Reflective Meeting schedule to allow me to hold meetings with each teaching team once a week rather than every other week. We were able to talk, share, and vent to one another as we processed this new normal. During our weekly Faculty Meetings, we dedicated at least 30 minutes to talk about joy. Even in the midst of this hardship, we needed to connect around the simple pleasures of life, whether that was cooking a good meal, reading a great book or watching a funny television show. We needed to take the time to connect on a personal level so we could be as strong as possible in our professional lives.

Families Must Be Partners In Learning

One of the biggest lessons learned was the importance of a partnership between educators and families. We recognized that parents are not always given the opportunity to see their children actively learning in a classroom setting. School is hard for children. There are moments of joy, and there are moments of frustration as children learn what it is like to function as members of a group. Parents haven’t seen their children work through the feelings that come up when they are not called on right away during circle time or when they are processing a big idea through a series of open-ended questions.

When we switched to virtual learning, many of the conversations I had with parents were about how to support their child during moments of frustration. Understandably, parents want to “fix it” for their young child. I would provide the perspective that through these moments, resilience and rigor are reinforced. These are tools that children will utilize throughout a lifetime of learning. It was important to let parents into their child’s learning, sharing that these same frustrations would be occurring even if we were physically in school. They just hadn’t seen it before. While we might have told them about it all during our Parent-Teacher Conferences, seeing it with your own eyes is something else. Children are children, whether they are learning on a computer or on a big red rug.

Everyone Has To Be “All In”

When we were developing the schedule, it was crucial that I attend all the whole group Zoom sessions. No one is taught how to support young learners through a computer. How would I support the teachers, the families, and the children without understanding the platform we were using to teach? Starting virtual learning in March felt like starting school in September all over again, only now we were on a completely new planet with a whole new set of expectations and limitations. I needed to be on this planet with my educators. During our Faculty Meetings, we would brainstorm, try out strategies, and learn from one another because we were all living a shared experience.

As we shifted to our virtual summer program, this mentality remained the same. If I was asking my educators to teach specialty classes, I wanted to do it too so I could continue to understand the specifics of the platform. I signed up to teach weekly movement lessons (my first life was that of a professional dancer and then dance educator). This not only connected me more deeply to teachers and children but also furthered my understanding of the challenges of learning in this format. Directors cannot effectively run a school unless they understand on the deepest levels what children and teachers are experiencing.

When we began virtual learning, parents also started to understand that learning in a preschool setting is an active partnership between the adults and the children in the space. When children were attending their Zoom sessions, it was more effective when a parent was in the room serving the same role a teacher would if they were together on the rug. A simple reassuring hand on the back, a whisper in the ear to rephrase a question, or a gentle reminder to take a deep breath goes a long way. Teachers were not able to provide these moments, but parents could. We had to be in this together.

As we transition back to classroom learning in the fall (since we are able to meet all Department of Health mandates allowing us to reopen), I will be partnering with teachers and parents to hold these lessons close. How can we continue to let parents into their child’s classroom learning experience? How can we maintain deeper connections with one another? How can we continue to be responsive to the needs of our children and families? The power of PAMDS is to continually evolve, learn, reflect on our practice, and grow from our experiences.

I look forward to the journey ahead.