As we enter this last full week of school, I am shocked as I look back at how much time has past since we started distance learning. When we first began this new "adventure" I wasn't sure how I would even begin to teach first graders over the internet. So much of what we do and learn happens in our togetherness, in the messy work of classroom activities, and in the daily hands-on work children are meant to be doing. Yet, here we are, our final trimester coming to a close and I see that my students have learned new skills and even mastered new content.
As we moved away from our comfortable and stable schedule and into the arena of PBL for the final two weeks, I felt panicked. In the classroom, I can answer questions immediately, guide my students through each step of the project, and help them see the purpose behind their actions. Doing PBL virtually has not been without its challenges, and I can see that it's not ideal for young children; however, even with its challenges, first graders have shown up and presented their ideas, wonderings, and creations all on a digital format. Not only did these 6 and 7 year-olds transition to a virtual learning platform, navigate new technology and programs, conquer poor zoom connections but they also stretched themselves to learn about a topic they were interested in, create, and manipulate their pages in an online book creator. I am proud.
I haven been reading some distance learning blogs during this time at home and trying to figure out the best way to serve my students. I read something on EducationWeek.org that stuck out to me recently: The more that we teach remotely, the more I believe this. If we can accomplish one or two things a week and continue to build reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills along the way, we are doing it right. We have kept it simple and allowed our students the chance to breathe. There is no need to overload them with work and stress in an already stressful time.
So, although our schedule and routines have changed and our workload is ever-changing, it is the consistency of communication and connection, as well as the development of confidence and independence, that is important during this time. I see the work my first graders are completing and I know that they will move on to 2nd grade with confidence and a resiliency that will carry them much farther than any additional word list I could have given them.
These past few weeks have been nothing short of interesting. There has been a lot of trial and error, a lot of laughs, frustration, questions, and a lot of screen time. However, I would take a lot of screen time over not being to connect to my students any day. Although learning has taken on a different appearance since we have jumped into distance education, I still feel lucky to be able to log into Zoom each morning and see the bright and wonderful faces of my students. I laugh out loud when I read or listen to their stories, I love to see the interesting responses in Seesaw, and I long for the small groups where I can work on specific skills and focus on each child.
Even though we are not elbow deep in classroom projects, I feel that learning is still happening. Students proudly displayed their animal habitat dioramas, mastered their understanding of suffixes, created stories and pictures, practiced comprehension - all online. It's not ideal but it is working and I am so proud to see the resiliency that PNA's first graders are displaying throughout all of this. However, it is not only the first graders that are showing resiliency. Parents also deserve an applause as they have not only become co-teachers, but have also had to maintain all the other aspects of running a home and job from their house. We will all come out of this experience with a new set of skills that we might never have developed otherwise. I guess you call it the silver lining, or so to speak.
I will say, I have absolutely loved having a smaller student-teacher ratio this year. It has allowed me to work with each child in ways not possible with a larger class size. A small class size is also proving to be invaluable during this time of distance learning. Some children need more academic work and to be challenged in certain areas, while others mainly need a friendly, familiar face to ask about their day and learn about their favorite toys. Some of my students thrive on a large workload yet some thrive on simple and comfortable connection. I know my students. I feel for them and love on them and I miss them. They have gone from these tiny kindergartners that arrived in my classroom last fall and have grown into these resilient, growth-minded, young scholars. PNA is not merely an academic institution for any of us. It is a refuge, especially during times such as these. And I cannot wait to give them in-person hugs and high fives in the fall!
These past two weeks have been nothing short of a whirlwind of changes. We all anticipated returning from Spring Break and jumping back into our regular school routine of morning meetings, building challenges, math and word work, and social interaction. Yet, what we encountered was a new reality; a quick transition to distance learning in order to ensure the safety of students, faculty, and families due to the arrival of COVID-19 in our lives. Were we prepared to jump headfirst into distance learning? No. However, I was amazed to see and experience the resiliency of our PNA community as we transitioned to an online platform with an amazing amount of communication, flexibility, and grace.
