Cosumnes River College Child Development Center’s Teachers Make Distance Learning Fun and Engaging for Young Learners
This fall, the Early Edge California team had the opportunity to deepen our understanding of distance learning by observing it in action. Cosumnes River College (CRC) Child Development Center invited us to join their English and Spanish Zoom classes for their Pre-K students, giving us the opportunity to see firsthand what distance learning is like for our youngest learners. After the visit, we had a chance to speak with Eddie Tanimoto, a lead teacher at the center, to learn more about his team’s current support for students and their families. All quotes in this article are from Eddie Tanimoto.
When the pandemic first hit, and schools shut down, Eddie Tanimoto explained how the teaching team at CRC’s Child Development Center was quick to react and devise an alternative plan that supported the families enrolled in its program. “We were asked by my supervisor if we wanted to do distance learning with the children or if we wanted to send out emails to them and check in that way. Collectively, we decided that we would embrace it and try to make it work. We also had lab students that we wanted to cater to and share that experience with.” As a part of Cosumnes River College, the center is a lab school and provides enrolled Early Childhood Education students with hours of experience in the classroom for their practicum classes.
Knowing they wanted to try distance learning, the team of five teachers and their supervisor hit the ground running, doing whatever they could to support their young students and their families. “We started small with just one meeting a week. Our families immediately started emailing us, telling us they were so happy. They said the change in their children from that first Zoom meeting was so wonderful.” In those early days, the team received a constant stream of photos from grateful families showing how happy the kids were after attending Zoom class.
With this initial feedback from families, the team decided to offer two Zoom meetings per week. Then, lab students joining the meetings expressed that they wanted to do more hours, so the team decided to add a third meeting to the week for the rest of the 2019-20 school year. This has grown with the new school year. “Because we had two months of practice, we decided that we could do four meetings consistently, and now we’re up to six or seven meetings a week.”
The CRC team designed a weekly schedule that focuses on their families’ needs. “We surveyed our families to find out what they were looking for this semester. Over the summer, we started sending emails to them as soon as we knew we were going to be open to check what their schedules were. One of the things that we wanted to be cognizant of was making sure families didn’t feel pressured to attend or feel guilty for not attending class meetings.” Approximately 80-85% of families at the center were requesting to have regular class meetings and were eager to make a schedule work for their kids.
Currently, the schedule includes two Zoom meetings per day on Monday and Thursday at 11 am and 5 pm and then single sessions on Wednesdays and Fridays. The 5 pm time slot was added to accommodate working parents or parents with older children who needed support during regular school hours. It also gives kids and their families a screen break for a few hours. “We don’t want families to come feeling drained. We want it to be something that can be fun that really keeps their connections going and keeps their love of learning going.”
CRC’s Zoom Class In Action
The Early Edge California team had the opportunity to observe classes conducted in both English and Spanish. Below is the program for the day for the English class we attended, which included four teachers, a CRC lab student, and approximately a dozen students.
Opening of Class: Greetings and Sharing
Class started with saying good morning to each child, and included show and tell from students and teachers alike (such as a noisemaker, a baby doll, atoy truck, and playdough).
First activity: Movement
The students and teachers all stood up and engaged in movement including stretching, running in place, jumping jacks, hands on hips, hopping, and twists.
Second activity: Storytime
One teacher read the story, Bear in a Square, which is formatted as an interactive PowerPoint, allowing students to identify, count, and match shapes on each page of the story. At end the story, the teacher thanked the students for being patient and for their help in finding and counting the shapes.
Third activity: Breakout Room
The class was “transported” to breakout rooms through a special song they sang together, and the students went on a shape hunt to find the shapes featured in the story within their own surroundings. Two teachers oversaw the activity, sharing the shape and asking students to identify it, then the students looked for that shape in their homes to share with the group.
Sing-along: Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star
The class sang a variation of “Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star” about all the shapes that they learned during class through a PowerPoint onscreen, with the ultimate goal of identifying the star. The class focused on each shape, talking about its properties before singing about it.
Final activity: Jack Be Nimble
The group recited the “Jack Be Nimble” rhyme for each child who found a creative way to jump over their “candlestick” (a paper cone). As each child finished their turn with the activity, they said goodbye to the group and signed off to eat lunch.
During class, children appeared to be happy and engaged, and teachers were warm. Students were interacting in class. A major highlight of this team’s approach was their integration of movement throughout the session. Below are two video clips from a similar class to the ones we attended, featuring movement and storytime activities.
The class engages in Storytime through reading Bear in a Square using CRC’s custom PowerPoints.
Children are muted and unmuted by teachers to take turns answering.
Students participate in yoga as the
movement activity of the day.
We asked Eddie how the team coordinates the many moving parts of Zoom class: “When we started this, one of things that we decided as a group of teachers and colleagues was that we were going to do this together. One, if you’re doing it as a solo teacher, and you have connection issues…we wanted to avoid that happening for any of us. But also muting and unmuting children, having every child really be recognized and making those connections with the child was something that we wanted in order to ensure we could make the experience deep and authentic from the very beginning.”
This unified approach helps the team manage technology. In each Zoom session, two teachers are designated as tech specialists and manage the back-end activities so the other teachers can engage in the activities with the students. “We really try to work with each other’s strengths.”
Part of this behind-the-scenes work is how the teachers intentionally mute and unmute kids at different times during the class so everyone has a turn to speak. The method is organic to each class meeting, but there is some planning around it. “After every session, we meet as teachers to reflect on it, and notice any patterns, too. We do this based on the DRDP**, as we do have our own DRDP children that we’re especially attuned to, to make sure they’re being engaged. If one teacher is starting to notice that somebody’s not, we try to figure out if it’s a family thing or something related to class, or if it is just an off day for the child, and then determine what we need to do to support the child.”
