Constructing a Pre-K Classroom Community Over Zoom

by Suzi Holmes, JK/SK/1 @Home Guide, Meadowbrook School

“How was I ever going to do it? Could I really make it happen for them?  Would it feel authentic?”

After a long and strange COVID-19 summer of social distancing, a totally unprecedented school year was about to begin. These questions kept repeating in my mind like some new top 10 song on a pop radio station! As August was nearing an end, I had quickly pivoted roles from long time pre-K classroom teacher to becoming an “@home guide” for students whose families had opted to have their children learn at home.

Most of the students at my school would return to campus with new protocols and routines in place to keep everyone safe and healthy. But, as anyone living through this pandemic knows, not everyone is in the same risk category and some families opted for an even safer educational setting…their own homes. In my new role, I was to coordinate plans with classroom teachers to provide academic support for our youngest @Home students in grades pre-Kindergarten, Kindergarten and Grade 1. It would also be my task to welcome them to school and to help provide a sense of community while learning over Zoom and using SeeSaw.

Our school’s mission statement includes the wording that we will “know, love and challenge” each child, so creating a sense of community and belonging was my utmost priority as I began to plan.

To start, I needed to designate the different “levels of community” groupings I hoped these children would come to know: our own pre-K-grade 1@Home group, their on campus cohorts and teachers, the bigger pre-K -grade 5@Home group, and the entire school. Having taught pre-K for many years, my instincts were to start with a smaller focus and then branch out to include a wider range of people, routines and activities. Now that I have completed the first two months of school, my end-of-summer questions have set me on a path of exploration, my students are thriving and things I have experimented with are emerging as helpful teaching tools and techniques.

When considering ways to build community within a classroom or a school culture, faculty and administrators often explore ways to make people feel welcome, valued and included. We look at physical spaces and their functions. We also create routines, rituals, traditions and shared activities that pull people together and encourage interaction.

Setting Up My Classroom

Part of my usual “Back to School” routine each year includes setting up my classroom. To welcome my students to a new school year on Zoom, I wanted to create a backdrop that looked like a real classroom- a classroom space where children could see themselves and feel a sense of belonging. I closed my eyes and pictured the walls in my classroom at school in a typical year. The walls were covered in children’s artwork labeled with their names, a word wall, and many other typical classroom artifacts (alphabet, number chart, calendar, job chart, school symbol, and posters related to our unit studies).

To create a classroom backdrop on Zoom, I decided to refrain from relying on virtual images. I also didn’t want to transform an entire room in my house, so I purchased a cardboard dorm room-divider, and made colorful name cards with polka dots and stars for the children in each grade. Example:

I used masking tape to stick them on the “wall” behind me so they could also be easily used for turn taking signals and reattached. I found a magnet with our school symbol and taped that up next to a card with the “@Home” label written on it to give a name to our group. I then messaged my students’ parents and asked them to have their children draw pictures for me and to mail them to my home address. I opted to hang these original pieces of artwork instead of emailed and printed images so that the children would feel a sense of connection having put their actual creations in the mail. These same creations were on display when we first met over zoom.

The messages “You matter to me” and “You belong here” were unsaid, but clearly understood as the children delighted in seeing their names and work displayed with love, purpose and care as they embarked on a new school journey.

Building Trust

Children thrive when they feel safe. They build trust when they experience consistent routines and also gain a sense of belonging through shared rituals. I have found this to be true even when learning from home. By establishing daily greetings, routine procedures and closing activities, just as I would in any classroom, I strive to provide emotional security and inclusion for all.

The design of our daily schedule includes a morning greeting and closing at the end of day. We have experimented with greeting each other in the morning with movement songs and a variety of passed greetings. A weather forecaster job chart, daily and monthly calendar activities and review of the daily schedule or “group plan” for each lesson provide us with a predictable shared experience. Clearly defined norms and expectations (such as signaling for a turn to speak or muting, as needed) for behavior in our “classroom” allow participants to feel safe, take turns and allow for everyone’s voices to be heard and respected. Call and response sayings (such as “All set?”, “You bet!”), hand signals and celebrations (including thumbs up, silent cheer, “fireworks”), bells, chimes or other signals can all be introduced over Zoom just as you would use them in the classroom to signal transitions or engage your students’ attention.

The closing song I chose to end the day had me worried at first-the kids just stared and didn’t join in. Had I chosen a real dud? I stuck with it though, and after a few days the children had learned the lyrics and expressed their love of the song by joining in enthusiastically dancing and singing. They even shared portions of the lyrics with classroom teachers on campus. The emergence of their enthusiastic engagement was an affirmation that remote learning can indeed lead to the creation of an authentic community – even for students who have never had an in-person classroom experience in their new school!

