Early Edge California’s Early Learning Advisory Group member Paula Merrigan Reflects on Teaching Transitional Kindergarten through the Pandemic
Paula Merrigan is a veteran Transitional Kindergarten (TK) teacher for the Castro Valley Unified School District and serves as a member of Early Edge California’s Early Learning Advisory Group. Before the new school year starts next week in 100% distance learning mode, Early Edge had the opportunity to connect with Paula to reflect on the challenges and successes of supporting her students and their families during the COVID-19 crisis and what she anticipates for the coming year.
EECA: Tell us a little about yourself as a teacher. When did you start teaching TK?
PM: This will be my 13th year of teaching in Castro Valley Unified and my 11th year of TK. We started it before the law passed. And my principal at the time tricked me–she told me she wanted me to teach a new grade that was going to be this thing called TK, and if I didn’t do it, I was going to teach a K-1 combo. So I said, ‘Ok I’ll do it’ because the idea of a combo terrifies me! And after I agreed, she said, ‘Oh yeah and there’s no curriculum and no standards so you’re going to have to do all that.’ But, being a Kindergarten teacher, you kind of know what knowledge you’d like them to have. So, it really gave me a chance to work with a whole district team and our local to create standards for TK, because as you know, there aren’t any state standards–they just said, Take the preschool foundations and go from there.’ And so, like every other district, we created our own, and it’s been the best thing ever.
I love teaching it, I think it’s the only grade in public school that’s academically and developmentally appropriate. My mother-in-law taught Kindergarten and first grade for over 30 years in Oakland, and when I was teaching Kindergarten, she used to come help me and she’d say, ‘You don’t teach Kindergarten. You teach first grade. This isn’t Kindergarten.’ And when I started teaching TK, she said, ‘Now you’re teaching Kindergarten.’ It’s just changed that much over the years to where Kindergarten is like a first grade, where they’re expected to read and write a paragraph. And the standards just keep getting pushed, not by the state, but by locals to be higher and higher and higher. So Kindergartners are expected to read what we used to want them to read by the end of the first trimester in first grade. And now they want them to read that at the end of Kindergarten, and it’s just not developmentally appropriate. And with TK, we expose them to books. I have a lot of kids who leave reading, but it’s not required — they love it. They’re learning the joy of being in school versus the pressures of being in school. So I think that’s the big difference for TK.
EECA: What makes TK so unique?
PM: Because what you’re asking kids to do is developmentally appropriate, they get a lot more of learning through play than they do [in Kindergarten] because of the demands of Kindergarten. And they can learn a lot through play. My students learn more about math with the math games we play than they do working on a worksheet. I’ll still have them do a simple worksheet because you have to show me you can write a number, but the true understanding of the concept comes through play. And, it’s a shorter day. We’ll be doing 180 minutes now because of the new guidelines, but we were doing about 3 ½ hours a day [in the classroom], so just a little bit more than the minimum, and doing a split class, so an AM/PM type of a schedule. And without the pressures of having to be at a certain level of reading and writing, it just lets you really build the foundational skills. And do it well, versus rushing through it to get to the next thing.
EECA: What was it like to pivot from the classroom to supporting children and their families at home?
PM: It certainly wasn’t ideal, but the reason it worked for me ok was because of the relationship we had built all year. So when my students went home on March 13, they knew the expectations of what they were supposed to be doing in class every day. And our curriculum is very repetitive. We do a letter a week, so they knew what the next letter would be. And they knew the types of activities we’d be doing with each letter, so everything was repetition, just a new letter. And with our alphabet, we’d worked on sounds all year, so by the time you get to that actual letter, they already know it. So it’s not so much a mystery.
