Virtual Schooling? How’s It Going?

by Rick on April 17, 2020

In April of 2020 in the midst of the Corona Virus epidemic, I emailed three of the best preschool teachers I know: “Can you have a virtual preschool? How do you teach 3-5 year olds, if you are not all together?” (I had seen these three teach, and their classrooms are model learning communities.)

The difference in the responses from these three excellent, experienced early childhood educators is interesting:

Alicia Perdue’s answer:
It’s definitely interesting, and definitely doable! We have small group zoom meetings each day.

We have had to go back to the drawing board to create new content for our little ones to do via our virtual classroom on seesaw.  I would say the biggest learning lesson for us is teaching the parents how to use the activities to engage with their children. It’s been a learning lesson for everyone involved!

 From Candy Mabry :
Yes, remote learning for 3-5 year olds. It sucks. Preschool is now a soulless computer screen. Meetings are done in a video conference format, which, as you might imagine, is…soulless. What we do in the preschool is not translatable to a “platform” or even a video conference because what we do has a foundation in relationships, and preschoolers do not understand maintaining a relationship via a screen. 

Getting up to speed on all of the platforms has been exhausting and tedious. It has taken hours and hours to reach even a moderate level of competency.

Gretchen Ott Says:
What a crazy time. I don’t think we are going back to school. Yes, we’ve been doing distance learning with zoom circle times and sending home things to do. After spring break (this week) we will start zoom call small groups with 4 kids. Should be fun 🙂 Also, I do a lot with this great online resource, and they put together a pretty neat workshop for this. The website is The workshop is $27 and worth it. 

I just went through a year long course with them to be certified in their “Wonder Based Teaching” which is rooted in strong play based with Reggio influences. It was great! Check out the website. And pass it along too. I know you like to get our ideas on things. 

Deirdre Fennessy, retired Montessori principal says:
All schools are closed. Have you ever imagined this?  Education will change, I believe, when it all begins again in Sept. 

 I would say the biggest learning lesson for us is teaching the parents how to use the activities to engage with their children. It’s been a learning lesson for everyone involved!

Students will have been allowed to work at home with some sort of guidance from their teachers and parents. My hope is that many of them will get a taste for independent learning like never before. I hope they discover many things that interest them that they never dreamed of. And that they pursue those interests as far as they can go. Wow, what a boon that would be to all of us. Independent learners is what we have strived for all along. 

Unfortunately, because we are all sequestered, it means online learning, book learning, parents’ learning and not out-in-the-world learning, but it may be enough to get them going on a different track. And when they are free to move out and about and congregate, they will be ravenous for new experiences to try out their new interests in the real world. 

I guess it will be a learning experience for all of us. What do you think?

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jim Ackerly April 18, 2020 at 2:43 pm

As someone I would classify as a Great Educator, my brother Rick (Yes, the one you know) once droned on of a calm Summer evening about how learning facts was an interesting activity, but which facts one should learn vary across the decades. For instance, Is there value in teaching young people about the hands on a clock or long division? We no longer use a sextant to guide our travels, but that was part of education long ago.

Facts are all around us; it is which ones relate to the problems at hand and the problems to come that matter. Education is partly learning those facts. Teachers help us, the students, learn them and point to the ones most likely to apply to our lives now and in the future.

Virtual schooling can handle that, I think, although I’m at least 45 years beyond the classroom.

Rick has also pointed out that when we were growing up, we had a baseball field in our side yard. It was a place for scheduled games with friends and neighbors of all ages. We moved away from that field before I was old enough to appreciate what happened there. However, we STILL, 65 years later hear from friends we got to know on that field. They talk about the Ackerly Field schooling on teamwork and fairness and fun that was poured over them back then. It wasn’t about baseball.

The current tragedy of our circumstance is that virtual schooling leaves out the component of close human interaction with all its subtleties – the part where each student learns from each other in the way they did a month ago.

Zoom, WebEx and Skype can handle some of the details in the short term, but I fear for the unseen damage if that other side of education has to stop for too long.

Rick April 18, 2020 at 2:52 pm

Thanks, Bro. Thanks for the memories, too.

Brian Murphy April 18, 2020 at 5:29 pm

My wife uses the phrase “complete the gesture” from theater to probe how learning actually happens—as an arc of engagement starting well before an actual lesson and then continuing past the formal close of a class or activity. When learning is compressed into a Zoom session, the arc is broken both before and after. Or, charitably, it’s a different arc in a different setting (parent, living room, whatever). But in no event is it the social context of any decent school where the students have each other throughout the arc.