I have to admit. I was nervous. I still am in ways on how I can best serve my students. Yet, my main concerns were "How am I going to continue to help my students grow? How can I be the teacher they need me to be? How can I recreate what we have in the classroom through a screen?" Well, all I can do, all any of us can do, is our best. I still see my students growing as they challenge themselves to spell new words and find patterns in their reading. To have a student struggle over a word in a text we are reading together and then master that word, reading it independently in their books shows me that they can still grow and learn regardless of how that material is delivered. I know that I cannot recreate what we have in class; our classroom - and school - is a unique place. Yet, to see each other's faces during morning meeting, to talk, share, and listen in small groups, to discover, to laugh and be silly - these are all present online and are all components of what we have in our physical classroom. It's not the same but it is still rich and full of community.
This past week I feel we have fallen into a sort of rhythm. My days are full of back-to-back online lessons, working with my students and trying to meet them where they are and trying to push them a bit further. Art and Spanish rolled onto the scene and students were able to have online class and interactions with their specialist teachers. I was able to see the growth of my student's plants, listen to their recordings of their classwork and thoughts on virtual field trips, as well as feel confident that my students are ready to move forward with more challenging work that will prepare and have them ready for 2nd grade. As with all challenges, we must modify our normal and do our best with what we have. I feel that our families have shown tremendous flexibility and our students have shown tremendous GRIT, and I hope that we can establish this distance learning as our new normal so that we can make the absolute best of our time together while we all work together to make our community, and world, a healthy place again.
Students were engaged in a lot of truly fascinating and exciting activities this week. FIrst grade saw the culmination of their PBL lantern project and were able to present their work to classmates and teachers from the school. The resulting project was so beautiful! Visitors and students alike were mesmerized by the lantern's beauty and first graders did a wonderful job speaking in front of a diverse audience.
First graders were also able to participate in a PBL project that they were already familiar with. Kindergarten has a yearly project where they learn about the Iditarod and create their own sleds, racing them throughout the school and stopping in other student's classrooms as checkpoints. This year first graders got to be the 2nd checkpoint and they were so excited to have this new role as the "big" kids in the race. Everyone gathered at the end of the "race" the celebrate the end of this project and the kindergarteners hard work.
Our week ended with an absolutely amazing space party. Community and business members contributed to an event that was incredibly engaging, hands-on, and intensely educational for our students. First graders engaged with the Civil Air Patrol using flight simulators, learned about how oil and water are separated from ConocoPhillips, investigated fingerprints with the Crime Lab, learned about glacier formation, as physics from UAA - just to name a few of the amazing experiences in which students were engaged. First graders, along with the rest of PNA, were immersed in week of truly hands-on learning and embracing the spirit and advantages of an independent education!
On top of our math fun, students also prepared their invitations to our lantern exhibit. Our current PBL project about lanterns has been a fun and beautiful way for students to learn about light waves. During student-led conferences yesterday, it was so rewarding to hear students talk to their parents about different materials and know how light does or doesn't travel through particular objects. Over the past few weeks, we have moved through the stages of our PBL project and we are currently at the point of distributing invitations in order to share our project with the larger community. Although I am excited for first grade to share their hard work with the school, I am also excited for the critique phase and to hear about what students thought worked or didn't work and how they could have improved their design or execution of the project. Sometimes PBL is messy, sometimes we try projects that don't work, sometimes our PBL is gold standard and other times it's not; however, what matters is that students learn from their mistakes, learn from the process, and continue to build up their confidence and feel the burn for inquiry!
Our week, full as it was, still had a bit of room to go to Grant Hall to see (and support) a fellow schoolmate in the Velveteen Rabbit on Thursday. Students have read the story in class and truly enjoyed the experience. What's even better is that students were able to engage with the cast in a question and answer session after the play. PNA students were confident and ready with all sorts of questions! Thursday was an art-filled day as we returned from the Velveteen Rabbit and began working on our class auction project. Students hammered and strung thread to begin what will become a beautiful piece of authentic art in someone's home! I am so excited to see the final product as our class continues this project over the next few weeks.
As you can see, our week is bursting with all sorts of activities, filled with math, theater, art, science, and PBL. One moment it is Monday morning and it seems as though I blink and the week is over due to all the fun activities going on at PNA. The best refrain a teacher can hear is her students lamenting the fact that it's the weekend and we don't have school for two whole days!
