By Tara Lynn D’Uva, Academic Life Coach, Teacher Coach, Early literacy Specialist, certified K-8 teacher, MA in Curriculum & Instruction (HOMEROOM Project 2020)
The pandemic of 2020 has directly impacted our students and how we, as parents, teachers and communities, go about meeting their academic, social, emotional, and physical needs. I have been an educator for the past 19 years. During that time, I have also coached teachers and seen typical shifts in educational approaches and theories. About 6 years ago, I began to see a great need to reach out and guide children’s social, emotional and executive functioning development. So, I began my training as an Academic Life Coach. All these experiences prepared me for a time none of us could have expected.
It is very tricky for students to get into “work mode” at home and for parents to put on a “teacher hat” with their children. The learning “pod” came about organically, based on the five clear needs I perceived around me. First, as a mother and teacher, I found that on virtual school days children need a routine that includes changing out of their pajamas, getting dressed and heading to a physical location. They also require in-person monitoring of time and work, interactions with peers, academic support or enrichment and physical activity. Statistically, the gap for students who were already performing below grade level is also projected to grow with virtual learning. The HOMEROOM learning pod was created with all these issues in mind. It required a lot of thoughtful planning, organization, coordination, and commitment. After two months of K – 7 students walking through my doors each day, I can speak from experience and with confidence about the positive impact that this new structure has had on everyone involved.
Each small group, which is organized according to age and grade-level, is assigned a learning pod teacher to help the students navigate their academic work, organize their schedules, and support their regular school teachers and the curriculum. This format allows for different learning styles to be met. We can pull students out of the small group for individualized support and enrichment, and it allows for students to converse with one another and expand their thinking and reasoning.
When it is time to work, students can focus and motivate one another because everyone is on task. During breaks they can run off to play with others at various activity centers or head outside to play and make up their own games. We set up activities as choices, but often they run around outside and make up their own games. They come in pink-cheeked, smiling, and ready to get back to their assignments.
We offer the option to receive healthy snacks and lunch. We celebrate trying new fruits, veggies and foods; and they often do when they see what their friends are eating. What students eat for breakfast, lunch and snacks, to fuel them through the day, makes a significant difference in their productivity and ability to focus.
Students of different ages also begin looking for one another. The older students love helping the younger children with their work and for many of them, it helps reinforce skills. Our “littles” adore their older scholars. The learning pod has come to feel like an extended family. The students thank me when they leave each day. They are happy to have somewhere to be, where someone works with them in person, gets to know them, extends their lessons, and checks on them. It all happens in a small group setting that makes them feel safe and allows them to ask questions and take academic risks.
There are no better detectives than children. They must feel that the adults surrounding them truly believe in the importance of hard work and that they will be encouraged to achieve great things no matter the obstacles. From the moment students enter their rooms, it is important to set the tone for the day. Temperature checks are routine and overshadowed by warm, welcoming greetings by me and every member of our staff. I carefully choose the music that plays when they walk in. Disney is a favorite. The rooms have a subtle vanilla scent, which is soothing and stimulates thinking. The adults have positive, enthusiastic attitudes. We may all feel the stress of this uncertain time, but it is imperative that we support our children in reaching their highest potential. There are no better detectives than children. If we believe they can succeed, they will too.
Enrichment classes stimulate different parts of the brain and call on students to utilize a variety of skills. Offer a variety of activities, such as baking, art, woodworking, performing arts, music, language, and sports as extracurricular options. With a bit of research and preparation, a parent or other family member can offer their own version of these activities at home. Offer themes like “travel the world” and “explore” different cultures through geography, cooking, music, etc. Math skills can be put to the test by baking a simple recipe or creating an easy science experiment. Perhaps a family member has a special skill to share with the students. Maybe there is an aunt with a sewing machine who can work on small arts and crafts projects. This is a great way to motivate students to complete work, practice a hobby or try something new.
Our worlds have been flipped upside down and inside out. We now need to think differently about education. I can say, with full confidence, that the children who have participated in this program are better for it. They are seen, they are heard, they feel part of something special. We can all agree that students need and benefit from routine. They need time management guidance and time away from their screens. If a parent has neither the access to nor the means to hire a teacher, small groups of families can combine their resources and create their own HOMEROOM learning pod. Parents can commit to one or several days each week, depending on how many students are involved, and take turns hosting the children at their homes.
All children deserve to have the benefit of an established routine, their curiosity sparked, their learning style recognized, and their bar set high. By creating or joining a learning pod, families can support their children, and guide them through their virtual learning experiences, without widening the educational gap amongst students; and equip their children with the necessary tools to thrive and excel during this challenging time.
Tips for creating your own learning pod:
Dedicate a space, without distractions, where students can sit upright with feet on the floor and a table or desk at a height where they can comfortably write.
Establish ground rules and expectations.
Have students pack pencil cases with necessary materials or place a caddy in the middle of a work area, with pencils, crayons, glue sticks, rulers, scratch paper, white boards, and markers.
Create a visible daily schedule that students can refer to, include snack times and breaks.
If the teacher has not provided a schedule, depending on the age of the children, encourage students to work through for about 20 minutes before taking a break. Then allow a 5-minute break (set a timer) and return to a new subject. A longer break can be taken around lunch time. Access to phones or computer games are too big of a temptation for constant distraction and interrupted workflow.
Create a positive environment. Encourage questions, discussions and offer elaboration. Listen closely when students assist one another.
Be prepared to share additional materials such as maps, books, etc. Khan Academy is a great help for math tutorials.
Each child should have a book on his or her reading level and read independently every day. Have students read out loud occasionally to check in on fluency and comprehension. Choose Read-Aloud books and read to the students, no matter their age.
Encourage the development of fine motor skills by asking students to write, plan their writing or show their math work with a pencil and paper prior to typing their work.
Allow time for typing practice to facilitate virtual learning.
Commit to providing students with undivided attention and lots of positive reinforcement.
Make time for and encourage physical play.
Finally, sleep and nutrition! Encourage an early bedtime, healthy meals and snacks, all of which make a major difference in focus and behavior.
Tara Lynn D’Uva is the Founder of the HOMEROOM Program 2020 as a response to the recent pandemic and the subsequent changes to education. HOMEROOM is designed to augment and support each individual child’s instruction to relieve some of the stress associated with adapting to the virtual school model, cancelled activities and interrupted schedules. For more information visit Tara Lynn D’Uva and HOMEROOM Project 2020