This article was originally published on April 6, 2020.
Few moments in Katelyn Ewing’s academic career compare to the start of 2020. After 15 years, two associate degrees, taking time to start a family, and doing several long-term substitute teaching stints, the education senior was finally ready to tackle the last hurdle standing between her and a permanent place at the head of a classroom. Her student teaching appointment, a kindergarten class at a small private school where she’d been a long-term sub for years, left her with few rookie jitters. The semester was going to be pure excitement and joy.
Not long after she started, however, there were signs that things might not play out so smoothly. In late January, news started circulating about an outbreak of a new respiratory virus in China. It was similar to SARS but had greater potential to spread around the globe. At Ewing’s close-knit school, where many parents are doctors or work in healthcare, everyone seemed to be taking it very seriously. By February, the school was already talking about how to move the rest of the school year online. Ewing and the other teachers were asked to start preparing a remote curriculum, just in case. By March, it was no longer a contingency plan.
"Things changed very suddenly,” Ewing says. “The Thursday before the governor announced she was closing schools, our school already made the call that we were shutting down. They weren’t even going to wait until the end of the week.”
That left Ewing facing a challenge many teachers have been dealing with since: How to maintain contact with their students — and keep both them and parents, who are now suddenly playing teacher themselves, feeling like things could still be okay. At first, Ewing says the thought of teaching kindergarten online seemed pretty discouraging. “Because our school sort of saw this coming, I had 300 pages of worksheets and activities prepped and ready to go,” Ewing says. “But at the same time, my kids have never sat and done a worksheet in my class. Ever. Our classroom basically doesn’t have desks; the kids are always moving around. So I was just not okay with that being the only approach. I thought we could do way better.”
Over the past several weeks, that “better” version of remote kindergarten has evolved on a daily basis. Some of the things Ewing has tried have been attempts to preserve what was already underway in the classroom. When the shutdown arrived, they were right in the middle of reading “Charlotte’s Web.” As a substitute, Ewing started recording YouTube videos of her reading the day’s chapter. By the third day, realizing it could get boring for her students to simply watch their teacher read a book, she broke out her pig costume from a previous year and led storytime as Wilbur himself.
Other ideas have been born of the unique challenges presented by the school closure. One of the last things Ewing experienced just before the official shutdown was her first Zoom meeting. Teachers and school leaders were using the online meeting tool to go over last-minute preparations. “But I thought, this is amazing, why can’t I do this with my kindergartners?” She ran the idea by her classroom parents, who liked the structure of a daily check-in. Now, every school day at 10 a.m., her 12 kindergartners get to greet each other, before diving into the day’s work.
What that work consists of is also always evolving, Ewing says, and it’s different for different students. Every day at 9 a.m., she sends out an email to parents, laying out the lessons for the day. The worksheets haven’t totally disappeared, but she’s relying less and less on them. With spring upon us and outdoor time being one of the things that’s still considered safe to do, she’s incorporating more active nature-based activities. Last week, for example, the class’s STEM challenge was to construct your own nest, like birds are doing now, and share a picture via the class’s WhatsApp group.
But even as she challenges herself to come up with more creative ideas, Ewing is encouraging parents to see the daily guidance as a list of possibilities rather than something they have to complete in full.
“Every family’s situation is different, so I keep trying to emphasize that they’re not expected to suddenly be homeschooling their children,” Ewing says. “But it’s hard for parents not to stress about what their kids might be missing out on or think about whether they’re going to be ready for first grade next year. My message is, I promise you, they’re all intelligent and they’ll all catch up. Children naturally learn and develop without us sitting them down to do normal schoolwork. So right now is the time to be mindful of how they’re feeling and make them feel safe and loved. It’s not the time to struggle to recreate everything we were doing at school, especially if that’s simply going to add extra stress at home.”
In fact, Ewing is hopeful this unprecedented situation could give our education system a needed jolt. For starters, it’s put a magnifying glass on the digital divide. She’s plenty aware that not all teachers have the resources her school does, and she’s hearing many of those struggles directly from student teachers in her own cohort. In fact, one of the more fundamental challenges for many teachers was discerning whether all their effort would even count. Ewing says her school made an early decision that online teaching would, in fact, count toward the completion of a student's current grade. Governor Whitmer’s recent announcement appears to give a pathway for public schools to do the same, though each district’s education plan will have to be approved and ensure accessibility to every student.
Ewing is also hopeful that the current focus on flexible teaching methods and the well being of the children — rather than standardized tests — can outlast the pandemic.
“Teachers have been pushing for a long time for a more balanced approach that prioritizes academics, for sure, but also social-emotional learning,” Ewing says. “Right now, that ethos seems to be radiating outward. Who’s stepping up right now for these kids? It’s us teachers. It’s parents. And I think this situation will help us find a stronger voice when this is all over.”