An Omaha Public Schools student at home during full remote learning. A group of Liberty Elementary teachers say that while hardly ideal, the necessity of remote learning spurred a stunning amount of invention that has benefited teachers, parents, and students.
By Matthew Hansen, Managing Editor
On day one, they practiced setting up their iPads.
When the 6-year-old students logged onto the first day of remote learning summer school this June, several in teacher Lauren Barr’s class had their iPad cameras pointed at the carpet. Others had them pointed out the window. One little boy was lying on his bed with a blanket covering his head.
Barr did not crawl back into her own bed and pull the covers over her head. Instead, the Liberty Elementary Kindergarten teacher instituted the first of hundreds of “face checks,” putting up a picture of a clip-art child on her screen and asking the students to maneuver their iPad stands and their cameras so they could see the clip-art kid, themselves, and all their new friends.
“I was seeing the ceiling fan,” Barr says. “I was seeing up their noses. So that’s where we started. And we went from there.”
It is a bit stunning to take a half-step back in the middle of a global pandemic and consider the following: From June through early October, Omaha Public Schools Kindergarten teachers taught thousands of young children—many of whom had never attended regular school before—remotely from their homes, using unfamiliar technology to try to re-create the classroom experience even as COVID-19 sickened thousands in the city.
It wasn’t ideal, say Liberty teachers who now have children in their classrooms under the district’s hybrid learning model—and who hope that social distancing soon becomes a relic of the past.
But this group of teachers believes that the necessity of remote learning also spurred a stunning amount of invention.
They have re-examined the value and best use of screen time, reconsidered how to build powerful partnerships with parents, and reimagined school for young students in ways that could benefit early education long after the pandemic eases.
Alongside Buffett Early Childhood Institute experts, they are now pushing out what they have learned to the wider community of teachers, parents, and Nebraska residents. An Oct. 29 special online event, which you can register for here, will feature national remote learning expert Chip Donohue, local child care providers and parents discussing ways you can navigate this “new normal” of young children using digital technology in 2020.
“A favorite quote that I love is, ‘Not all storms are meant to cause damage; some are meant to clear your path,’” says Luisa Palomo Hare, a Liberty Kindergarten teacher and the 2012 Nebraska Teacher of the Year. “Well, this reality can clear away a lot of things that maybe weren’t working in education. And we can really lay the groundwork for the path forward.”
The teachers and administrators interviewed for this story say they were anxious about the start of “synchronous remote learning”—essentially live video learning from home—this summer and fall. They worried about the amount of screen time it may require of young children. They all remain worried about how much the ongoing pandemic may affect children’s academic and social-emotional progress.
But these teachers also all believe that their students—and they themselves—made serious strides while all-virtual.
That progress started with the iPad itself. Liberty teachers quickly discovered that the iPad screens distributed to every OPS student this year functioned not as anchors but rather as much-needed lifelines.
Donohue, who formally served as founding director at Erikson Institute’s Technology in Early Childhood Center and is the author of two books on technology in the early years, argues that our view of screens as solely bad for children causes us to ignore ways we can make screen time educational, interactive, and a net positive for young learners. The expert, in conjunction with the Buffett Institute, did video presentations for OPS teachers this fall.
Luisa Palomo Hare with one of her students in pre-COVID time.
Remote learning was an adjustment but has had its pluses, she said.
“It’s thinking about the purpose of screen time,” says Kanyon Chism, a longtime OPS administrator who led the district’s summer school elementary education before starting as the Buffett Institute’s associate director of program development. “When you are seeing someone face-to-face, looking them in the eye, saying, ‘hey, let’s read this book together and talk about it,’ that’s not negative. That’s a different, better use of that screen.”
The teachers saw proof of this approach during remote learning, as they learned to harness the new technology.
Don’t use the iPad to color, they learned. Instead, have students color while on screen, and then take one-on-one time to look at the pictures and talk about what’s happening in them.