Supporting Children and Families Outside of Zoom Classes
Family engagement is a key factor for the center when it comes to creating a supportive learning environment for the students. “We did a lot of pre-work with our families in the past two years to really focus on family engagement, and with this cohort of families we have a tight connection.”
The teachers use Canvas to connect with the children, families, and teachers and provide materials. “Every week before the actual Zoom session we have planned, we post up the PowerPoint that we’re going to use in Canvas, which is usually a story, and then we’ll put up any additional resources or packets and information that would go along with it, such as cut outs or dittos, as well as fact sheets. That way the families can really talk about what was in the lesson and extend on it. Most of our families use these materials after the Zoom sessions, but we have about 30% of families that access them beforehand and come to class with the printouts.”
The team’s innovative use of technology to convert children’s stories to a Zoom-friendly PowerPoints has greatly enhanced the distance learning storytime experience. “One teacher is really dabbling with the tech world, so she’s been making all of these animated stories for the children. We create a base form of the PowerPoint so anyone can read it, and then we make an animated version as well with things to highlight the most important concepts of the book.”
Understanding how to utilize technology for distance learning was an initial hurdle for the center’s parents, but the key to success has been identifying the challenges that they were having and then working on them together, “We’ll take the time that they need to walk through it and do it with them.” For some families, the barrier they faced was lacking access to technology altogether, so the teachers found ways to connect them to the resources they needed. “We’re fortunate that we’re affiliated with the college, and because of that, a lot of our parents are students, so they can access college resources that way, including chromebooks.”
The teaching team’s biggest worry was excessive screen time and managing that for 3 and 4 year olds. “We don’t want them to have too much screen time, especially if it’s not meaningful screen time. So we wanted to find out what our families needed from us.” Sometimes this type of support was supplying families with paper and other drawing materials that they could turn to instead. The team has also been working on providing more information for families about Loose Parts–found materials, not necessarily prescribed toys. The team shares examples of the Loose Parts concept with families through videos and images of thoughtful and aesthetically pleasing arrangements of materials. They help families find the materials around them that their children can engage with, and provide suggestions for different ways to engage with those materials in meaningful ways during play. “Materials can include natural elements like rocks, sticks, or leaves and other items like empty picture frames–things that allow children to make art in 3D.”
Some examples of arrangements of found materials that align with the Loose Parts concept.
The CRC team also supports families through pick-up days, regular events that fill in the gaps with the resources they need to make distance learning successful for their kids. “At the beginning of this school year, all of our families got a backpack filled with tons of supplies for the children to work with. We’re going to be adding handouts and other packets, including curriculum-based materials based on the children’s interests.” Thanks to the CRC teachers’ advocacy for this support, families across the entire Los Rios Community College District are able to benefit from the pick-up days.
Supporting Dual Language Learners
Eddie shared that during distance learning, the CRC team has had the chance to understand their families more deeply. “Now that we have this extra look into their home life and they’re getting a look at our home lives as well, we can really utilize the connection we have with them to make a strong and everlasting relationship. With that comes the empowerment of telling all of our families just how important their home language is.” The teachers emphasize to parents how critical it is to maintain home language learning for their kids now and how that will benefit them in the long run. And, they try to cater to as many different languages as they can: students in their current class who are Dual Language Learners (DLLs) are learning home languages including Spanish, Cantonese, Russian, Farsi, and Vietnamese.
The teachers’ dual language efforts have ramped up since COVID-19 shifted everything to distance learning. The team is assisted by Federal Work-Study students who worked in the center before the pandemic hit, and have stayed on to participate in Zoom sessions and class preparation. “We’ve been discussing as a teaching team trying to become a dual language center for a while, but staffing-wise we haven’t quite had that in the past. But, now that we have one teacher fluent in Spanish, and I can speak some Spanish, we’ve been trying to embrace that more. Embracing home languages has always been a thing of ours. At one point, I think we had over 37 languages among the students. So we’ve always tried to honor that as much as we can, along with the cultures of our families. During COVID, we’re trying to take it to the next level because we do want to make those connections really rich.”
Supporting the Early Learning Community
During the new school year, the team has shared the resources that they have compiled and created with the entire Los Rios Community College District–which includes four colleges–as well as the lab students at Cosumnes River College. “We work with the teachers at each college to provide as much content as we can. Some of our fellow educators were really worried about going into this semester. Of the three colleges that have child development centers, we were the only ones providing services and Zoom meetings last semester, and since we’d already started creating resources, we decided to take the lead on developing them for the district.” The tools that the CRC team has been able to share district-wide have helped to cut through the concerns of their fellow teachers, especially because the CRC team had already tested out many distance learning approaches during the spring semester.
Before the new school year started, there were several district-wide conferences and meetings during which the CRC team shared information with their fellow teachers at other centers about what had worked for them in the previous semester, and discussed what this year might look like. “The other centers are all doing their own version of everything to meet the needs of their community and the families at their center right now, which I think is a great part of it, too.”
While there is still great uncertainty around when the center will re-open for in-person learning, Eddie and his fellow teachers are making the most of this current experience with their students. “I feel much closer to my families now than I ever did before, I love seeing and understanding their home lives. Plus, it’s been so fun to add so much to our pedagogical toolbox. It’s been a really great experience for us, too.”
Special thanks goes to the Cosumnes River College Child Development Center team for their invitation to observe their Zoom meetings, and to the students who welcomed us to class.