Of all weeks, this week is the week to talk about love, friendship, and kindness towards others. Students have been talking about Valentine's Day for the past five days non-stop and anticipating all the pink, red, hearts, candy, and exchange of trinkets and cards. We have read and listened to stories about Valentine's Day, about friendship, and one of my favorites, a book called A Little Bit of Love that is about a mouse who teaches her child about how very simple acts can be done with love. Acts such as holding the door for a friend, helping a teacher clean up, sharing and offering kind words to others - these are all ways we can teach our children to do simple acts with a little bit of love. Of course, first graders laugh and scrunch their noses at any mention of love regarding Valentine's Day but it's a wonderful holiday to come along after learning about Dr. MLK, kindness, and servitude. It allows us to continue the conversation about how we treat others and how simple acts can make a HUGE difference! As Dr. MLK said, "Love is the only force capable of transforming an enemy into a friend." This week, we practiced being kind and using encouraging words as we worked on engineering challenges, solving number line problems, word sorts, reading in our book bins, and listening attentively while others shared in morning meeting.
I also witnessed a lot of love during our parent snack on Thursday. Students were counting down the hours until parent's showed up and I even had another teacher say, "I've never seen students so excited for a parent snack!" Despite being Valentine's Day themed, family support and love was the most obvious theme during the activities. To see the interaction between parents and students revealed how even simple acts such as designing a Valentine's Day bag or solving math problems and riddles can be filled with love.
We worked through our math unit assessment Friday morning and students had to effectively count backward by 10 from different numbers, some starting at 100, others 88, and so on. They also had to solve multi-step equations using a number line and use their estimating skills to solve word problems. I also worked with another student who has been struggling with certain aspects of reading. However, after working with this student a light bulb went off and he exclaimed, "Oh! Now I get it! That makes sense!" and he began firing off word after word now knowing how to break the code. It is moments of success like these that make my heart feel full of love as a teacher. I adore these kids and love watching them grow and learn!
We celebrated the 100th day of school on Friday and students had so much fun! We began our day by breaking into pairs and focusing on a design challenge. Students worked with 100 pieces of a particular object to build a hollow core tower that could hold a piece of paper with a plastic bear on top. Students had different methods counting to 100; some counted by 5s, others by 10s - skills we have been working on throughout the year. They also displayed teamwork, listening and communication skills, and patience. Students had so much fun and to see how far they have grown in their teamwork abilities since the beginning of the year was a very proud moment for me as their teacher.
An aspect of PNA that stands out is how much interaction there is between different ages and grades. Students in PK become familiar with students in 5th grade because of fun and engaging experiences such as our 100th day celebration. As students gathered in the gym, they mixed and mingled and Pre-K through 5th grade were playing and learning side-by-side. It was so joyful and exciting to see students from all grade levels not only helping each other but having fun and learning together! Students displayed respect to one another, self-confidence, and had a lot of fun engaging in the 100th day celebration in the gym - isn't that what we want for our kids educational experience!?
Something I truly have come to appreciate and cherish about PNA is that I get to interact with students from all grade levels on a daily basis. As we move into February, the end of the school year is rapidly coming upon us; however, I am also looking back over the past 100 days of school and thinking that they went by so quickly, how much students have grown and matured, and how much fun I have seen these kids have over the past months. Celebrating the 100th day of school with all grade levels was just a reminder that PNA is indeed a special community and a unique place of learning!
First grade is a time of immense change for students. They mature, become better readers, further develop their independence and confidence, and grow their understanding of the world around them. We have been covering types of energy over the past couple weeks, as well as discussing transparent, translucent, and opaque materials. As Chinese New Year is at the end of January, it seemed to be the perfect opportunity to broaden the student's awareness of cultural celebrations and tie in ways of celebrating different holidays to our unit on light. We couldn't necessarily study different cultures, celebrations, and holidays around the world without learning about where these celebrations take place, which was a perfect opportunity to expose them to the globe and all it's components. Talk about cross-curricular material!
We have spent our PBL-devoted afternoons learning about cultural celebrations that use lanterns and light as part of their festivities. This week we studied Chinese New Year and Diwali, and made beautiful lanterns with translucent and opaque materials as part of an art installment piece we are going to share with the school. Next week, students will learn about how different cultures use luminaries and about the Mexican tradition of paper mache lanterns. All of this ties to how different materials allow light through in different ways, as well as exposing them to the amazing variety of cultures around the world.
Students are encouraged to do their very best work because the culmination of all this learning and work will be the display of their creations. They will design an invitation to present to other classes, set up their lantern installation, and welcome students and teachers to pass down the hall and enjoy their works of art!
