Together and Separate: Teaching During Coronavirus

By Molly Breen

Together and Separate: Teaching During CoronavirusNote: We are aware that there is a great disparity in terms of equity for children from well-resourced communities and those from underresourced ones. This post addresses those who may have regular access to Wi-Fi and digital devices that provide for remote connection during the coronavirus pandemic. For programs serving children with different circumstances, here is a list of providers offering low-cost or free internet service options to connect children and their caregivers with the things they need to learn while at home. We also acknowledge that many programs have dramatically reduced staff due to budget constraints and may not be able to implement distance learning. These are unprecedented times, and the contributions of every single one of us in the profession of early care and education are vital and meaningful.

One value that my preschool embeds into all our learning is this: We take care of each other. We practice the language of self-advocacy (“I’m not playing that game” or “This is my work. You can have a turn when I’m done.”) and help children develop boundaries around physical play, risk assessment, and the power of how we say things in addition to what we are saying (screaming versus talking). Perhaps you have a similar expectations around safe bodies, gentle touch, kind words, and so on.

Now more than ever before, we are in a position of taking care of one another, but with the perplexing twist of distance. And if you are like me, as a director or educator, you may be wondering: How do we take care of each other while we are apart?

Distance learning in preschool seems to be an oxymoron. Preschool behavior is the antithesis of social distancing—more like social closening! We know how regulating physical touch is for preschoolers: their neural networks depend on it for important developmental processes. And our days with young children are spent on the floor, cuddled on laps, holding hands, and sharing reassuring hugs.

Identify Core Values

As we’ve made the transition to distance learning (in fact, we are in the thick of it right now), I’ve been thinking about the core values of our program and what we want children to experience through us, even as we gather on virtual platforms from homes that are miles apart.

It’s possible that your program has already gone through a process of identifying core values, and maybe you have a mission statement or a values statement that you support. As we plan for distance learning, keeping core values at the center of our planning will be so important. Why? Because we don’t need to suddenly become something different from what we are. We can hold on to the elements of our programs that are unique and find a new translation.

How do we identify our values if they are not already articulated for the program? Use a tool like this one, which suggests identifying ten values first and then whittling down to five, and then three. For example, your program might value nature, mindfulness, and connection as your top three values. Once you have established your top values, you will be able to move on to creating content and pathways that connect to them.

Choose the Right Platforms

Next, determine which platforms you feel comfortable using for connecting with students and families at home. The keyword here is comfortable. Find technology that is user-friendly and built for education!

We are experimenting with a combination of synchronous and asynchronous platforms. Our hope is that families will find a rhythm and routine that works for them without feeling stressed to add “one more thing” into the new normal of sheltering in place. This list of educator-friendly and free platforms is a good place to start.

My program is using FlipGrid and YouTube for asynchronous connection, Zoom for synchronous meetings, and a shared Google photo album for at-home snapshots of daily life. Perfection is the enemy here, friends. We don’t have to be sudden digital savants! We can demonstrate resilience and adaptability to our students and their families as we create a new sense of communal learning.

While we are separate, it’s not tenable to do everything we did while together, nor should that be our expectation. Can we create regular points of connection to keep our kids and ourselves regulated? Yes. Can we work within our own and our staff’s asset-based wheelhouses to bring meaningful content to our young learners at home? Yes. Do we need to be always on or work 40 hours a week from home to do this? Nope.

It’s okay for things to be different right now. Things are very different. It would be disingenuous for us to operate under some pretense that we can keep everything the same for distance learning, and our kids deserve better transparency from us.

Establish a Routine

Once you have a sense of core values and have figured out which platforms you will use, it’s time to determine a regular cadence, or routine, for your distance learning. If you are a collaborative staff like my program’s, this will mean figuring out everyone’s comfort level with the new digital tools and then playing to everyone’s strengths.

Maybe one teacher can host a weekly music time at a consistent day and hour. Perhaps another will take leadership for designing a once-weekly home project that includes an emailed resource list to families (for things they likely already have at home) and then a designated project time on Zoom.

At my center, we have teaching teams, so teachers for each group are having morning meetings together twice per week that very closely mirror our regular in-person morning meetings (welcome song, mindful breath, question of the day, etc.). We have created a shared Google calendar that lists scheduled meetings that both our staff and our families can view for planning and predictability.*

Here is an example of a weekly cadence for synchronous preschool distance learning:

Monday–Friday, 9:30 a.m.: Morning meeting on Zoom for 30 minutes
Tuesday/Thursday, 12:00 p.m.: Video lunch on Zoom for 30 minutes
Wednesday, 2:00 p.m.: Music time on Zoom
Friday, 2:00 p.m.: Shared project on Zoom (cardboard sculptures, watercolor painting, coloring)

Here is an example of weekly asynchronous learning:

  • Do FlipGrid projects, such as taking a nature walk or a city walk and looking for five specified things, photographing them, and posting them.
  • Send links to credible online resources for parents (like these) for online learning or to free podcasts (like these).
  • Some of you may have great graphic design skills and could create weekly plan PDFs in Canva or Photoshop to share with families for home use.

Most importantly, remember that this is a temporary shift. We will go back to classrooms and in-person learning with our dear little children. And in this interim, amidst the many feelings that this pandemic is stirring up in all of us, we can learn together and create regulating experiences that keep us connected, in community, and together—even while we are apart.

*We made the decision to communicate with families that all the distance learning activities are completely optional. As news of the pandemic escalated and families had to dramatically change and adapt their lives, getting instructions for preschool digital learning added to the overwhelm for some. If you are able to offer a reassurance to families that this distance-learning plan is meant to be an optional resource, it will release the pressure of adding one more thing.

Molly BreenMolly Breen, M.A., ECE, has worked with kids and families for nearly two decades as an educator. A believer in lifelong learning, her heart is in early childhood, where the seeds of curiosity, character, and community are planted. Through her work with children as a practitioner in the classroom, Molly has developed broad expertise in curriculum development and instruction, behavior guidance, and social and emotional learning. In her role as a program director, she has created innovative approaches to professional and program development, family engagement, and community outreach. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota, with her husband and three kids.

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