Suzanne Abbey April 19, 2020 at 12:59 pm

I zoomed in on a panel of teachers sharing, with any educator who wanted to join, how each of them is implementing social emotional content in distance learning. The educators represented preschool through high school scenarios. They all agreed the top priority of any education program at this time is to promote the well-being of the students. Each shared examples of connecting with students in class meetings, phone calls, as pen pals and using class time to share feelings and impressions, check-ins. Teachers are teaching self-reflection and ease of sharing feelings as well as, self-care and self-advocacy. A middle school teacher shared that her school refers to distance learning as Remote Emergency Education for Community Health. These teachers shared their realization of how much nonacademic communication they have always had with students, as well as how much actual physical contact such as shaking hands at beginning and end of day routines, walking down the hall together, playing on the the playground, eating lunch or snack. We all agree this is the part of education we may not be hearing about but this is the part teachers are working on as they master online platforms at lightening speed. While the set up is very different, to most dedicated educators it is a call, a challenge, an opportunity and we could not have a more motivated and creative group working on these challenges. Check out “Breathe for Change” if you are interested. It is an organization where this topic is top priority. It also includes teacher self-care for which I would also recommend Elena Aguilar’s month by month emotional resilience book for educators, “Onward”.
Thank you, Rick, for opening this topic. As usual, educators are rising to the challenge, finding ways to support each other and expanding the Ackerly ball field beyond anyone’s wildest imaginings.
I am interested in how parents are feeling about distance learning and how we can support them most effectively. I see teachers and administrators working collaboratively with mixed reviews coming from parents. What do parents need that educational researchers and consultants such as ourselves might help provide?

Larry Arnstein April 19, 2020 at 5:59 pm

These comments are all very interesting. I can’t imagine learning outside of an actual classroom with a teacher and other students, but I suppose we have to start imagining it.

Because we can’t go anywhere to interact with other human beings without endangering ourselves or them, we’ve had to settle lately for Facetime with our three and a half year old granddaughter, which is frustrating for us, but she seems Ok with it. Oh brave new world.

Tracy Kirkham April 20, 2020 at 2:50 pm

I was struck by how all three of the teachers’ responses, taken together, reflected the Ackerly philosophy:
1) recognize the situation for what it is – the inability for physical proximity– herd contact– is a HUGE impediment to EVERYTHING early childhood education seeks to accomplish. Devising a whole new pedagogical methodology is an enormous, exhausting task. To do it in months or even years would be an accomplishment. To do it in weeks is mind-blowing.
2) apply a growth, creative mindset to the situation. Yes, it’s the pits, but let’s figure out what can be made out of pits because using this conflict between what’s so and what’s optimal (or even normal) is (like all conflict) also an opportunity.
3) reach out for sources of assistance, especially persons with expertise, but everyone with a constructive contribution to make to the effort will be valued and honored.

As the parent of three daughters who were taught by Candy and Alicia (we never pulled Gretchen’s class), I want to say a personal thank you to you two, and Gretchen and all of the educators on the front lines of keeping our schools functioning.

Rick April 27, 2020 at 6:05 am

Gretchen commented by email:
Yes, we’ve been doing distance learning with zoom circle times and small groups of 4-5 children. The small groups have been more
“successful” in that children share their thoughts more, engage in the routine, and we see more smiles! We’ve all just made this quick transition to distance learning and are finding the best ways to make it “work.” It’s tricky as preschool doesn’t really work remotely like this, but we put our focus on keeping our connection to our students and families. We are starting zoom calls for parents today as a chance to share how they are feeling and any challenges. I also want to make sure they have a chance to share any sweet moments, as I want to keep it positive! We also all went through an on-line course designed to help early childhood teachers navigate what distance learning looks like and it had many takeaways. We are just trudging along doing our best to keep connections and bring smiles to faces. 

Rick April 27, 2020 at 6:23 am

Alicia Replied by email:
I laughed while reading this because I had no idea Candy and Gretchen would be in the following paragraphs. It made me laugh because we were always that trio, with different personalities, different views, but always able to talk through any situation. We balanced each other out in our teaching lives, we made sense of most situations! This would definitely be how we would’ve sounded sitting in our head teacher meeting trying to make sense of this! And Rick, if you were still the head of school you would’ve been sitting at that round table with us pulling out your box of Sees candy to offer us a bit of comfort along the way. Gosh, I miss this! I miss all of you!!! 

I love this, you have my permission to post. 

Rick April 27, 2020 at 6:24 am

Gretchen replied again:
YES Alicia! 
This also took me right back to all of us being together and it made me miss everyone!! I would love to do a zoom meeting with you all 
You can post my words although I may have worded it a little more eloquently if I’d known, but it’s okay 
Love to you all!!!

Candy Replied:
Yes, of course, to all! 

Emily June 1, 2020 at 11:04 am

Hi Rick, my kindergartener has been doing distance learning since the beginning of April, and I think the most challenging part for both of us has been an issue you talked about in your book–suddenly, for the first time, I was playing the role of “school teacher” and trying to coax, persuade or browbeat her into doing schoolwork–something I never expected to be doing for a kindergartener. It definitely started to matter more to me than it did to her, and reading your book and learning more about “playing position” helped (as did having extremely good teachers). I think for kids and parents this age, the distance approach to learning–especially when it turns the parents into taskmasters, is challenging at best and destructive at worst.

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