I’ve been contemplating this blog post for a while now, and even chatted with my teaching partner, Paula, about it. Usually, social media posts, blog posts, and conversations about COVID and education, emphasize the number of “struggling students” over the past couple of years. There are all kinds of discussions around “learning loss” and how to “fill the gap.” Earlier this year, we had a teacher candidate from a nearby university. When meeting virtually with her professors, they asked me, “What do you notice about your students right now?” They were very surprised by my answer: these are the strongest kindergarten children that we have ever taught. Not only is almost every child meeting expectations, but most are exceeding expectations, and in many cases, quite significantly. Looking at our senior kindergarten students, who will be in grade 1 next year, this means that they are already decoding and comprehending beyond the kindergarten benchmark. How is this possible? It’s this question that has resulted in many of our team reflections.
Any time that you explore a how question like this one, I don’t think that you’ll ever know the answer for sure, but it’s still worth delving into the possibilities. In our case, we think that there are a number of factors to consider.
- We had excellent attendance and participation online. We’ve been pivoting a lot in the past couple of years, and with these pivots, come opportunities for virtual synchronous learning. We have been fortunate that almost all of our students attended at least one of our online sessions each day, and most attended for the three hours of daily synchronous learning. This meant that we could have a more seamless transition between in-person and online learning.
- We got better at figuring out ways to support reading and writing instruction virtually. When we first moved online a couple of years ago, figuring out how to support this instruction virtually was a challenge. Now though, thanks to screen sharing and even holding up notes for others to read, we’ve been able to explore decoding, comprehension, and written language better in a virtual platform. This meant that this instruction did not stop when we moved online, which helped contribute to academic growth whether at-home or in-person.
- Classroom set-up allowed for very targeted 1:1 and small group instruction. While the desk/table set-up might make people think that we pivoted to more traditional instruction of the past, our program is still very much play- and interest-based, just with a different look. This look though meant that we needed to be more deliberate in how we entered play and targeted various reading and writing skills for each child. Paula and I discussed students and goals more, and provided a lot of 1:1 and small group literacy instruction connected with child-led play. Thinking about the zone of proximal development, we’ve probably been much better at consistently being in this zone this year, as we’re thinking more about each child as we program and plan. I think this has always been our goal in other years, but maybe the classroom design forced this even more.
- We took note writing and reading to a whole new level. While Paula and I have embraced note writing and reading over the past number of years, we’ve gotten to a whole new level with it this year. The Fairies of Dundas have really helped with this. The best thing about this note writing is that it might not be for everyone, but by knowing our audience, we can also target the instruction. We’ve been reflecting more on trickier sound combinations and sight words, and deliberately adding these to the fairy notes. Now Paula’s able to support a guided reading note group before the day even officially begins — just as kids enter the classroom each morning.
- We’ve reflected more, and tried different approaches, to help all children meet with success. While many of our strategies work for the vast majority of students, Paula and I have been thinking more this year about those children that might need something different. Below is one of these examples. By using the cue cards and velcro as well as magnetic letters, this child has moved from just exploring letters and sounds to reading and writing. This has recently extended to letter writing and reading of his own. Sometimes a different approach is needed for some students, and maybe, the individual spaces forced us to think more about individual students.
- We try to support reading in many different contexts. While I think that we attempted to do this before, we’re far more deliberate in our choices this year. We want children to realize that they can use the sound combinations and sight words that they know to make sense of text in various situations. This even means finding some provocations online, which include words for students to read as part of exploring the image or video clip together. We also have word family books out, and look at explore together everywhere.
- We’ve been more specific with our home extension ideas, to help support this reading and writing beyond the classroom experience. Many of our parents also saw and participated in online learning, which means that they took ideas that we shared and started doing similar things at home. Even on the Communications of Learning, our next steps were more specific, to help really target areas of need. Now we even have parents writing notes to their children, and we can further target the decoding and comprehension skills with these notes at school.
This has become such a wonderful home/school partnership, which truly seems to benefit kids.
During a year where we often hear about the academic drawbacks that are a result of the pandemic, it’s nice to be able to celebrate some success. Now I realize that we’re privileged to be able to have students with access to technology, families who were able to make virtual learning work, and children with a vast amount of background knowledge, which also helps support vocabulary development and reading and writing skills. But even in the area where we teach, we hear about students struggling, so reflecting on and celebrating these successes seem valuable. They also make us wonder about how we can use our learning over the past few years to positively impact students next year, even if our classroom design changes. Have you had any unexpected positive experiences over these past couple of school years? What might have made these experiences possible? Maybe by reflecting more on the how and why, we can recreate these moments in the years to come.