When Western New York schools closed in March because of the coronavirus pandemic, it left student teachers in a bind. How could they continue their work with children learning from home?
At least three Buffalo State College student teachers working at Lindbergh Elementary School in the Kenmore-Town of Tonawanda School District have found a way.
“We’ve been working with our mentor teachers through distance learning, and it’s been pretty great,” said Cassidy Gillespie, one of the student teachers. “We wanted to be involved with our students and be there for them.”
Student teachers were offered several options to complete the semester when schools closed, including doing research papers, as continuing their work with students wasn’t always feasible. The three student teachers at Lindbergh—Gillespie, Hannah Criscione, and Tara Southard—are all in their final semester of Buffalo State's childhood education initial teacher certification program. Gillespie and Southard are student teaching third-graders, while Criscione is in a first-grade classroom.
Lindbergh has been able to ensure that all its students were outfitted with the technology needed to continue learning remotely.
“It's amazing that the school district is making sure that everybody has a laptop so that they can work from home,” Gillespie said. “Otherwise, this obviously wouldn't have worked. You can't have some kids in the class doing things and others not.”
Criscione meets with her students every day virtually through Zoom and has developed ways to check in on the students and make sure they’re doing well. She also dropped off care packages to each student along with her mentor teacher, to ensure that the students have supplies at home.
“I run a restorative practice called peace circles in our meeting each day,” she said. “Peace circles are an effective way to touch base with each student and check in on their well-being, which is especially important during this time.”
Students in Gillespie’s class are expected to follow the same rules in their Zoom “classroom” as they would in their physical classroom. The meetings have been important to students because they get to see their classmates and get the sense that they’re not going through the pandemic alone. She also encourages them to make thoughtful choices.
“One thing I asked my students is, When you look back at this period, will you look back at it and be proud of something that you've accomplished during this time?” she said. “Like, how you acted or your character, or something that you’re going to remember positively about it.”
The student teachers are also in contact with parents through several web-based applications to provide advice, catch them up on what their child is learning about, and see how they’re holding up.
“My mentor teacher and I held an ‘open house’ for parents on Zoom,” Criscione said. “We gave parents an update and schedule as to what to expect in the coming weeks as we enter new learning. This was especially effective because we were able to answer questions parents had and virtually show parents applications students will be working on.”
Along with the Zoom meetings, the student teachers are also using resources like Google Classroom and YouTube to provide lessons, read-alouds, and physical activities like yoga. Southard (pictured above) is also a songwriter, and she’s been uploading remote-learning videos and sing-alongs to her YouTube page.
“I plan to keep adding mindfulness videos that I feel are especially helpful for children’s mental and emotional health right now,” she said. “I really just hope the students feel safe and know that their teachers really care about them.”
The student teachers also meet remotely with Ann Laudisio, lecturer in the Elementary Education, Literacy, and Educational Leadership Department, for two hours every week.
“I am so proud of how dedicated they remain even though their student-teaching experience was so quickly interrupted,” Laudisio said.
Despite the challenges, Criscione said, there’s nothing else she’d rather be doing.
“This was not the experience I expected when stepping into my student teaching placement, but it’s one I will never forget,” she said. “This group of first-grade students has been my rock, my foundation, and my strength, as I hope I am for them. Just as much as they need me right now, I need them. Together we will get through this and continue to grow. They are rays of sunshine in our world of uncertainty.”