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In-person relationships aid remote learning for youngest students

By Fran Gonzalez | May 11, 2020
Courtesy of: Tabitha Lowe, WCAP Teacher Melissa Fisk, right, reads to Dresden Tochterman, left, and Clara Bayer at a Family Literacy event held last year at Unity Elementary School, where WCAP has two classrooms.

Belfast — Jessie Francis, director for early childhood services at Waldo Community Action Partners, said she is grateful for having had the opportunity to build their school family early in the year before transitioning to the remote learning model they are currently using.

In a May 7 interview with The Republican Journal, Francis said the early relationships teachers built with students were essential for the success of the virtual classroom.

“The relationship is so important in these early years,” she said. “I don’t think we would be as successful if we didn’t have that relationship we started with. If we just got a new crop of kids and started to do this remotely, I think it would be wild. That relationship allows for the connection and the buy-in from the students, no matter what age they are.”

Under her direction, Francis has 34 teachers and assistant teachers, 10 classroom aides and a home visitor working with 250 kids in the Head Start and Early Head Start programs countywide. WCAP also partners with district public schools to provide pre-K throughout the county.

While WCAP focuses on the Belfast area, Francis said, because of the partnership with area public schools, preschool programs are also operating in Winterport, Searsport, Morrill, Monroe, Brooks, Unity and Liberty.

This past week (May 4-8) was National Teacher Appreciation Week, recognizing the importance of all teachers. “Traditionally people think teachers are kindergarten through 12th grades," Francis said. "We like to make sure we recognize teachers with kids from birth to age 5 as well.”

Francis called the work of these teachers “monumental” in their regular duties, caring for kids as if they were their own, making sure they are fed, clothed, loved and challenged in the classroom. Now, teachers are stretched even further with remote learning, she said.

Teachers have reported running into home internet issues as well as stress dealing with new duties required of them. “Most of our staff has not been trained in how to run a video lesson, for example,” Francis said. “This is new territory for some of them, so there was a learning curve for sure as we got going. It seems to be more exhausting to do all meetings by video than it does through a traditional workflow.”

“We definitely have some tired folks,” Francis said. “Balancing trying to reach out and educate the kids and in many cases having their own child at home. It’s not an easy work situation for anybody these days.”

The curriculum is individualized for every child in the program, she said. For 3-, 4- and 5-year-olds, it can look similar to what public schools are doing using Zoom, a video-conferencing app, to teach virtual classrooms.

Francis said she recently sat in on a pre-K class conducted online at Walker Elementary School in Liberty, where teachers were focusing their lesson on how things grow. One teacher showed caterpillars in a jar and also read a story about the insects.

The class, she said, was typical of how a traditional kindergarten or first grade class would be run over the internet. Francis then corrected herself, saying the entire remote learning model is not “traditional” in any way.

“It is a challenge, for sure,” she said. “You have multiple kids in front of a screen ... they (teachers) carry on with their lesson, they look to make sure they have the attention, but are not waiting for every single kid to be perfectly seated in front of the camera.”

In the classes Francis has been a part of, she said the kids come to the screen and attend when they are ready, based on what else is going on in their home environment. “Do we have perfect kids sitting criss-cross applesauce quietly listening? No,” she said. “But the kids are listening, they are attending and they are also responding to the questions the teachers are asking.

“When the teacher was showing the caterpillars on the screen, you could see all the kids kind of leaning a little too close to their screen to get a good look. It was not necessarily quiet, but the kids were into it.”

For children up to 3 years old, teachers are recording videos that they send home to families to watch on their own. One of the early Head Start teachers, Francis said, who works with the youngest kids, infants to toddlers, reads a daily story which she calls “stories from the attic.” Kids can either watch it with their parents or just listen.

Parents, Francis said, have been very appreciative. For some isolated families, especially single parents with multiple children, the dialogue with teachers can be one of the few adult contacts they have, she said.

Teachers are checking in with parents, giving suggestions for learning and also seeing if the family’s basic needs are being met. ”Food, diapers, what do you need?” she asks parents.

“We are delivering food and diapers in some cases. We've also done deliveries of classroom supplies, such as paper, markers, Play-Doh, books, those kinds of things,” she said. Two deliveries have gone out so far, she said, and they are getting ready for another one.

“It is so amazing for me to see how the teachers have adapted and how creative they’ve been,” Francis said, adding that it has been hard not seeing the kids on a daily basis. “We’re missing the kids we work with.”

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