Education must prepare students to be independent, self-reliant human beings. But education, at its best, also must help students go beyond their private interests, gain a more integrative view of knowledge, and relate their learning to the realities of life.
— Ernest L. Boyer
One thing I love about PNA is the ability to be flexible with our day and that we can adjust the rhythm of our learning to best accommodate the children. An independent education is all about the needs of the child, and when I see that one thing isn't working or that the lesson I had planned for the day won't meet the needs of the children on a particular day, I can readjust and tailor the experience to better suit the learning needs of the class. It's a bit like sailing; a course can be mapped but each day, each hour, nearly each minute is affected by numerous variables. One student who is loathing math at the moment? Let's switch it up and play math games! Let's make it fun again! One student who is getting tired of writing? Let's learn about alliteration and write zany and silly poems! (I particularly liked Larry the Lion likes licking lollipops with Lily at the Lake.) Feeling cramped and restless? Let's go out and feel the sunshine on our faces and wander through the trees in in knee deep snow. Flexibility, freedom, the ability to be creative and intentional - these are important aspects of education just as are traditional courses such as math and reading. So often, we can tie these creative expeditions to our lessons and students not only learn academic material, they learn to apply it in real-life situations.
Our class is particularly hands-on and creative, so we learned about architecture this week. Is architecture part of the state-mandated standards? No. However, I have a couple students who love to build and talk about growing up to be builders and exposing them to architecture seems to be a natural response to their curiosities. We designed 3-dimensional houses and students were challenged to place them in either a tree, on land, or on the water. Students realized quickly that when they placed the house in the tree, they couldn't get in it with out also designing a ladder. One student who created a boat house realized it would "sink" unless he designed a floating platform for his house's foundation. They had to figure out how to make their landscape support their 3-D house and it was so fun to see their creative energy flowing as they excitedly designed, constructed, and presented their creations. Newbyleisurelimited.com has an awesome article about the benefits of creative freedom for young children. Their article states, "By allowing children freedom in construction play it also makes them think independently and make decisions based on what they are learning. This is great for teachers and it will then transpire into other areas of education and make the child a well-rounded learner as they grow older."
Creative freedom extends beyond the classroom and traditional learning. This week's Brown Bag series is just an example of the freedom that we have as an independent school. Students were encouraged and supported as they showcased their talents. They have been learning about MLK all week and how to be a servant to others and to show kindness, support, and be inclusive. The support and energy from their classmates was palpable and it was wonderful to see students perform with such confidence. These students exuded joy, confidence, and independence - traits that all parents, teachers, and administrators hope to see as their children journey through their education at PNA.
As MLK day approaches, we have been focusing more and more on kindness and service to others. Kindness is always a focus in our classroom; however, we have been spending a lot more time discussing what it actually means to be kind and its effect on others. Students engaged in spreading joy and kindness around the school by hanging up kindness posters that encouraged others to practice kindness. On top of encouraging others, first graders practiced their public speaking skills! First graders went to every class and gave a talk about their kindness posters, how to use them, and why they were hanging them up. They answered questions from other students and displayed great confidence!
Ryan McLean from publicspeaking.com says, "Who knows what exactly what kids are scared of when it comes to speaking in public. There are so many different fears about public speaking that it could be almost anything. However, I believe if we get them practicing (and enjoying) public speaking early and build up their confidence as a public speaker then as they grow in their teenage years and as they go into adulthood then they will be confident in public speaking." So, not only were first graders practicing their public speaking skills and confidence, they were also practicing the art of spreading kindness to others. Martin Luther King, Jr. represents kindness, inclusiveness, and servitude. Students are exemplifying the character traits that Dr. MLK, Jr. wanted the youth of this nation to possess. I hope that by reaching out to others to encourage kindness will, in turn, help our young students have a sense of ownership in their actions towards others. Our class kindness project doesn't only radiate within the school walls; first grade has reached out to schools and students all around the globe to learn how other students and cultures view kindness and service. Our class was very excited when we received our first response from another first grade class in Louisville, Kentucky! We are anticipating our next responses this next week from Australia, South Africa, and Switzerland!
I look forward to the special week we have planned to celebrate each and every one of us, to share our uniqueness, and the spread even more love and kindness!
I love the outdoors, reading, art, gardening, and sharing my love of learning!