I didn’t do a lot of Zoom meetings because it’s really hard to get and keep the attention of a five-year-old for an extended period of time. I communicated with my families all year on this app called Remind. I used Google Classroom to send information to parents and I gave them packets of the work because I didn’t think parents should have to print out the work we would be doing in class. I know there were some families who said it’s a lot of work, even though it was similar to what we were doing in class, just pared down, they still felt it was too much for their home situation. But I’m sure I had families who didn’t think it was enough. There’s that balance of not feeling overwhelmed with work, but also having an appropriate amount of work to do. I don’t want a child sitting down doing pencil and paper work or in front of a computer for three hours. Because that’s not what we do in class. We weren’t trying to replicate the school day, we were just trying to give them work that was as close to what we would have done in class — at home.
EECA: The school year is starting soon–what are your district’s plans for the fall? All distance learning until otherwise noted?
PM: Yeah I’m on their bargaining team, we’re hashing that out now. Yeah we’re starting off doing a 100% distance learning for everyone and it’s really the community that pushed for that because our district had us coming back in early September and our community said, ‘Absolutely not, that is not safe for our teachers, it’s not safe for our kids, and we’re not doing that.’ So, it was the community support that helped drive that talk. Even though it’s not ideal, it’s what’s the safest for our children.
This upcoming year, we do have to have dedicated screen time every day. I’m worried about that because what our district is considering is having kids Zooming in and out of meetings four times a day, and that’s four different times for different curricular areas. I asked if we had the option of just doing a recording of it so a parent could watch it later, but they want students to check in at those exact times. And I don’t know that that’s going to work for families. We’ll see. I’ll provide a written explanation of what they’re supposed to do in case they can’t do it at the time that I’m on — because this is hard, and I want to make it as doable as possible. Even though I’m trying to make a cute little classroom with places for them to click so it’s easy, a four-year-old can’t do that on their own because they’re not going to know how to do it and when to do it.
EECA: Tell us about the digital classroom you’re constructing.
PM: I found the most amazing online group by mistake, and it’s called Bitmoji Craze for Educators, and they are teachers who are freely creating their little classrooms with their bitmojis of themselves with hyperlinks to read alouds, digital field trips, things you record. It’s amazing what these teachers are doing, and on that site everything is free. The teachers aren’t selling it, they’re just giving it away. So I copied one of their classrooms and made it my own. There’s a little picture of me you can click which tells you about me and it has pictures of my family so they can see me, what I really look like, and a little bit about my family. When you click on a computer [in the digital classroom] it will take you to some rules for our class about how to video conference. And then on the whiteboard, I have icons for the sites we use, such as Footsteps2Brilliance and ABCMouse. So it’s one place that looks the same, but I’ll change the content as we progress through the year. It is so cool. It’s a way to digitally capture their attention. And, one teacher I saw did a link for the Monterey Bay Aquarium where it’s live cameras of the fish swimming by, and I’m thinking that’s a great calming room, you know? You need a moment to chill, go to the calming room through this link and watch the fish swim by. I mean, there are things that I never thought of, so the education community is amazing in how they will gather resources and freely share them.
EECA: Do you have concerns about the coming year?
PM: I worry about our ELs (English Learners)* because those are the families I had the hardest time connecting with last year. I would send them emails, and sometimes it was an older sibling, like college age, who was the main contact because they spoke fluent English, but the parents did not. So they would make sure that their sibling turned in their work and was getting the assignments. In another case, I had a child who had an IEP so I was able to use one of our paraprofessionals to help with that to make sure he was getting his needs met through IEP. He was also EL, but if I didn’t push forward, he would kind of disappear, I think because families often don’t know who to ask or what to ask for. So, I worry about the ELs.
In terms of social emotional, I kind of look at the little people as they’ve never been in public school before so they don’t know what to expect. They don’t know what they’re missing and what they’re not. So that’s one advantage, but the disadvantage is that they don’t understand the classroom expectations and behaviors. And honestly, I don’t know that my students that I had all year understood how to sit still digitally because that’s not what we did in class — we didn’t sit at a computer or an iPad or anything. We just didn’t do that, we had ten minutes a day of iPad time on a literacy game — that was plenty. Now we’re talking about trying to keep their focus for three hours which is not developmentally appropriate. So I worry about that, too, how that will affect them, all that screen time, because that’s way beyond what pediatricians recommend for an entire day of all screen time — television, video games, iPad use.
