Megan Florentine has been teaching for 18 years, 17 of which she’s spent at Ensworth, an independent K–12 school in Nashville, Tennessee. There, in addition to mentoring and coaching teachers using the Responsive Classroom approach, she currently teaches kindergarten.
At the time of this article, her school was on spring break. When their break ends, in an effort to contain the spread of COVID-19, like many schools across the country and the world, all teaching will be remote.
“I have never done remote teaching before,” she told us. “Never, never, never. This is it. In fact, we pride ourselves on not doing a whole lot of stuff on computers. Once we understood we’d go remote, though, there were a lot of meetings to set up the technology for those who teach the older kids. At the same time, we don’t want to encourage our younger children to be in front of screens all day. They’re likely doing a lot more of that than usual anyway.”
Dealing with a first foray into virtual education aside, Megan’s last day of live teaching before the change had its own challenges. “It was clear that some of the children knew a lot about the virus from watching the news or hearing from big brothers or sisters, but others were blissfully unaware. I wasn’t sure how to discuss it with them, or if I should.”
That tough question was answered for her. “During Morning Meeting, one of the children just kind of blurted out that he’d heard a lot of people were dying from a sickness, old people, especially.”
A discussion now unavoidable, Megan asked herself what Mr. Rogers would say, and responded: “You probably heard there’s a sickness going around the country. It’s true that some people are getting sick, but the most important thing to know is that your parents and any other grown-ups in your life will take care of you and keep you safe.”
She also told them that if they hear things that scare them, they shouldn’t keep those feelings inside. They should tell a grown-up, who’ll talk to them about it. “They really seemed reassured,” she said.
With the children now on break, in order to keep upcoming learning more real than virtual, Megan and her kindergarten team are putting together a collection of low-tech activities to share with parents. “And we are trying to find appropriate online resources so parents will have some good things to put on their screens as opposed to videogames.”
One very strong advantage that Megan and her colleagues have is a history of cooperation and cohesiveness. “We get along, we’re friends outside work, and we’ve specifically learned to share ideas. It’s always served us well, but now it’s crucial. We really want to present a unified front to the families. We don’t want one class getting something and others not. So, we’re doing a lot of texting and emailing. The open lines of communication let us check in with each other before we send anything to families, to make sure it feels good to everybody.”
Important as it’s always been to be in touch with families, now there’s the question of how best to keep contact with students. “As teachers, we need to be careful about how much and what type of communication we open ourselves up to. It’s not age appropriate, for instance, for me to chat online with a kindergartner, but I also want to be available. Finding that line between what’s not appropriate, and what’s comforting and would be helpful, will be a little tricky.”
Tricky or not, Megan believes that being in touch is essential. “My biggest instinct is to keep connected with the children as individuals and wanting them to still be able to connect with me. If a child wants to send me a message, I plan to encourage parents to take a picture of something their child did and send it to me. I’ll be more than happy to respond. That sense of belonging, and being significant, is a core principle of the classroom. Finding the best way to maintain that remotely, in a developmentally and age-appropriate way, is something I’m striving for and hoping to discover as I go along.”
Being new to remote teaching hasn’t kept Megan from having a lot of ideas. “I’m thinking about sending a daily email to the families that their child can read. It will be in the same format as the morning message, which they’re already familiar with. It will be nice to name a few children each day, along with specific questions about things I know they’re interested in.
For example, there’s a little boy in my class I know is interested in sharks. It’s important to remember certain things about children so they can still feel a personal connection with their teacher.”
But there’s still a lot to figure out. “What’s the appropriate frequency to contact families and children? I cannot assume parents are going to be homeschooling all day. I don’t want to overwhelm them. So, what’s too much? For some, what’s not enough? I want to give the right amount, so they’re relieved to have something they can do to keep their little one busy. One thing we really strive for in kindergarten is helping the children become independent, from opening packages themselves to cleaning up messes, along with learning to play happily without an adult always interacting with them. I’m really going to try to look for ideas for families to help continue that growth in their child.”
In terms of belonging, does Megan have ideas about keeping students in touch with each other? “I’m not sure about that. If parents send a photo, I could share it with the whole class on Seesaw. But as of now, I’m not set up for that. Also, since we can’t mandate that everyone log in at the same time, we went with asynchronous online learning, which will definitely influence how we interact with our classes as a whole group.”
Despite striving to be low-tech, online resources aren’t completely out of the question. “Since the virus, there’s so much material to sort through. Mo Willems’s Storytime and the Cincinnati Zoo’s animal videos are two that seem sweet and wonderful. We use the Dreambox Math app, One More Story is good for literacy, and we really like the Handwriting Without Tears curriculum.”
One thing is clear: as close as it can get, it won’t be the same. “Kindergartners are very tactile. They love to hug. Whenever they’re talking to me, they have a hand resting on me. It’s going to be hard to be removed from them for who knows how long. When they left, we were in the middle of a book project they were so excited about. Now it’s sitting in their writing folders.”
As adaptable as Megan is striving to be, along with millions of other educators she’s looking toward the day she knows will come—when her students can pick up those folders again.