Kindergarten teachers maintain connections with students through daily lessons, night-time bed stories and cooking classes

Two months ago, no one could have imagined the impact COVID-19 would have on local schools and the prolonged shutdown of classes.

That includes Homer Pittard Campus School teacher Jana Hawkins.

“The 13th (of March), had I known, I would have hugged them a little longer when they were going out the door,” Hawkins said about her class of 20 kindergarteners. “We had no idea. I was still working in my room trying to prepare for the next week when we got the call.”

She thought, “Oh my goodness, we’re not going back for a while.”

Kindergarten is a “magical” time for children, both Hawkins and fellow kinder-teacher Melissa Flowers said.

And for that reason, they knew they needed to find a way to maintain a connection with their students and keep them excited about learning.

“There’s so much magic in kindergarten and that’s what we try to keep,” Flowers said. “Kindergarten is unique. We set the stage for what they perceive about learning from here on. We really try to grab them and instill a huge love of school at a very young age and part of that is bringing the magic with it.”

Flowers and Hawkins immediately began brainstorming ideas and developed a plan they would both share for the remainder of the school year.

They decided to focus on a different subject area each day to provide activities and model lessons for students — and their parents — in a way that wouldn’t be overwhelming but continued to keep them engaged.

They did a math lesson on Mondays, reading on Tuesdays, writing on Wednesdays, science on Thursdays and then capped the week with cooking lessons for the students. One of the teachers would do a lesson on preparing a main dish, while the other would show students how to bake a dessert.

“When we first did it, we were trying to decide what recipes we could use where parents already had the ingredients because everything was in shortage,” Hawkins said.

The cooking lessons helped bring together all the skills they had practiced throughout the week — using math, reading and science — but in a fun and delicious way.

Students learned to make — oftentimes from scratch — pizza rolls, cinnamon rolls, Asian-chicken salad, chocolate gravy and biscuits, handmade tortillas, chicken rollups and much more.

“More importantly, it was just more about keeping that relationship there because you work all year to build that relationship,” Hawkins said. “Parents would message and say, ‘They can’t wait for you to come on so they can see you.’”

They produced and broadcast their lessons using Facebook Live and they could monitor the number of students watching and participating through the chat with their parents. They saw lots of engagement and most days would have 16-18 out of 20 students each taking part.

Hawkins and Flowers also helped some of their other Campus School colleagues transition to the live platform so they could have more interaction.

The duo started with three lessons each day, once in the morning, once in the afternoon and then they would do a bedtime story in the evenings. They also made adjustments to the schedule based on the best time for parents to participate.

“Our age group is unique because they have to have someone with them at the device,” Hawkins said. “It even evolved so that I had parents messaging me saying, ‘I have to work but Grandma is going to help fill the gap.’ It was very neat that they were trying to stay engaged. They were trying any link they could to stay connected with us.”

Flowers agreed and found that her daily audience began expanding to include other members of the family.

“At any given moment, I may have 18 families online with me but I have their siblings as well,” Flowers said. “I know one of my kiddos has two sisters and they were always on. So trying to remember, ‘Your little sister’s name is Cathleen’ or ‘Your sister’s name is Charlotte,’ and trying to recognize them as well.”

She added: “It was over the top. It was super exciting for our kids and us.”

Both teachers said they miss seeing their students in-person every day and watching as their experiences and work from the year come together. The last nine weeks is when they see the ultimate payoff.

“Seeing eyes twinkle and shine when they learn something that maybe they’ve been working hard all year to try and master and then the light bulb clicks,” Hawkins said. “Then you’ve got those things like the chicks hatching and the (Kindergarten) Circus, which is such a legacy for Campus School.”

“The last nine weeks is when we see that bloom,” Flowers echoed. “Everything has come to fruition and we see them shine as who they really are as a student. Those students who came in shy and reserved, they’ve found a voice and they’ve found a safe space to share that voice.”

Parents deserve recognition for the great job they’ve done to become the home teacher and learn new ways to keep their children learning, both Hawkins and Flowers said.

“They have stepped up to the plate and hit a home run,” Hawkins said. “It is amazing the ways they have tried to be inventive and creative. They will message me and say, ‘Am I doing this the right way?’ I know they have a lot of balls they are juggling at home too. It’s been overwhelming to see how parents have responded, so hats off to you parents.”

Hawkins and Flowers both worked with parents throughout the year to create scrapbooks for each student commemorating the big events of the year, such as field trips and the Q&U wedding.

They closed out the school year last Saturday by passing out those scrapbooks to parents, posing for pictures with students — wearing masks and practicing social-distancing, of course — and celebrating their accomplishments, even with such a strange and unprecedented ending of the school year.

But they know the students will continue to be successful, thanks to everyone quickly adapting to the situation.

“If there is anything you learn as a teacher, it’s flexibility,” Flowers said, “so we have to be flexible and creative no matter what situation we’re faced with, and this is just another one of those things.”

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