In Their Own Words: Hearing from our Early Learning Community during COVID-19
Early Edge California Interviews Pre-K teacher and SEAL training graduate Patricia Corona-Martinez.
Patricia Corona-Martinez is a pre-K teacher at Longfellow Elementary in Azusa Unified School District who just finished a school year unlike any other. For the second half of the year, she was engaged in supporting her students through distance learning. Ms. Corona-Martinez has also recently completed a year-long training through Sobrato Early Academic Language (SEAL), which has, to date, trained over 1,600 teachers in California in its model for supporting language learning. Ms. Corona-Martinez’s district is among those across California that were able to engage in SEAL training as a result of the $5 million 2018 budget allocation for Dual Language Learner Professional Development. Engaging in this training has helped to equip her in meeting the needs of Dual Language Learners (DLLs) and their families.
EECA: Tell us a little about yourself as a teacher and your work with SEAL.
Patricia Corona-Martinez: I’m finishing up my 7th year of teaching. I started with four year olds, and now the age range is three to five year olds. I just completed my SEAL journey this month which was a year long. We had all of our preschool teachers go through the training: five state preschool teachers, a Dual Language teacher, and four Special Ed teachers. It was really exciting.
Initially, the SEAL journey was really overwhelming because there was so much new information, but as we became more familiar with the strategies that the SEAL team was sharing, it was actually really exciting to learn how to incorporate these new tools into our units that weren’t SEAL provided.
I teach state preschool, and I’m English only. So I do work with a lot of teachers and I work with the Dual Immersion teacher and we plan together. But SEAL is academic language-focused which is what our program in Azusa really prides itself on–trying to build that oral academic language in our preschoolers. SEAL has helped me be able to pull that academic language out in anything we’re doing in the classroom–such as singing songs–to be able to feed it to the students without them knowing it.
When we first started the training, our students were learning about insects, and they were leaving at the end of the school year last year talking about the thorax and the abdomen and metamorphosis! Once you expose them to language, it’s just really amazing to hear them using it.
EECA: How have you been keeping in touch with families? How are you supporting them in ways that might be different from pre-COVID-19?
PC: I’ve been using a couple different platforms with families. I use ClassTag and the district has us using Google Meets. Aside from using those, I use general text messages and phone calls to be able to touch base with families.
Overall, I believe that I’m still supporting my families the same way I would, just outside of the classroom. When we were in the classroom, I would try to make myself available daily during drop offs, but more so pickups, where they could talk to me not only about their child, but about whatever was going on in their families, so that we were able to work together on whatever might be affecting the child. I think my availability for families has now increased based on the new COVID situation.
Our pre-K designated teaching days are Mondays and Thursdays. I do a class at 9 and another at 10:30. I had a family reach out to me when we initially started our distance learning journey because mom was still working her 8-5 job at a medical office, but she really wanted her child to be able to engage in the online distance learning. So we said, “Sure!” and on the days we teach, I also teach a 6pm class for those kids who have parents that are working throughout the day. It’s just really about being flexible.
I’ll also put information for parents in an announcement on ClassTag and I make myself available on early Wednesday afternoons for them to come on a Google Meet for any questions they may have. What I really love about ClassTag is that we get to input the parent’s preferred language and then whatever we put in is translated to their home language. My parents are really good about helping me as well if there’s someone who’s bilingual, they’re like, “Oh I’ve got it, I’ve got it.” So then we’ll do that exchange. I’ve learned to be really honest when I don’t understand something that’s being translated. I think before I’d be so quick to say, “Oh ok,” and just be in agreement. But I got to the point where I say, “You know what I don’t follow that question so let’s see if we can work through it and figure out what it is, so I can answer it appropriately.”
EECA: How are you interacting with your class? What support are you giving students right now in terms of distance learning?
PC: Right now, the students log into Google Meets twice a week with myself and one of the aides. Initially, we used it just for them to get to know the technology, to feel comfortable to realize that, “Hey that’s still my teacher even though we’re not in the same room.” So we would do a lot of social-emotional activities. Since then, we’ve had to really adapt to be able to continue teaching.
As you know with any of the platforms, whether it’s Zoom or Google Meets, nobody can talk at the same time. So that makes the interactions difficult. One thing I’m missing as a teacher are those back and forth conversations amongst the whole group of students. But we’ve really incorporated nonverbal cues, like our question of the day is a “Yes” [thumbs up] and a “No” [thumbs down]. Or if I’m asking a question during a story, I can’t get the feedback since all of our microphones are off, so I tell the kids, “Ok talk to your grownup and tell them why you think such and such.” So that way they’re still getting the exchange, they’re still getting the thought process, it’s just not necessarily exchanging it with me.
