Ten Things I Learned in the Virtual Classroom that I’ll Use This Year
Julia (teacher, wearing sticker and stethoscope): That was so much fun to make my own sticker like we get at the doctor’s office! So many of you had told me that after you went to the doctor and got a vaccine, you got a sticker.
Melissa (student): See my sticker, Teacher Julia?
Julia: I do! It has a heart on it! I’m going to use my pen to draw my picture too, I made a heart like Melissa. See her sticker? I wonder what you drew? Can you show me too?
Elijah (student) holds up a blue disposable mask where he has made some marks.
Julia: Look at what Elijah did, that’s a whole new idea! We can use our pens to decorate our blue masks! Remember how the doctor we talked with on Thursday made her mask into an animal face? We can try that too!
You might think that this conversation happened in the face-to-face classroom. It was actually one of many exciting exchanges we had in my Zoom classroom after the pandemic pushed us to meet online rather than in person. Making this kind of learning possible on Zoom was an exciting and difficult challenge. The design required creativity if it was going to involve hands-on play.
Research suggests that children learn through hands-on activities. They thrive when they are offered physical challenges and the opportunity to engage in problem solving around materials. When children get the opportunity to handle their own materials, see what others are doing, make choices, and experiment with their own ideas, they make new connections in their brains. This is different from the learning gained through passive viewing of adults talking. Hands-on learning supports these connections on both sides of the brain, bringing “delight and wonder in learning” (NAEYC 2021, 5).
So how did I make this possible in the relatively hands-free Zoom classroom? Each week I considered how to pivot the lessons from previous years (in this case, health, occupations, and medical play) to the virtual classroom. Next, I aligned my learning objectives with our planning tool, the Desired Results Developmental Profile 2015, and reflected about the key experiences I hoped to cover using the California Preschool Learning Foundations. Then I spent time hunting for key props to include in a learning kit, a box of materials such as blocks, markers, string, cups, spoons, play money and plastic vehicles. I sent these kits home on Fridays to the children.
The kits were an important part of keeping the learning hands-on. They contained open-ended materials which children could modify.
Children were not limited to the things in the boxes. They could also bring in materials from home. In this way, they could individualize the curriculum in their own cultural contexts (NAEYC 2021, 7), and tell their stories through hands-on, play-based activities. After all, all children have the right to “learning experiences that are meaningful and provide active engagement” (NAEYC 2021, 4).
The following are ten helpful tips I learned while teaching in the pandemic Zoom classroom using my learning kits. I will be carrying these key ideas with me as we begin the upcoming school year. This year I’ll be teaching both face to face and doing virtual lessons for the children in my classroom. I know I’ll use all of these ideas in both settings.
Ten Tips for both the In-Person and Virtual Classroom
- When building your curriculum, consider each domain of development. Are there items in your kits or classroom areas such as pencils and stickers to support fine motor skills and emergent writing? How about social skills? Do you have dramatic play props that children can use to interact with other children, yourself, and their families? Will they invite problem solving and other cognitive tasks?
- Utilize your circle time toolbox. Can you use puppets to teach key social and emotional skills like taking turns, talking through conflicts, and using emotion words? Can you use your felt board to support counting and letter recognition? Can you use open ended questions to create conversations?
- Try dictation. Children enjoy seeing their ideas written down and hearing you reflect back what they say. By engaging in dictation, you model that you value both reading and writing. You also let the children lead the conversation.
- Sing and dance! You can help children refocus by singing, and you can get them up on their feet and trying large motor tasks too. Consider integrating bean bags, jingle bells, shaker eggs, and other props. Use gestures; children can imitate them and join in.
- Say yes to loose parts. If you can think beyond “what goes together,” you can create collections of items in your kits or classrooms that invite open ended art, engineering, divergent thinking, and problem solving. What can children invent on their own, and what can you invent together?
- Try tasting! Engage the children’s senses. Cultivate a classroom of brave eaters by providing small amounts of shelf-stable “grow” food to try. Invite families to share recipes and ideas about foods they value.
- Bring in guest speakers whether on screen or in person. Meeting people from various occupations is exciting, and children can use the things that they learn in future dramatic play.
- Consider connections. Point out when children share things in common using parallel talk, and discuss your connections too. Discuss events in families’ lives such as new babies. Invite children to share their cultural contexts (NAEYC 2021, 7) such as their home languages and traditions.
- Read and reflect. Choose books that pair well with the topics that you are exploring. Prepare to stop in the middle of the book to make connections to the things they are learning in class and to the children’s lives.
- Keep a good sense of humor. You can make a joke to see if children are paying attention. For example, can they tell that the book is upside-down? You can assess if children know that the number of items that you counted leads to a total number. “I have six ducks… oh, it’s 5? My mistake!” or that the tomato you held up is red, “You mean it’s not blue?” It’s also useful when something goes awry.
Julia: Oh, I see that Aziz is using his stethoscope to listen to his baby’s heart? I wonder what you will do with your medical tools?
Aziz: I’m doing it like at the doctor’s.
Julia: Yes, you remind me of how Dr. Chen showed us she does it.
I invite the children to continue to handle the items in their kits, cotton balls, tongue depressors, blank labels, pens, adhesive bandages and medical props.
I begin to sing (to the tune of “Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush”), “This is the way we use the stethoscope, when we’re being doctors.” Aziz grinned and other children rushed to hold up their stethoscopes too, eager to join in as our community explored what it is like to be a doctor in our online classroom.
This Zoom classroom looked very different than my face-to-face preschool did the year before, but the children were still learning, hands-on, thanks to our kits and to our collective resilience and creativity during this pandemic.
As I begin this year in both the face-to-face and virtual classrooms, I am taking the strategies and materials that inspired active and hands-on joyful learning last year and incorporating them into my teaching. I know now that we can create joyful and active learning communities on screen and when we are physically together. Where will you be teaching this year? What are your best tips?
Julia Luckenbill, MA, is program coordinator at the Early Childhood Lab School at UC Davis.