TUCSON, Ariz. — Anissa Jimenez teaches first grade at Summitview Elementary in the Sunnyside District and every school day she has 21 sets of eyes on her.
They are students she's never met in person. Their faces appear in boxes in a grid on her computer screen.
The concept literally brought her to tears before the first day of class.
“We’re all first year teachers again because none of us have done this in the way that we’re doing it now," said Jimenez. "It felt like an obstacle that I didn’t know how we were going to get over. What to do virtually that would be worthy of having them in front of me, giving them something that was going to push their learning forward. Just that thought was so scary, but we’re getting the hang of it."
Traditional patterns are being broken. There’s no more circle time where kids sit on the rug in front of the teacher and engage in conversations and practice necessary routines. Students at this age are used to a lot of hand-holding.
They’re tackling new content now unlike the end of the year when students are reviewing all the lessons learned.
Anissa knew that teaching them as close to pre-pandemic standards as possible would take a lot of creative approaches and innovative planning.
The Sunnyside Superintendent knew that too.
“You can’t just wing it," Steve Holmes said. "And you can’t just do these teachable moments because you have all these students staring at you on the screen.”
After all, they're often fidgety 6 and 7-year-olds with shorter attention spans.
An online class is not like watching a cartoon on TV or playing a video game. It’s a hard way to learn.
“You’re having to really focus intently on what’s happening during that time, which is causing a lot more fatigue with our students,” said Holmes.
So Anissa teaches them in much shorter chunks of time throughout the day.
She said the youngest students need to move around.
“I need parents to remember too that they are little. They’re 6, they’re 5, especially those who are just starting kindergarten and we need to get up and I feel I need to get up and get my wiggles out.”
They may do jumping jacks or she sends them on a scavenger hunt.
“Can you go find three words that have a short 'a' or three words that rhyme with the word that’s in your house? So that keeps them learning,” she said.
And getting them all back to the digital screen at the same time for the next lesson (remember they’re 6 and 7) is another challenge.
“It’s a crazy schedule where it’s like come back at this time. Okay, take a break. Okay, come back at this time and let’s practice. You’re going to come back at 10:00. Okay show me what time you’re coming back and it’s a lot of that, but they’re getting the hang of it and the kids are doing more of it,” Jimenez explains.
Now think about this. These young students can barely read, write, and do math. They’re learning how to do that.
Trying to master a set of standards in each subject, which should take 8 weeks, will likely take more time.
“Making it more like 10 weeks, or 12 weeks, because they know that it’s going to take a little longer digitally to get to every student,” said Jimenez.
To check whether her kids are listening and their devices are working “I make sure they can hear me because sometimes they can’t hear me and so I say give me a thumbs up if you can hear me,” she said.
She uses Google Meet for all the live sessions, but there’s a slight issue. The students who are the most vocal stay at the top of the grid. To make sure students sitting at the bottom are not forgotten, she said, “I have all the kids names on a popsicle stick. I don’t just keep calling the same kids over and over again. Instead I can make sure that everybody got a turn or at least it was a fair shot.”
Her students do not spend the entire school day in digital mode. At this age, hands-on learning is crucial so she put together a bag of materials that students now have in their homes.
“They have counters and cubes. They have block number cards. So that’s really helped especially in math and in science and even with reading and writing we sent home composition books," Jimenez said. "We sent home materials that go with our curriculum that the kids need to use in order to be able to do what we’re asking them to do."
And she keeps an eye on the students when they’re working on a task independently.
“I can present my screen and then I can kind of mute my microphone and turn off my camera and just kind of hang out just to see if there’s anybody who hangs out, raises their hand, and it can pop right back in and help them,” said Jimenez.
All this remote learning requires a higher level of digital savvy from 6 and 7-year-olds who are used to a lot of hand-holding by teachers, parents and siblings.
Here’s the very important message she’s sending to parents: let the children take charge of their own learning.
“Yes, show them how to access things, but have them do the clicking. Show them which app to click and then how to get to the whole group meeting. Show them how to go to Google classroom and then click on the top link,” she said.
It’s an important early life skill, Jimenez said, because remote learning will likely remain a normal part of education.
“So I’m really encouraging parents for their own sanity to show their kids how to do it themselves instead of needing them so much."