We learn so much with our playing about what happens when you want to use something someone else has and you wait your turn. And your turn is not ‘I want it, give it to me now,’ your turn is when they’re done you can have it. So those pieces I can’t teach them very well digitally because I don’t know what their homelife is like — I don’t know if they have siblings, I don’t know if they’re an only child, I don’t know if their parents don’t have time because they’re trying to work at the same time. There’s just so much of the unknown and that does make it harder to understand what the social emotional needs are. I know our district has set aside the first twenty minutes of every day to work on social emotional skills, but we have 25 kids in our TK classes, so I don’t even know how that’s going to go with 25 kids on the screen with me all at one time.
EECA: When the school year starts, will there be any meetings with parents to orient them to distance learning?
PM: Yeah we’re going to do virtual meetings one-on-one with families so I can orient them on how the technology will work, such as a brief orientation on–I have to learn to do this myself–how to use Screencastify so I can show them me manipulating my computer so they would see how to manipulate it themselves and figure out how to get around my little digital classroom to show their child as well. The meetings will also give them one-on-one time to share any concerns they have and so I can express my expectations and then work out some type of system where they can come pick up materials. I’ll give them the option to download and print whatever I send them at home, but if they want a physical copy I have to make that available for them, and figure out how I get that to them.
EECA: This past spring, how were you connecting with and supporting families? What distance learning did you do with your students?
PM: This was easier because every single one of my families was signed up for the Remind app and that would send them their choice of a text or email whenever I would message them, and I would just send a message every single day. And say it was a letter of the alphabet we were writing, I would send a message with a picture of a completed work so parents knew exactly what I wanted from their child. And if I also had a link to a YouTube video, I would send it a little later–I didn’t want them feeling inundated with me sending three different messages at once. So then I would send them a story for an art project. Or if I was doing a demonstration video, I would send that via Remind. So I know they all got it.
What I asked for was that they either did the work every day, every other day, or once a week, whatever worked for them, and send me a picture of a writing project and a picture of a math project that we did. So some families would send me something every single day–five different things that they did. Some would send me every other day. Some would wait until Friday and send me 30 pictures. And some I didn’t hear from at all. It was pretty much a quarter of each. Those I didn’t hear from I had to keep following up with to say, ‘Just checking in, is everything going ok?’ because I don’t know what their home situation is. And so I would just check in and say, ‘I’m just making sure you understand what you need to do.’ And if I didn’t hear back from them, I’d have my principal call. Because I should be hearing from you, and if I’m not, you’re either doing fine and don’t need my help or you’re not doing work at all.
Last year I made copies of my whole curriculum for families and I would have them come get it every two weeks. But the problem with that was that some families would jump way ahead and then when the time came, they weren’t ready to do the lesson I was teaching. They wanted to go at a faster pace. So, I’d be on Z and they’d be sharing stuff for X. So the pacing — a lot of it is educating the parents. It’s not just the child, you’re educating the parents, especially if this is their first child in school. If they have older siblings, then they kind of know what to do, but for their first one, they don’t know.
I would get little clips of families and pictures saying, ‘we miss you, we love you’ and I would send them messages back and it was cute. This wasn’t my idea, I got it from someone else, but you know the Flat Stanley book? We did the Flat Stanley social distance project, so I mailed them all a picture of me and they were supposed to send me a picture back of them with me doing something. I would get pictures of them at breakfast, and I would get pictures of them reading to me. So it was just a way to try to still communicate with them.
EECA: How were you connecting with and supporting families who may not speak English?
PM: The student who was on an IEP had very limited English, so I had an IA (instructional assistant) who worked with him who was a native Spanish speaker and I would just send her the emails for parents and ask to please communicate with his parents so they understand what I want him to do. So she was able to speak to them in their native language and still get the work done. But I did notice whenever you’d talk with him, he would revert back to more Spanish than English because now he was no longer hearing English as much, whereas in class he would speak mostly English. But that’s to be expected.
