Well-Prepared to Engage Our Youngest Learners

Type: Article
Topics: Early Learning, School Administrator Magazine

January 01, 2021

When a kindergarten teacher told me, “I know our parents and students better now than any time before distance learning,” it was another indication that the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic did not impact our school district in central California as severely as others.

Since our district’s reopening Aug. 15 via distance learning, I have had the opportunity to sit in on a variety of classrooms in our primary grades. Actual sitting in one of the active sessions does not happen for very long as I find myself joining in the good morning songs and dancing on Zoom with my new classmates.

A typical day for our youngest students starts with a Zoom meeting for 30-40 minutes each morning. Teachers work on establishing and maintaining relationships in their classes by engaging everyone synchronously. After allowing for each child to check in, the day’s agenda is reviewed so both child and parent/guardian are clear about expectations — both synchronous and asynchronous.

The instruction is delivered via prepared videos of direct instruction and small-group Zoom meetings. Students can access their assignments and lessons through Google Classroom. All online curriculum is accessed through a single sign-in using ClassLinks.

On one particular morning, the lesson revolved around the letter M, and students were asked to find an item to share that started with this letter. This involved the entire family in finding a particular item to share. I shared my Curious George monkey. Later in the day. students learned about the sense of taste and shared items found in their homes that were sour, sweet or spicy (limes, strawberries and jalapenos).

The Three R’s

Seven years ago, we instituted a districtwide system using a research-based tool to develop higher standards and improve student achievement through three principles: rigor, relevance and relationships.

Building relationships helped identify what is relevant through genuine formal and informal interactions among students, parents, teachers, staff and community members. Relevance ensured students were engaged in tailored lesson plans to meet their individual needs and at an appropriate rigor.

With coaching from instructional consultant Linda Jordan, we use the International Center for Educational Leadership’s rubric, known as Collaborative Instructional Review, to support and sustain instructional improvement and student achievement by building homegrown capacity.

Having such a strong framework that interweaved the emotional skills, cognitive skills, social skills and interpersonal skills has helped all stakeholders maneuver without panic through the constant changes brought on by the unprecedented and unpredictable COVID-19 pandemic.

Tech in Hand

We also committed five years ago to go one-to-one with Chromebooks for all 3,200 students. Even before the pandemic, all apps and online district curriculum materials were uploaded on the Chromebooks. Primary students were issued Chromebooks with touch screens for easier navigation, and secondary school students could take their devices home from the onset. When the health crisis hit in March, elementary students took their assigned devices home too.

When in-person schooling was interrupted, we knew we were ready.

We also had a system of ensuring all had Wi-Fi access by providing hot spots to all who needed them. Our schools used community input to develop a cohesive distance learning plan to ease the burden on students, staff, teachers and parents. We worked quickly to ensure online accessibility. We shared information via ClassDojo or ParentSquare, e-mail, phone and community newspaper.

We made flexibility and equity our priorities to ensure students were getting what they needed to prevent academic backslides and bolster mental/social/emotional learning.

Self-Assessing Pupils

Teachers in the primary grades post weekly schedules online that clearly describe all school lessons and activities. They effectively engage students in rigorous academic activities using everyday items found at home to enhance the remote learning experience.

During Zoom sessions, teachers prepare whole-class, small-group and one-to-one lessons. They also assign self-directed assignments with the help of parents on Google classrooms, share recorded lessons, coordinate virtual field trips to museums and parks and design peer-to-peer academic and social learning opportunities.

Teachers empower their students to self-assess. Students have digital portfolios where they video themselves mastering new skills such as counting or practicing their rhyming words. With parental help, they upload their footage to ClassDojo. Teachers review the videos in a timely manner to chart students’ progress and update weekly instructions. The portfolios allow students to be in charge of their own learning and track their real-time progress.

Through Zoom staff meetings and ThoughtExchange surveys, teachers and parents have noted some positive outcomes. Both groups pointed to the more meaningful, direct interactions among parents and teachers, classmates and other families than ever before. Parents have a front seat and full access to their children’s learning, which ought to forge a strong partnership whenever we return to in-person learning. Distance learning has truly been a family affair in our school district.

RANDY FILLPOT is superintendent of the Newman-Crows Landing School District in Newman, Calif.


Randy Fillpot


Newman-Crows Landing School District (Calif.)