My favorite thing in the classroom is not only social-emotional with the children, but building that social-emotional relationship with their family. So with distance learning, I get to almost teach my students’ little siblings even though they’re not in my class yet, and we incorporate them in. I’ve had some older siblings come on [the Zoom calls] because we’ve been doing some directed drawing. That’s been a really good way to engage the kids in what we’re trying to teach and I’ve got siblings showing me, “Look! Here’s my fish for today, or here’s my shark.”
I’ve had a couple kids who were going to every class, and then they slowly started to filter off, and it’s because both mom and dad are going back to work, grandma doesn’t understand the technology. So we also send out activities so if the kids aren’t able to log on, they’re still getting access to what we’re doing one way or another. We send it virtually with different links for stories, for activities, and then we just ask, if they’re able to, snap a picture and send it back to us so we can see what they’re doing.
Going on the SEAL journey this last year has helped me to be more innovative during distance learning. I love the strategies that SEAL has taught us, but our foundation for this school year is to implement their strategies and when we went out of the classroom, I was like, “I don’t have enough wall space to try and teach from home!” But I love technology, so I was able to translate a lot of the draw, tell, and labels and strategies that they gave us into Google Slides. And so we were able to present it that way and attach resources to the end of it such as stories, songs, and videos. It gives kids those additional resources on top of what we’re teaching.
EECA: How are kids responding to distance learning? What’s working?
PC: I see most of them as really excited. The earlier they get on, I have to wait for them to wake up. But we joke around about their moods and get that in. I’ll say, “Oh no, so and so’s got a really grumpy face today. Were they partying too hard last night?” And their parents would joke back and say, “Uh huh.”
The kids have really responded best to the consistency. I have a ruler that has our visual schedule on it. We rarely ever go past the 6 things that are on that ruler because I know they’re three, four, five years old and their attention span is not that long, especially when there’s nobody physically in front of them to engage them. So it’s definitely about making it really lively for them, and just incorporating them as much as I can in each way.
Lately, we’ve found Science is a big one. They’re glued to the screen–we see them get closer and closer so they can really see what’s going on.
With Art, their faces light up and it’s a really good time to incorporate that academic language because we’re labeling it as we’re drawing it. Like, “Ok we’re going to draw our fish’s fin now. Oh here come the gills!” I use my computer for one camera and then I use my phone on a little stand for another so they’re getting the overhead view of what I’m drawing. I would have never thought how to do that before. My director actually introduced us to the little stand, it’s a flexible little arm. I’ve used it so much and it’s just been a really good tool.
Using my phone as that extra source has been great. We were talking about insects a couple weeks ago, so we went on a nature walk. Everybody asked me, “How are you going on a nature walk? You’re not in the classroom and you’re not with the kids.” I said, “You’re right I’m not, but I have a phone that has a camera and we’re going to go outside.” We found lizards, we found butterflies, they were talking about the trees, the birds. One little boy actually took his mom’s phone outside and was showing us around his backyard. So it’s just really thinking outside the box. And that’s one thing that SEAL got us doing: thinking outside the box, about other ways to implement it, and that it’s not a one size fits all.
Also, for the first time yesterday, we tried a more technological aspect on Google Chrome, which is now allowing you to play videos without having to have an external source. So we did some of their favorite movement songs and then I was able to share a shark fact video because that’s what the kids had requested to draw the day before.
It’s definitely more challenging to think of ways to really engage them. I had one day where the kids were all half asleep. Their little hearts were not in it. I did their favorite songs–you name it, and they didn’t move. So I stopped the song, I even made a joke because one of the songs we sing goes, “Wait a minute!” and instead of finishing the song, I said, “Wait a minute! You guys are half asleep, so let’s switch activities.” And it wasn’t planned at all, we went on an impromptu shape scavenger hunt. I went through my grid and gave them each a shape, and they came to life. They ran through their homes trying to find that shape and brought it back and shared it with the class. My aide for that day said, “Oh my gosh that was the hardest class ever.” I would have never thought to do that, and it just came to be that it was what we had to do.
EECA: How is SEAL supporting teachers to do the best work with kids right now?
PC: SEAL is really good about allowing us to reach back out to them, and giving us that opportunity to ask, “Hey I’m trying to figure out how to use this for distance learning. Can I bounce some ideas off you or do you have any thoughts about how I can do this?” They were really good one day when I stayed on after a webinar with them, and I was expressing some concerns about how I can do this. They were throwing ideas out, and just really encouraging me to think outside that box. So, they’ve been a really good resource and they’re always there just an email away for me to say, “Hey I’m not quite sure about this strategy. Can you help me with a little refresher?”
EECA: What are you seeing with the DLL learning experience during COVID-19?
