In less than a week, teachers and school leaders at KIPP New Jersey acted quickly to allow students to continue learning safely after social distancing requirements were announced.
When our school buildings closed starting March 16th, it quickly became clear that keeping everyone safe would mean remaining apart for a longer period of time.
Teacher Amanda Geiger and Teacher-in-Residence Joanna Wong, fourth grade math teachers at KIPP Lanning Square Primary stepped up to the plate to help children continue learning—and make sure they stayed connected to their strong classroom culture. We spoke with Wong and Geiger to learn more about what’s different about teaching during a pandemic—and what stayed the same.
What went through your heads when you learned schools would be closed starting March 16th?
Amanda: It happened really quickly. And maybe this was naive, but at the time we thought we’d be back in two weeks. The hardest part was not being able to say goodbye to our kids. I wish that we had done our Community Circle and reflected more on the year instead of acting like it was business as usual. We didn’t want to worry kids, either.
Joanna: Like Amanda, I went through a lot of disbelief when we wound up closing—and I share the same regret—it was hard not saying goodbye! At first, we thought things would go back to normal, but instead we have a new normal now.
What actions did KIPP New Jersey and your school take when it became clear that closures would be longer than two weeks?
Joanna: They came up with an action plan so quickly! I was so grateful that we were trained and ready when ‘Phase 2’ of remote learning came along after two weeks, which meant we were using Google Classrooms instead of packets. They held professional development sessions where we got to learn how to create our Morning Message to students, learned what the math curriculum would look like and how grading would work. This was important because it also allowed us to pass along our plan for virtual instruction to our families and then in turn, support them.
This transition to home learning was difficult for many families—and we had to care about the details so that it could be easier for them. For example, our school standardized naming conventions of all Google Classroom assignments so they looked the same for every grade. These actions helped families have an easier time locating assignments—particularly families with siblings in multiple grades.
Amanda: Our Teaching and Learning Team provided so many materials so fast, both for online learning via Google Classrooms and the packets we distributed for the first phase of remote learning. The best part about that was it helped us focus on the kids and creating a new normal for our classroom culture. I know a lot of my teacher friends in other schools really struggled to provide learning resources, but the work of our Teaching and Learning team allowed us to focus on what mattered—the kids.
How did your communications with families shift after the closures? What did you do to stay in touch?
Amanda: We talk to them a lot—I would say more than we have in the past, even. We’ve gotten closer to our parents because we had a lot to explain to them! Our approach is grounded in the fact that we care about the well-being of our families first. When I call them, I first ask them how they are.
It’s made me really appreciate that I work in a place that cares about providing resources to families that go beyond academic support. When they have a question about finding groceries, WiFi hotspots, or anything else, I get to give them concrete information they can use.
Joanna: The emphasis is on community for us. At the end of the day, we’re human beings first and we remember that in every conversation.
What does engagement and class culture look like in a virtual classroom? What are the challenges you’re facing?
Joanna: Our classroom engagement is actually fairly similar to how we engage them in physical classrooms: We use class Dojo points to reward effort, we have readathons—we even hosted a movie night where the kids watched Wonder together! Sometimes kids play the game Kahoot during our Zoom office hours. It’s hard for every kid to stay on track with learning, but we host office hours on Zoom. The best part is some kids who really grasp the material will log in to support other students. We love to see that!
Amanda: We’ve also used social media to engage with kids and remind them of what really matters. When we were in physical classrooms, we had kids earning ‘kindness points’ for being helpful or supportive to their peers—and now we have them text us photos of themselves cleaning around the house, or helping their parents with yardwork or other chores. We’ll post those on social media to keep everyone connected and then we also offer prizes they get to choose from.
In terms of engagement around learning the material—math is a sequential subject and we’ve acknowledged that it’s easier in a physical classroom to clarify misconceptions or offer hands-on support. Getting in touch with every kid, every day can be a challenge, too, but so far we’ve had close to 100% attendance, with help from our Learning Specialist, Jordan. It’s scary for us if we don’t hear from a student that day. We worry.
Every day, we try to do better in how we teach the material. Recently, we had a professional development session on providing kids with more targeted academic feedback. The Zoom calls also help, we can share screens and go over problems. Our goal is to keep them invested in learning, but not lose sight of their own wellbeing.
What do you hope students will take away from this time?
Amanda: Something we’ve said a lot is that love and kindness are more important than math. I want kids to look back on this time and not think about how they were scared, but that we were there for them.
Joanna: I want kids to learn how to take care of themselve and to be patient with themselves. It’s hard for a lot of kids. For example, I have a student who’s a very physical learner and likes to use manipulatives in the classroom. I have to tell him to be patient with himself when he feels frustrated or like he’s not understanding a concept.
What’s your advice for educators implementing virtual learning?
Amanda: Big picture advice: Be yourself—we have high attendance and overall engagement because we’re staying true to who we are in the classroom. More granular advice: Use Zoom, use Kahoot, watch a movie together, check out Class Dojo for incentives tracking, and explore online resources.
Joanna: For us, having required office hours for kids who are struggling has been really helpful and allows us to be there for them, even if they need moral support. Some kids will just put themselves on mute during office hours, they just appreciate the company.
It’s also important that teachers stay sane themselves and practice self-care. I set boundaries for myself where I schedule time for breaks and don’t look at my phone. Remember to take walks!