We have a mix of different Asian languages and Spanish. Predominantly, we have Mandarin, Cantonese, and Spanish. Most of our families that speak Hindi, speak English as well, so that’s not as much of a language barrier. But I don’t speak anything but English and some French, so that’s not going to help any of those families. So I just have to do the best I can and right now we’re asking, ‘What curriculum are you going to give us for this ELD support?’ since it’s going to be totally distanced.
I don’t have my class list yet, I probably won’t get it until the day before school starts, so I don’t know how many EL students I’ll have. In terms of self-designating whether they’re EL or not, sometimes parents say, ‘we speak Spanish at home, but it’s not the only thing we speak, I didn’t mean to check that box,’ and sometimes they speak no English at home and didn’t check that box. So, it’s kind of only in communicating with the families that you can find out if they’re EL, and work from there. Thirty minutes of every single day is designated as ELD (English Language Development) time, but I have to figure out who those groups are. And in TK and Kindergarten, we say all children are learning the English language, they just don’t have vocabulary. But there’s obviously different levels of that. I’ve had students who’ve moved here straight from another country with absolutely no English at all, but by the end of the school year in a traditional classroom, they can fully communicate with their peers because of the way we teach at such a basic level, learning letters and sounds and vocabulary that way, versus a fifth grader being tossed into class–that’s a totally different experience. But virtually, it’s going to be harder to connect with them. So those are the challenges, but I think safety has to override everything.
EECA: Have you noticed that Dual Language Learners and their families have unique needs for support?
PM: My student who had the hardest time was my little guy who only spoke Spanish but I had the IA, and without her it would have been a bigger challenge. Having bilingual IAs is such a huge asset because they’re not tied to a class. We have educators who are bilingual, but they have their own class. They can’t come translate something for me for one of my students. Whereas with IAs, they can jump from class to class and help translate. That’s important for our little kids.
But again it’s my ELs I worry about the most because they’re not hearing the language in the classroom — they’re not getting the exposure that they would have throughout the day. I can have someone translate it for them, but in English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Spanish, it’s not the same word so it doesn’t necessarily start with the same sound.
I always tell my [EL] parents to not only speak English and to honor that home language with their kids because that’s their identity. They’re so fortunate to grow up bilingual and that’s a huge asset that other kids aren’t going to have. So I encourage that. I have one family that spoke fluent English, but at home they would try to speak only Spanish unless they were working on school work, to encourage that. I think that’s a great way to raise your child — focus on your school work in English, but the rest of the time, speak your native language.
EECA: What are some successes you observed during the period of time you conducted distance learning this year?
PM: A success I had was that some of the kids, who would really struggle in a class of 25, were able to get more accomplished because they had their parents sitting next to them helping them with every single thing they did. I could see that progression in their work because they had someone that could help them one-on-one. And the parents took the time to do it. And some of those parents have the luxury of being stay-at-home moms or dads. So those kids seemed to really benefit from that one-on-one interaction with the parent. I call them my co-teachers because they’re teaching what I’m giving them.
EECA: What support do you need in the new school year to be successful in supporting students?
PM: I don’t even know where to begin because I don’t even know who is going to walk, not through my door, but onto my screen! I don’t know what percentage of ELs I will have and if I’m going to want an IA to help out with them more who speaks their native language. Or am I going to need more support for parents to get through this digital technology that they’re not familiar with? I don’t even know. Or are families going to be so worried about COVID that that’s they’re biggest priority and school is taking a back seat? Because it’s one year, I keep telling people this is one year of your life. That’s what I think people need to keep in perspective. It’s not just California going through this, it’s the whole world. Everybody is losing out on some part of their life, their academics, their job, whatever it is. And they need to keep that in perspective and not push so much about my child isn’t getting enough of this or that…take some of the pressure off the parents, it’s ok. Because this is nothing we’ve ever seen before.
* Term refers to Dual Language Learner children, who are age 5 and under learning a language other than English at home.