by Ashlee De Wit
LANSING, Ill. (May 7, 2020) — Schools are closed, but on a daily basis teachers are still working to help their students learn what they need to know, deal with their emotions surrounding this new reality, and prepare them for the next academic year. Teachers at Lansing Christian School (LCS) offered a glimpse into their work as educators in a pandemic.
Teaching the school’s youngest students online
Nancy Oostman and Beth Roels teach some of the school’s younger students: 31 four-year-olds. Typically they each have their own classroom, but they have partnered together for online learning.
“It was all new, and we had no idea what to expect—we’ve never done anything like this before,” Oostman said. “I can’t say enough about the parents—they’re amazing. I have my own kids at home, so I know what it’s like to try to work from home and help them with their learning—and they [the PreK students] are little, so parents are really involved. It’s been a blessing to get to work with and talk to them more.”
The PreK teachers recognize the demands on parents at this uncertain time.
“There are parents with multiple children at home—most of them, actually,” Oostman said. “Some are working, some are healthcare workers. We are just keeping that in mind and telling them not to stress over this. If they can’t get it done, that’s ok, but it hasn’t really come up.”
Some of the school work sent home is necessary: Lansing Christian is still tracking grades and sending report cards to all students, so there are some things that the students still need to learn. But teachers are also offering Facebook Live meetings and crafts that are optional.
They get physical packets every two weeks, which includes both worksheets and craft supplies. Oostman also posts a half-hour “morning meeting” video each day.
“They watch the morning meeting, and can work on things with paper and pencil,” Oostman said. “They have the work in front of them, which for four-year-olds is important. We try not to make everyday requirements huge.”
On Tuesday and Thursday, Oostman and Roels take turns doing Facebook Live reading.
“We also have Zoom meetings with them, which are hysterical,” Oostman said. “It’s so fun to see their faces light up when they see each other.”
Like all the classes at LCS, the PreK students have a private Facebook page, where everyone can post pictures of the work they are doing. Of course, pictures and videos aren’t quite the same as being together in person.
“The hardest part is not seeing them every day,” Oostman said. “When we heard that we were done for the year, [I had] a good long cry. Going from seeing them five days a week to hearing, ‘Your year is done, and you won’t have this group of kids again,’ has been so tough. They’ll be fine, but it’s been tough. We didn’t get to say a proper goodbye.”
Teaching students online—in Spanish
Some teachers at LCS face an added barrier in distance learning: foreign language.
Lansing Christian School offers a Spanish immersion track, starting with kindergarten. These students, who do not come from Spanish-speaking families and may have no experience whatsoever with the language, start school in exclusively Spanish classrooms. The immersive experience is particularly difficult to reproduce online, but that hasn’t stopped teachers from working hard to reach their students.
“At first, it was a little hurried; it took a while to get into a rhythm of Zoom meetings, emails, and organizing everything (for take-home packets),” said second-grade Spanish immersion teacher Lety Cruz. “It’s definitely not the same as if we were in class. We had to adapt to new ways of instruction, and we’re doing what we can. One good thing is that this started later in the year; if this was the beginning of the school year, it would be even tougher. Now, I know where all my students are, academically. I know…how I can help them.”
Alexa Van Beek, an LCS alum and a student teacher in the first-grade Spanish immersion class, is getting an unusual experience preparing for her career, but she’s taking it in stride. She’s supervised by Ivone Arsenault, one of the school’s most experienced Spanish immersion teachers. They worked together to create a plan for the remainder of the year.
“The content has been able to stay the same, but the manner in which we present it varies,” Van Beek said. “Instead of doing everything together for things like math or social studies, I create videos that students can follow along with in their own book at home. We’ve also been able to read together on Zoom, which has been helpful for assessing things like reading fluency and creating that learning environment even when we are apart.”
Cruz also creates video lessons, and she uploads them to her web page—every LCS teacher has one. She has Zoom meetings as well; half the class meets on Wednesday, and the other half on Friday, so students get more opportunities to be engaged. She has whole-class, interactive Zoom meetings on Thursday, where the students play games. And she offers one-on-one Zoom meetings to any student who wants one.
“Some kids seem to enjoy video lessons more than Zoom, because they can pause and rewind—they can’t rewind me at school!” she laughed. But one student told Cruz that he enjoyed Zoom because he wanted to raise his hand and participate.
“We have to be able to just talk,” Cruz said, noting that of her 13 students, only two live in homes with others who speak Spanish.
Van Beek echoed the same sentiment: “The biggest challenge has been providing communicative opportunities for students,” she said. “Because the Spanish Immersion program works by immersing students into another language for the entire day, taking that program home has been difficult at times because most of our families do not have Spanish speakers at home.”
Some of the students have older siblings who are also in Spanish immersion, which is helpful. Arsenault has also been making phone calls to converse with students whenever she can.
Van Beek is handling much of the online communication with students.
“As a student teacher, the technology and strategies learned in my education classes are all fresh in my mind, and have made converting to an online classroom much easier,” she said. “Internet resources like TeachersPayTeachers or Pinterest have also been immensely helpful for new ideas.”
Cruz has taken advantage of technology long before the pandemic forced teachers online. She uses Instagram to connect with other Spanish immersion teachers and dual language educators across the nation—and even one teacher in Chile.
“It’s amazing—there are a lot of teachers out there who do this,” she said. “We have great communication; we lift each other up and support each other.”
But she doesn’t have to go far from home to get support.
“Teachers within our own school have been so supportive and helpful,” Cruz said. “I realized I’m not as sharp with technology as I thought I was! But the teachers [at LCS] are all helping each other.”
For their part, students are responding to their new surroundings in many different ways.
“Students are missing the social aspect of school, and some parents are having trouble motivating their students,” Cruz said. “I encouraged all of them to find a routine.”
But other students are thriving in the remote school setting. “From some students, I’m seeing more participation,” Cruz said.
Overall, the teachers are happy with how their students are handling this new situation.
“I think it has taken a little bit for them to adjust to what school at home looks like and what the expectations are for that,” Van Beek said. But now that they are settling into a routine, she said, their work shows their talent and dedication. “I continue to be impressed by what they do with what they are given.”
With all the work that the teachers, parents, and students are putting in, Cruz thinks that her students will learn what they need to know for next year.
“I really believe that students will jump back to where they need to be in the fall,” she said.
And she hopes the next school year will start back in the classroom.
“I’m hoping that I can see normalcy come August,” she said. “But it’s hard to look ahead right now, because you’re just really focused on what you need to do at the moment.”
“Teachers are human, with their own fears; we struggle with change,” she added. “We’re doing our best.”
From the oldest teacher to the youngest student, everyone is working hard to make this new reality work.
“At Lansing Christian School, we talk all the time about how we’re a family,” Oostman said. “You realize in times like these that you miss your family – the staff, the students. And they [the students] are going through the same things. My kids miss their teachers so much. Two of my Zoom meetings ended yesterday with students saying ‘I love you.’ You do the best you can to have that love and compassion come through the computer.”