Leaders in Times of Crisis: An Early Childhood Teacher from Costa Rica Contributes Education Plans for Young Learners
The Inter-American Teacher Education Network (ITEN) is an initiative of the Organization of American States funded by the United States to support classroom teachers as change agents for education. In its current phase of work, ITEN places a special emphasis on ensuring equitable access to STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education. This emphasis on STEM is especially important given the added challenges teachers currently face to do hands-on activities with children during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While many secondary and university-level teachers rely on online platforms to help them maintain some semblance of normalcy in their classes, early childhood and primary teachers face additional challenges when it comes to keeping contact with their young students. To access their teachers, young children must rely on their parents, many of whom have jobs outside of the home in addition to the responsibilities for caring for their children. When teachers provide educational content through parents, parents must typically invest time alongside their children, placing a heavy burden on parents to be co-instructors.
Ana Sofía Salguero López, an early childhood teacher in Costa Rica and like many teachers in her country, is helping the profession to overcome the obstacles that interfere with a quality education for its youngest students. As a member of ITEN with the Uladislao Gámez Solano Institute for Professional Development (IDPUGS) of the Ministry of Public Education of Costa Rica, Ana Sofía received training in STEM. Together, ITEN and IDPUGS have developed resources for professional teacher development in early childhood with an emphasis on STEM education. Ana Sofía's perspective in this work, and her own particular knowledge of disciplinary needs, strengthens the integration of resources offered by the Ministry.
Since the suspension of classes in Costa Rica, the Ministry of Education has developed I Learn at Home, a learning initiative to facilitate the use of technological resources and distance instruction to support the educational process during this period of social distancing. The initiative uses a virtual platform and other resources, such as television and radio programs, teacher professional development opportunities, etc. In these ways, the Ministry of Education intends to provide more than intellectual content for students. It will also provide programs to help children and their parents recognize and process their emotions associated with the stress of the pandemic through stories, songs, and play-based activities.
At first, Ana Sofía had the desire to have synchronous encounters using Zoom, but, once faced with the reality of her students’ situations, she decided to support them via WhatsApp. With the help of the Ministry, teachers have been sending work and follow-up guides to families through different communication channels. In Ana Sofía's case, she sends teaching material daily on WhatsApp (a free texting application that is widely used outside of the United States). The idea is that student tasks can be completed at varying times and do not take more than 30 minutes, since it cannot be expected for parents to act as professional educators at home and many are still working and have limited access to resources.
"I work in an area of low resources, so I must accommodate myself to the circumstances," Ana Sofía says, stressing that the reality is the same for many fellow teachers.
Ana Sofía sends written and oral instructions in case a parent cannot read, and receives photos or videos of the tasks for feedback to families. "We are in constant communication, and I’ve been asking them to save some of their children’s work to share when we return," she says.
She comments that, from her perspective, most parents are very involved and grateful and that students are highly motivated. She also notes that one of the biggest challenges of teaching STEM at a distance is knowing how to motivate children to observe, explore, and experiment. For this, Ana Sofía depends on the ideas shared by her colleagues across Latin America.
Access to digital teaching resources alone is not enough. The Ministry has also provided a "Guide for Autonomous Work," which provides parents with metacognitive strategies to help them assess their own effectiveness as teachers and learners.
“I think that no one was prepared to live through this situation caused by the pandemic,” says Ana Sofía. “But that does not mean that we can’t be resilient in the face of circumstances, move forward, and succeed.”
In the context of COVID-19, Ana Sofía makes use of a wide variety of multimedia resources to help her own students address social and emotional learning standards while promoting STEM learning and creativity through the arts.
In a recent STEM-related assignment for her students, she sent parents a digital copy of Hibernating: A Story to Help Young Children Understand Quarantine and Process their Emotions, a Spanish language storybook written by Chilean psychologist Andrea Cardemil. The story draws parallels between the safety of a bear's den and of one's home during the pandemic, and emphasizes both creative outlets and the management of emotions.
Ana Sofía further provided a set of discussion questions to encourage interaction with the storyline, and asked students to reflect on their own feelings about quarantine.
To extend the storybook into the realm of STEM awareness, Ana Sofía next included an activity about color science. She asked parents to show children another story via a YouTube video: The Monster of Colors, which associates each of the monster's various emotions with a different color.
Children were then asked to creatively demonstrate their own emotions, using art and engineering to illustrate their feelings. With their teacher’s help, students shared their creations by submitting a video narrative of their craft. Didactic sequences like this maintain educational coherence for students even under quarantine.
“We have a commitment to education, with our students and ourselves,” says Ana Sofía. “If we really are teacher leaders, it is time to take responsibility, be positive, and give the best of ourselves."
Ana Sofía Salguero López is an ITEN Teacher Fellow and early childhood educator who has recently been called on by the Ministry of Public Education of Costa Rica to provide guidance on the national strategy for teaching young children who are currently out of school as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rebecca Vieyra is the coordinator of ITEN, and a former science teacher with an interest in teacher leadership development.