It started with an idea. An idea stemming from a new pandemic-driven reality of parents working from home, juggling worry and multiple responsibilities, trying to keep their children learning while schools are closed.
Assistant Director of Field-Based Experiences for Endicott College’s School of Education Kristen DiGiovanni was knee-deep in this reality when a lightbulb went on. “I was struggling with the new normal at home,” says DiGiovanni. “My third grader was able to work independently but my kindergartener was having a hard time only doing ‘work’ when school is so much more than that for a beginner student.”
DiGiovanni thought about how working parents like her could use help, and at the same time how the closure of schools meant that some field assignments for Endicott student teachers abruptly came to a halt. Using her own situation as a “pilot program,” she paired willing Endicott education students Molly Gagnon ’20 and Rebecca Castonguay ’20 with her child, Ava, for virtual classroom sessions that included reading and discussions, videos, art and drawing, and lessons from Ava’s primary teacher.
Pre-practicum experiences for many Endicott students were cut short due to the COVID-19 pandemic, preventing teacher candidates from continuing to work in classrooms. For Gagnon, not only is this opportunity helping her continue her spring teaching practice, it is also a chance for her to strengthen her skills in designing lesson plans and providing personalized instruction. “This experience has been positive and rewarding for me,” says Gagnon. “I enjoy practicing my skills while making a positive impact in a student’s life.”
Castonguay says that “having the opportunity to continue teaching, and navigating how to adjust and create meaningful learning experiences remotely is not only rewarding, but, very revealing about the challenges and the expectations that teachers continuously face and exceed.”
Early signs showed that this “experiment” was bound to be a success. “My favorite moment was after the first session with Molly and Rebecca,” says DiGiovanni. “Ava asked, ‘can they be my teachers forever?’” Seeing such results firsthand led DiGiovanni to talk with School of Education Dean Sara Quay about expanding the program, creating a larger, more official student teaching initiative. Quay reached out to Endicott faculty and staff to see who would be interested in participating. The response was encouraging.
With more students volunteering to teach, the program was off and running. Rob Ackerman ’20 has been working with Assistant Professor Jennifer Flewelling’s son. Ackerman teaches this young learner fifth grade math, reading, writing, and social emotional learning (SEL), material that the school district provided in a weekly schedule. “He and I go over the material for the day in the morning,” says Ackerman. “I then conference with him later in the day if he needs further assistance.”
Samantha Barney ’20 was paired with Assistant Director, Leadership Giving Jillian Black and provides one-on-one reading help and support to Black’s kindergartner. Designing these literacy practice sessions and conducting online tutoring while balancing her own classwork was challenging for Barney at first, but now she looks forward to the sessions each week. And, coming up with new ways to present material has been fun for her. “Last week I created a 'sight word bingo' card on Google slides,” says Barney. “It took a long time to make and I was unsure if logistically it would work, with me moving the virtual 'bingo chips' for the student. However, the student really enjoyed the game and even asked to play again! I was happy to be able to provide a more engaging learning opportunity for the student while also having fun.” She feels that she connects most with the student at the end of the lesson during ‘sharing’ time. “I think we both look forward to this time in the Zoom call and it has helped us build a relationship that has definitely positively affected the 'academic' portions of the tutoring sessions,” she says.
“My kindergartner is hyper-focused on Samantha and I firmly believe she has helped him not only to maintain where he was as an emerging reader, but to grow from where he was when he was in school,” says Black. “He now goes around the house reading everything he can see and I attribute this to his time with Samantha.”
Another big fan of this program is Assistant Athletic Director of Facilities & Recreation Mark Kulakowski. With a wife that is a nurse and still working out-of-home, Kulakowski was happy for the help. Ingrid Hjerpe ’20 works with his kindergartener and Hannah McDonald ’20 teaches his second grader. Both teacher candidates developed lessons that coincide with the curriculum the school is sending to parents. “On Fridays Hannah and Ingrid team teach both kids together and are very creative in reaching both of them,” says Kulakowski. “They particularly enjoyed an Earth Day Charades game” that Hannah and Ingrid created.
What is so important about this initiative is that the learning goes both ways. In the case of McDonald, online and distance teaching is new to her so she’s been researching the best ways to engage young students via platforms like Zoom. “It is so nice to try and think of new ways to help the students out during this time,” says McDonald. “I love looking through Pinterest, Scholastic, Epic, and Teachers Pay Teachers (TpT) to find resources and see what other teachers are using during this time…It has really helped me to stay creative as an educator.”
Hjerpe also has learned a lot about herself as an educator through this experience. “As my undergraduate story ends here at Endicott, a new door is opening,” she says. “As a classroom teacher, I know I need to be flexible and always ready to think on my feet of something new, engaging, and exciting.” This opportunity allowed her to explore working with students in a new platform, engaging them and encouraging a love of learning, even while not in a traditional school setting. “I have always been a creative person, so this new platform is a chance for me to put that creativity to good use! Endicott has prepared me to be the best teacher I can be, and I am so excited to be sharing that with the Endicott community in any way I can,” says Hjerpe.
A common theme among the student teachers is that they learned how to adapt to the unpredictable. “This initiative has taught me that educators truly do need to be flexible especially when a pandemic occurs,” says Haleigh Cirrone ’20. “Although this situation is not ideal, I have found that it will help prepare me for what could happen and how to deal with it, and work through it, when something unexpected occurs.”
Quay, DiGiovanni, and the entire School of Education are thrilled with the outcome of this impromptu idea—a program that has proven mutually beneficial for all parties. It’s a true example of Gulls helping fellow Gulls, especially during a time of need. A special thanks to the following volunteer student teachers.