After overcoming the initial growing pains associated with adopting an entirely new way of teaching, educators from Albuquerque Public Schools (APS) have grown accustomed to their new digital tools and increased parental involvement. In fact, some unforeseen benefits of online learning in elementary school have become apparent and will forever change the way these teachers educate their students. Learn how an emergency response to COVID has evolved into a sustainable and positive way to educate and engage with students.
In the summer of 2020, APS decided to open a virtual school as an additional option for their students. eCADEMY K8 was established in less than two months, and “it was crazy,” said Jamie McCracken, a first-grade teacher at the new school. “We were all taking on extra responsibilities to train ourselves and our students’ families with how to log in, use the new programs, and work independently.”
“As with any program, some things worked, and some things didn’t,” said McCracken, but she found that working closely with the families, or learning coaches as they are called in the program, was essential in rolling out the new platform. “The beginning of the year was overwhelming,” said Ginelle Pompeo-Salazar, a fourth-grade teacher at Sierra Vista Elementary School. “Managing getting everyone logged on, learning the different platforms, and creating expectations—I’ve never felt that overwhelmed before,” she said about the start of the 2020–2021 school year. (Sierra Vista is a traditional school that is currently providing all of its lessons online in response to the pandemic.)
“We put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and have things a certain way. This year we had to lose control and be flexible with ourselves and our students (and families). But realizing that everyone is doing their best and that we can’t control every aspect of our class has been powerful.”
“In the spring, the expectations were flexible because not everyone had a device or Internet access,” said Salazar, but after APS spent the summer providing devices and hot spots to those in need, the fall semester looked significantly different. And even after having done research on distance learning and flipped classrooms over the summer, Salazar commented, “I felt like no one could be prepared for online learning in elementary school until you actually did it.”
Knowing that the platform was new for both families and teachers, eCADEMY teachers decided to roll out the curriculum one or two subjects at a time. McCracken also used prerecorded videos to instruct the families on accessing the virtual tools, uploading the assignments, and recording videos within the platform. “We took it in baby steps,” said McCracken, “to help everyone get comfortable with the process.”
Across the district, Salazar emphasized the importance of balancing synchronous and asynchronous times with her students because students “need time to complete their activities.” She starts her day with a morning gathering to go over the daily plan and has a detailed schedule that allows her to meet with small groups and provide whole-group lessons.
Met with both consternation and optimism by educators, the APS administration required everyone to use only one online curriculum for the first month of school. “Teachers know the needs of their students,” said McCracken, who was initially disappointed that she couldn’t add supplemental activities or resources to the program early in the semester. However, she admitted that had she not been obligated to use the program with fidelity, she may have “backed out before I saw the benefits.” In looking back, McCracken suggests that other educators give their platform a shot and learn what to take from it and where to add to it before giving up.
But it is essential to differentiate learning for each student, “just like we would do in any program,” said McCracken. And starting in September, they began to “supplement reading passages based on the reading level of the child” and add or remove content to meet the needs of their families and their district.
“We were in the trenches together,” said McCracken of her families, so she understands that flexibility and compassion are key to successfully implementing online learning in elementary school. Allowing students to turn assignments in on weekends and putting together week-at-a-glance emails have been essential in her first-grade classroom. The week-at-a-glance includes what lessons are required and what platform to use for each assignment, broken out by day to make it easier for the learning coach to follow. “I feel more connected to my families than ever this year because I’m in their house, meeting their siblings, and seeing their pets,” said McCracken.
Like McCracken’s first-grade classroom, Salazar also noticed the unique connection with students and families in her fourth-grade class. “I know my families better this year than I have in the past,” said Salazar. As a school with an in-person campus, they can also do a bit more community outreach, such as passing out hot cocoa kits. But both schools created virtual enrichment activities like parties, games, and even spirit week where students and their families get in on the fun. In first grade, McCracken plays games with her students, has show-and-tell, hosts lunch groups, and offers other clubs focusing on various topics like STEM or art.
Surprising Benefits of Online Learning in Elementary School
Now that the students, families, and educators know how to use the programs and what’s expected from them, everyone feels more comfortable. “I love that I have more time to help my struggling students and those that need a challenge,” said McCracken. “I think we’ve realized that in-person school may not be the best fit for everyone,” she said, and she is proud to be a part of this new wave of teaching.
Now that she’s been obliged to learn these new platforms, Salazar is looking forward to instituting them in her traditional classroom when Albuquerque allows in-person instruction to return. “We would always do a professional development session on technology, and I would want to use it, but just didn’t have time to learn it. But now, there are a lot of things my students and I are familiar with,” she said. For example, small-group rotation will now include an online component, giving Salazar the opportunity and time to work closely with another group of students in person.
Additionally, both educators emphasized that these students are becoming independent learners. They need to manage their classes with their learning coach’s help and take more responsibility for their learning. These developments enable teachers to focus on teaching and providing personalized instruction instead of creating content and directing student focus.
Salazar wrapped things up by saying, “We put so much pressure on ourselves to be perfect and have things a certain way. This year we had to lose control and be flexible with ourselves and our students (and families). But realizing that everyone is doing their best and that we can’t control every aspect of our class has been powerful.”