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Beth White
August 25, 2020

A Reflection: Making Distance Learning Successful

Many of us here at Teaching Strategies, myself included, are former educators. And while we may understand the challenges you face in the classroom, none of us have experienced anything like this unprecedented, wide-spread, drastic shift to distance learning that you’re currently facing. We recognized we needed to dig deeper into how to make distance learning successful, especially for young children.

So, we recently hosted a virtual summer camp for 18 children who will be attending kindergarten this fall. The summer camp, held for two and a half weeks, brought together children from all over the country in a distance learning setting that was new to both them and to their teacher, Sandy Little.

Sandy taught kindergarten for many years before joining Teaching Strategies as a Content and Implementation Partnerships Manager—but the virtual environment was a first for her.

Needless to say, the children weren’t the only ones learning as they went along.

As a former kindergarten teacher myself, I know how important it is to use the first weeks of school to build a strong classroom community. Not only did Sandy have only two and a half weeks to work with these children—but she conducted the entire camp sitting in front of her laptop from home.

Reflecting on Our Virtual Kindergarten Camp Webinar

Watch Archive On-Demand

I’ve asked Sandy to join me and to reflect on a few of the things she learned from her first experience as an early childhood distance-learning teacher.

What did you learn about maintaining developmentally appropriate practice during distance learning?

Sandy: I knew I wanted to hold true to the five guidelines in NAEYC’s position statement for developmentally appropriate practice in early childhood education.

  1. Creating a caring community of learners
  2. Teaching to enhance development and learning
  3. Planning curriculum to achieve important goals
  4. Assessing children’s development and learning
  5. Establishing reciprocal relationships with families

I kept these guidelines at the forefront of my mind as I made decisions about how to implement a study (the Percussion Instruments Study) from The Creative Curriculum® for Kindergarten online—with children whom I have never met and in homes I have never stepped foot in, partnering with families who lived across the United States and Grand Cayman.

It seemed for every one of these guidelines there were perpetual roadblocks to doing what seemed natural to me. I had to focus my mind to only entertain the possibilities and to turn my mind off from the idea of “that won’t work because…”

Once I focused on possibility, the flow of ideas started with a trickle and quickly turned into a flood. Don’t misunderstand me, the ideas ran dry occasionally, and I had to seek understanding to regenerate the momentum. In the end, as always, the children taught me a good deal about what they needed, as I remembered that daily reflection on teaching practice always yields evolution of practice.

What did you learn about assessment of children's development and learning during distance learning?

Sandy: This sounds so cliché, but what I learned was that the updates to GOLD® as part of our Distance Learning Solution make documenting children’s growth super easy!

As a former state assessment coordinator, I have encouraged many practitioners in my home state to use GOLD® on a daily basis. This time it was my turn to utilize GOLD®—with a lens of “science rather than compliance.” Many have heard me say this time and time again.

I first had to identify how GOLD® could support not just my assessment of each child engaged in camp but also what it could do to help me assess what needed to happen within the instruction for each day and how to make the most of the 50 minutes I had with each child each day.

I found the new two-way communication tool, an enhancement to MyTeachingStrategies® and a part of our newest Distance Learning Solution, to be the most effective. I worked with each family to get set up with the MyTeachingStrategies® Family app and encouraged them to share documentation of their children’s learning at home. I can say with confidence, as I started the first week without it, that this app saved me a significant amount of time in entering documentation and allowed me to spend more time reflecting on the child’s development rather than on the logistical mechanics of saving each piece of work sent to me via e-mail and personal text messages.

I was able to utilize my GOLD® reports to identify areas I needed documentation for, and could then send specific activities to the families to complete that targeted those objectives.

For example, I found gross-motor development to be a challenging area to observe at a distance, within our 50-minute time slot.

Using the two-way communication tool, I shared a learning experience with families—"Obstacle Course”, from the kindergarten Development and Learning Games in the Family area of MyTeachingStrategies®—and asked them to use the app to send me a video or photos of their children completing the experience. I was then able to add the documentation to the children’s portfolios and assign preliminary levels to the documentation.

It was simple for ALL of us! And most importantly, it allowed me to gain an understanding of the individual needs of the children and use that knowledge to plan for each day’s instruction.

What was the impact of having a coach join you on this journey, and what do you recommend teachers do if they don’t have coaches to help them?

Sandy: Having my friend Donna Fowler serve as my coach during Kindergarten camp was such a positive experience. She always listened with an ear for understanding what I was doing and how I was working to meet my goals for each day.

She and I reflected on each day’s interactions after the teaching day was complete. It was important to have a thought partner, someone to bounce ideas off and to cheer me along when I felt overwhelmed by the challenges of technology and my desire to do everything PERFECTLY. Almost every teacher I know has this same desire.

Coaches can be super helpful in helping you minimize your worry about perfection by supporting you to identify your next goal and set a plan in action to reach that goal. In my early days of teaching, I didn’t have a coach, but I did have an amazing colleague who helped me think through problems and find ways to be innovative. It’s important, in any setting, to find someone who can support you, cheer you on, and help develop a working plan. That could be a colleague, a former classmate, or maybe even a family member.

Are there any aspects of distance learning that you think actually work better than they do in a traditional classroom?

Sandy: Such a great question! And one that I never dreamed would have a positive answer to offer. But the honest truth is, there were “wins" that have not traditionally been possible for me in the classroom.

To begin with, for the first time in my career, I was able to let children wiggle and move as MUCH AS THEY NEEDED TO during any part of instruction. There was no interference with other children’s personal space, and everyone was able to move, stand, sit, hide behind the table, or whatever they needed to do to feel comfortable to participate. It was a wonderful experience for me as the leader of learning and a lesson I wish I had learned many years ago.

Secondly, I was able to spend time with families “in” their homes and be present with each child’s family on a daily basis. I learned so much about the family dynamics and the lives of the children. The knowledge gained through these experiences helped me help the children make connections with one another and also guided my understanding of how to facilitate experiences like “playing the drum” during baby sister’s nap time. We just worked together to make a “smart plan” for the best location for noise during nap.

Are there lessons you learned that you would take back with you to teaching in a traditional setting?

Yes, the Wow! Experiences conducted from a distance were beyond INCREDIBLE! Engaging families to support studies was so easy! Additionally, connecting with other friends and community members whose skill sets contributed to the children’s experiences with percussion and music were a breeze! In just under three weeks we had a bilingual reader, a jazz drummer, a violinist, traditional Hula dancers accompanied by an Ipu drummer, and an American Indian from the Navajo Indian Tribe in Arizona “visit” our camp. I can’t recall ever having the ability to enhance lessons in such a robust way. What I can tell you is that I would never go back to having families participate IN-PERSON ONLY. I believe I would strive to have in-person experiences while always being mindful that virtual engagement allows a great deal of flexibility for other's schedules.

There was so much more that Sandy learned from her experience in hosting virtual kindergarten. Sandy, along with her coach, Donna, shared additional reflections in a recent webinar that you can now watch on-demand. I found it so inspirational and insightful that I would recommend any preschool or kindergarten teacher who will be teaching in a distance learning environment this year take the time to watch it.

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