Don’t spend every minute on screen for eight hours. Instead, schedule frequent offscreen breaks, when students can run around the yard or hug their mom. Recognizing the same problem, OPS quickly altered the schedule for young learners this fall, limiting screen time to the morning and allowing teachers to meet one-on-one with students in the afternoon.
Don’t use the screens as a crutch to watch pre-recorded videos as the children zone out. Instead, play a version of virtual tag, as PreKindergarten teacher Laura Marr did. Instead, stand up every 20 minutes and dance and sign together, just like Kindergarten teacher Palomo Hare does in her regular classroom.
“If you would have looked into my window, I would have looked so ridiculous,” she says. “Just me, dancing by myself in front of the camera. But of course I was dancing with my kids, moving our bodies like we should be.”
Teachers also quickly learned that previously underused technology could now come in very handy. Lauren Barr had long planned to use the educational app Seesaw in her regular classroom but had never implemented it as part of her regular curriculum.
During remote learning, Barr realized its power: She could assign activities that popped up at pre-scheduled times on students’ screens. Students could click and drag activities, take photos of their work, record their voice explaining something. They could circle all the sight words, trace them together, and drag the letters to build them as she watched and helped. And the students loved it.
“These teachers are seeing the benefit of these tools for teaching and learning. They are seeing how it can benefit them and their students in the long run,” says Amy Schmidtke, a Buffett Institute program specialist who has worked closely with Liberty teachers during remote learning.
Another big, understandable concern the early elementary teachers had: How do you connect to children, and have them connect to one another, when you all appear in tiny digital boxes on a screen?
The Liberty teachers say they learned that holding one-on-one time with children, and breaking them into small groups to interact with each other, proved far more effective than lecturing into a camera.
They also report that, gradually, they let go of the structure they thought they needed during synchronous learning and transitioned to a go-with-the-flow approach that much more closely mirrors their actual classrooms.
When a child found a garter snake and wanted to show it to class, Palomo Hare rolled with it. Weeks later, her students are still bringing up the child’s snake, and how his mom screamed when she saw it.
After weeks of in-person learning, Laura Marr was pleasantly surprised to watch as the students piled in, masks on, for the first day of in-person class. And she laughed when a 4-year-old approached her and yelped: “Hey, I know you from TV!”
“The already knew each other, and us,” Marr says. “They knew what the classroom looked like. What the schedule looked like. The rules and routines, they remembered those. There was not nearly the anxiety you would have on a typical first day.”
And that sense of connection extends to many teacher-parent relationships, the teachers say.
Parents often sat nearby as their young children did remote learning and would ask how they could build on a school-day educational activity during the night or on the weekend.
“They had a window into my classroom for six weeks,” Palomo Hare says. “And because of that we have been able to have deeper conversations about learning than I have ever had before.”
As students transition back into a 3/2 model that has them at school part-time, teachers say that there is no substitute for the power of congregating in the same classroom together. But they also say that the experience of remote learning taught them powerful lessons about teaching—and reminded them that they can teach one another, too.
On day one of summer school, Lauren Barr taught her students how to set up their iPads. A month later, she was so comfortable doing remote teaching that she shot a video for her fellow Liberty Kindergarten teachers, showcasing some practical tips about how to make it more effective for students.
The Liberty Kindergarten teachers watched the video and loved it. Then many Liberty Elementary teachers watched it. Then Kindergarten teachers across the school district. And then thousands more elementary teachers across the city and beyond.
Barr recently joined a 13-teacher Technology in the Early Years workgroup that the Buffett Institute is helping to run.
“For a lot of teachers and a lot of adults in general, things outside our comfort zone are scary. And then it’s scary for the kids if they don’t know what is expected of them,” she says. “But (after remote learning) I know this. We are capable of hard things. Kindergarten teachers will do anything to help our kids succeed. And right now we are proving it.”
Matthew Hansen, the managing editor of the Buffett Early Childhood Institute at the University of Nebraska, is an award-winning journalist tasked with telling the stories of the Institute's work and early childhood care and education in Nebraska and beyond.
His columns can be read at https://buffettinstitute.nebraska.edu/news-and-events/early-years-matter.