In this week’s One Thing You Might Try… blog post, preschool teacher, Natali Gaxiola, writes about reimagining the early childhood classroom online and the power of building a classroom community that celebrates both students’ home and school lives.
As the children’s faces popped up on the screen, I could see their excitement. “Good morning, Ms. Gaxiola!” Jacob said as he held one of his toy dinosaurs up to the screen.
“Good morning Jacob, I see you brought someone with you to class. Who is that?”
“My dinosaur!” he replied.
As Gianna came on the screen, I said, “Good morning, Gianna. I see you are at a table this morning.”
“I’m at my grandma’s house,” she replied.
“Did you take all your materials over there?” I asked.
“Yes, my mommy and Ashley [older sister] bring them.”
The moment Ava logged on, she blurted out, “Are we going to share our pictures?!” The rest of the preschoolers, with their eyes wide open, looked to me for a response.
“Yes,” I reassured. “We will go over a few things first, and then share our pictures.” The feeling of eagerness this morning was definitely a change from past mornings, which were slow to start, and in which I felt like I had to be extra energetic to grab the preschoolers’ attention. After a few of our morning routines it was, at last, time to share our pictures.
“Does everyone have their family picture? If you don’t have a picture printed that you can hold up to the screen, tell whoever is helping you that they can send it to me through ClassDojo and I can screenshare it so we can all see it. I will be sharing mine like that. Anyone want to go first?”
Ava quickly responded with “Me!” She held her picture up to the screen while describing everyone who was in it and how they were related to her. When she pointed out her baby brother, another student, Jeovani, said “I have a baby sister!” Then Jacob chimed in with “I have a baby sister too—Luna.” As each child shared their picture and described their families, we talked about similarities and differences between our families. When I shared my own family picture the children helped me find similarities and differences between my family and theirs. They now saw the many roles we play in our lives. I am their teacher but I am also a big sister to my brothers and a daughter to my mother. We began to get to know one another (even though we may not have met in person) and our roles beyond student and teacher.
Reimagining the Early Childhood Classroom Online
At the beginning of the school year, I found myself overwhelmed in some moments as I attempted to reimagine my preschool classroom on the screen. How could I connect with each child and also manage all the sounds in each home that found their way into our Zoom class? I felt hesitation and guilt each time I used the mute button. How was I to engage these young children if I was having to mute them? And how could I create a sense of community and collaboration with children who had not met me or each other in person? How could I support peer relationships amongst my students when they couldn’t freely engage and play with each other like they would in the classroom?
The Mute Button as a Shared Tool
One of the first steps I took to create an online early childhood classroom in which we could all talk and listen to one another was establishing some shared norms with students and families. Instead of me muting a child and risking them feeling ignored, we talked about the sound issues and problem solved together just like we would in class. The mute button became a tool for the teacher, students, parents, and caregivers. It was not a burden I held on my own; it was now a shared responsibility. Now that we could all hear each other we began to look for ways to incorporate our home life into our virtual classroom life.
Families and Home Life as Rich Resources
As my classroom grew far beyond the school walls to include families and their home lives, I was challenged to stretch beyond traditional home-school partnerships. Our classroom community grew to include moms, dads, grandparents, siblings, babysitters, aunts, and uncles. By asking children to share parts of their home lives through pictures, artifacts, and stories, we not only learned more about every individual child but also found common ground between all of us. We strived to create a classroom community that celebrated families’ diverse home lives and the knowledge that all families and children bring with them to our class.
Telling Stories that Connect Our Home and School Lives
When our class began a study of emotions, we found that the home environment supported students in telling stories from their lives. The stories came with ease as children looked around their homes for objects and places that stirred memories. When we talked about happiness, I asked children to look around and find something that makes them happy. Alex looked over at his baby sister and pulled her close to the screen while saying “Ailin!” As a child who has struggled with speech development, he could confidently show our class what (or who, in this case!) made him happy.
When we discussed fear, children were asked to bring something to our class meeting that brought them comfort when they felt scared. That morning we had students wrapped up in big blankets, while others were hugging their favorite stuffed animals. One child even Zoomed from an area underneath her elevated bed where she had created a comfy corner with a bean bag and special lights. Children were excited to share with one another. Our classroom was buzzing with conversation and connections. Jacob wanted to know where Ava bought her lights. And after Wendy shared her stuffed panda, Andrew picked up his lion and put it on the screen saying, “I have animals too.” Although I’ve done similar sharing activities in the classroom, they were never quite as rich as when children told stories and shared objects from their homes.
Planning Ways for Everyone to Participate and Belong
Of course, there are also unique challenges to children attending school from their homes. Some families or children may not want to share parts of their home lives. Other times children join our class from a babysitter’s house, from their cars, or even from a park. My goal in these cases and always is to ensure that no matter where a child is or what they have brought to share, that they feel like an important part of our community and that there are multiple ways of participating in each activity in which we engage. For example, on the day my students were sharing favorite places in their home, my student, Gianna, was staying with her grandma while her mom recovered from COVID-19. When it was Gianna’s turn to share, we all watched Gianna’s face light up as she shared a photo her mom had sent of her room back home. Another time, Khloe joined our class from a park without access to her materials so instead she became my helper for the day. I held up materials and she named them. Since we were working on making patterns, Khloe guided me in creating a pattern while other students did it at home with their materials.
When planning activities, I always try to think of what most children will have access to and multiple ways of participating. Working with preschool-aged children, we must always follow their lead and be ok with children not wanting to share at times.
Here are just some of the other items students have been able to share on Zoom:
- Favorite toy, snack, or book
- Baby pictures and family pictures
- Eating utensils that you use at home
- Photos and drawings of favorite places to visit (or that you’d like to visit!)
- Objects that are used for family and cultural traditions
Above all, my goal with sharing is to celebrate students and their families and all the ways we are the same and different.
Supporting Academic Concepts and Developing Age-Appropriate Skills
With each sharing opportunity I work to support the child’s sense of self and social-emotional development as well as connect to academic content. One of my favorite ways to do that is through helping children develop ways of talking about the math that exists all around us and especially in our homes. During the first counting collection of the school year each child received a sandwich-sized plastic baggie. Their task was to look around their home and collect items that fit in the bag. It was a seemingly simple task that required no special materials outside of the baggie I gave them, and yet when it was time to share their collections during our class meeting, the math and conversations couldn’t have been richer. In the classroom children usually count collections that have been prepared by the teacher. But at home, they can create their collections that lead to conversations that we might not have had at school. Wendy had small random toys and even a wooden piece in her baggie, which lead to an interesting discussion of what this piece could be part of. Josiah found that a lot of things fit in his bag as he was able to fit his toothbrush, sunglasses, and watch amongst other things. Children were able to talk about the mathematical idea that many little things could fit in the bag, but fewer big items would fit. Ava was a bit upset, as she had only put four items in her bag. We talked about quantities and how we might add more items in the future or take items out of the bag. We categorized, counted, discussed colors, and identified shapes as we explored our collections together.
While teaching preschoolers online during a pandemic certainly has its challenges, there is great value in drawing on students’ family and home resources. All children and families come to school with a wealth of knowledge and resources. Strengthening this connection between home and school, between teachers, students and families, supports engagement and learning beyond the Zoom minute we share.
About the author
Natali Gaxiola is a preschool teacher for the Lennox School District in Los Angeles County. She is a chapter co-author of Choral Counting and Counting Collections. Natali believes there are rich learning opportunities in any environment and children learn when given the freedom to explore. You can find Natali on Twitter @gaxiola_natali.
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