PC: I have seen them having a little more of a challenge. One of my kiddos who’s a dual language learner, he’s been really good about logging on and his parents are working with him. They’re not fluent in English, that’s where our exchange comes in and we say, “Ok I know this phrase and you know this phrase.” But he’s logging in and enjoying the things that he’s used to in the classroom. I’ve seen his English blossom from the beginning of the year, where it was even just little phrases in Spanish to where his language in both English and Spanish was growing. I always tell them, “Just because I don’t understand everything you’re saying or if you don’t know how to tell me in English, tell me in Spanish and I will figure it out to the best of my ability. Or I will find somebody that will tell me what it is.”
EECA: What resources are you using right now for DLLs and what’s missing?
PC: I don’t always get a whole lot of dual language learners because the school generally does try to give them a teacher that speaks their home language. But what I’ve learned using SEAL and incorporating it with the dual language learners I have is it’s really embracing the home language. I don’t think that I’ve ever told a child, “no I don’t understand, stop saying that, tell me in English.” I always do the best I can to understand it.
Even with the parents, it’s really opening that door for them to feel comfortable communicating with me. I know that can be a little struggle for me because I’m very open with communication. Some parents that may speak only Spanish are a little more hesitant in coming forward until they see somebody that speaks their home language. I think it’s really giving parents the resources to feel comfortable coming forward and asking. Even in my text messages to my parents who speak another language, I try to use a translation app.
Our school always ensures that out of my two aides in each class, one of them is Spanish speaking, as that’s a primary language that our families speak outside of English. All the kids are very receptive in English, so the aides’ support is really in the communication with the parents. It’s finding the resources for the parents and getting the parents to feel comfortable getting their kids logged on. Because once they’re on, it’s a similar routine and they’re driven by that routine.
EECA: Teaching kids through distance learning is difficult. Do you feel that kids are learning now during distance learning?
PC: I don’t know that I feel right now that it’s as effective as being in the classroom, but I do see that the ones logging on every class time are obtaining the information and absorbing it. Because when they come back on [for the next class], they’ll share things about what they’ve learned, like when we were doing insects, they’d say, “Oh teacher, I went and I saw a lady bug here, and I saw this here and it had six legs.” So they’re really getting that information because they’re feeding it back to us through experiences they’ve gotten to encounter while they’re home.
EECA: Are you worried there will be learning loss? Are you worried about anything for the kids right now?
PC: Being that it’s such a young age, I am more concerned with social-emotional development and keeping that where it is. Because one of the things we focus on in the classroom is sharing, taking turns. I had a parent express concern about this to me yesterday. She called me asking, “What do I do because there are no other kids around and how is my daughter going to learn how to share? How is she going to learn how to take turns?” The only thing I could recommend to her right now, aside from modeling it for her daughter, is scheduling a Zoom playdate. I said, “If you have Candyland and her friend has Candyland, set up Candyland and they can play together.” They’re still getting the taking turns and the back and forth conversation.
From the day we closed school, this was one of my concerns. We can facilitate the academics through distance learning, but it’s really that social-emotional piece that starts now as a foundation that’s going to carry them through. So that’s my biggest concern, is just ensuring that they‘ve got that and making sure we’re maintaining the relationships we’ve already built.
We were talking this morning in one of our meetings about if we start the new school year with distance learning, we’re coming in with a whole new group of kids, most of them that we’ve never met. We haven’t established a relationship. Going into the COVID closure, we had already established relationships, so the kids were excited to come on. Going into next year, there’s no relationship formed, so really getting them to trust us and come on so that we can get them engaged in class [is a concern].
We’ve started to think about next year and discuss if we start distance learning for the school year, what tools are we going to want to use as a whole and what have we found most effective? Our director was sharing that if we start distance learning it is going to look different at the beginning of the school year versus the end of this year because there will have to be more expectations on the children and families since we haven’t had a whole year of curriculum to get them to a certain point already.
EECA: What could be done to improve distance learning for your students?
PC: I think the biggest thing right now, because it’s just been such a learning curve, is getting everybody on the same page. Making a benchmark or a base point to where we strive to hold webinars for parents or parent meetings to walk them through some of the tech. That’s the biggest struggle I see. Because once the kids are on, they’re engaged. It’s getting the parents to understand for example, how to work through the app on their phone. It’s about providing the parents with the tools to help make it successful. Because none of the parents signed on to be teachers overnight. I know, even as a teacher, I didn’t sign on to be a kindergarten and a sixth grade teacher overnight [for my kids].
That’s one thing I embraced this year. Teacher Appreciation Week fell right in the middle of distance learning. So I turned it around and told my parents, “Happy Teacher Appreciation” and explained to them that, “Although this isn’t what you signed up for, you’ve always been your child’s first teacher. And now, you’ve stepped up into that role.” As teachers, we look forward to Teacher Appreciation Week, it’s kind of like your birthday or Christmas. But this year, I wanted to show the parents that appreciation instead because without them signing their kids on, without them doing little crafts or storytime with their kids–what we’re doing for the 30 minutes we’re on with them needs that support.