Playing Over Zoom

The inability to gather in groups and play together is one of the greatest losses for children during this pandemic. Another question I needed to explore was “How can we PLAY over Zoom?” In creating our weekly schedule, I aimed to re-create a pre-K classroom “Free Play” experience and to establish a weekly “virtual playdate” for all of my students.

I knew that the children would benefit from opportunities to play and socialize in both same-aged and mixed-aged groupings, allowing for a variety of “communities” to be established. Playing name games or singing songs with everyone’s names was a great place to start so the children could get to know everyone. Adding labels to their artwork with their names and “the one thing I really want you to know about me” helped us to begin to get to know each other  more. Creating online shared class directories that included photos and video introductions of all students in a class (whether on campus or @Home) gave everyone a resource to visit and established a sense of group belonging.

“Gab, Giggle and Play” is the name I invented for our daily pre-K gathering. The name says it all! I wanted to encourage conversation, fun and humor, and play. 

In these daily sessions, the children join me over Zoom to engage in all sorts of typical pre-K classroom activities that are aligned with what students are experiencing on campus, including hearing a story and doing a related art activity, drawing, storytelling, writing, bringing items around a theme/topic to explore and share, and many age-appropriate math, language arts and social-emotional learning experiences. To meet the social needs of all of my @Home students together, I established a weekly virtual playdate called “Wacky Wednesdays”.

Again, it’s all in the name! These “playdates” are an interactive experience in which each child can join the zoom group, attend to brief instructions/demonstrations and then engage in active play while speaking with other participants in the group as if they were playing in the same space. Topics are chosen based on the children’s own interests, and the activities support their learning and own individual skill development by allowing for multiple entry points. Activities may include: stories and books, songs and movement, art projects, dramatic play, using toys, and household items in new ways.

In both “Gab, Giggle and Play” and Wacky Wednesdays” I aim to model a variety of social behaviors and skills such as respect for others, sharing ideas, cooperation, speaking in a group, and taking turns.

One, Two, Three… Eyes on Me!

As we have begun learning how to play together over zoom, we have discovered that there are times when you need to look at the teacher, but then there is plenty of opportunity to look away from the screen, engage with materials and play alongside the group while chatting together. We have established that “1,2,3…All eyes on me!” is the signal for everyone to stop what they are doing and to look at the person who called for attention. The children enjoy sharing their creations or discoveries in this way, and then turn their attention back to their own individual play. Sometimes we intentionally “pass” items calling names 1-1 to include everyone in a game, such as “Who has the tea pot?” during our fancy dress tea party. Wacky Wednesdays are totally optional for students so that they can easily opt out if they are feeling that they have had too much screen time lately. Projects begun during Wacky Wednesdays do not need to be completed during the allotted half hour and can be finished at another time as each family’s schedule allows. I have been surprised and delighted by the comfort with which the children now address each other as we work and play. There have been many times when we’re all having so much fun, the time flies and we run over, not feeling any Zoom-fatigue whatsoever!

Looking back on the first months of school, I have found it helpful to reflect on and acknowledge the actions that have helped to create a real learning community for my @Home students:

  • Setting up a “Zoom” classroom backdrop using student-created images and including student name tags
  • Establishing a predictable/repeatable routine
  • Use hand signals or voice prompts to check for understanding and attention
  • Stick with elements like a daily closing song even if kids don’t join in for a few days – routines may take longer to establish over Zoom but they will work!
  • Be willing to play as you would in person
  • Set up named playtimes (Wacky Wednesdays) that are opt-in so that students know what to expect and parents may choose to opt out if they are concerned about too much screen time

It is a true joy to pause and celebrate the thriving community of @Home learners we have established together. Through the process of identifying the “ingredients” that have combined to make a “secret sauce of success,” I now see that trusting my past experience and understanding of what I had come to value as “best practices” has provided me with a solid foundation on which to build from. As ideas percolated and developed, I asked myself, “How can I adapt my teaching practices to fit this ‘new norm’? What new actions do I need to take in order to reach my students and give them what they need? Can I really do this?”. The remainder of the year is yet to come, new connections ready to be made, and many more pieces of our community left to explore. Yet, as I continue along the journey, I do so with a newfound confidence having begun to find some of the answers to my burning questions from last summer.

Suzi Holmes is in her 34th year of teaching young children, and she finds she is as passionate today about helping young children learn and thrive as she was at the start of her career. Her own education as an educator began in middle school when a teacher offered an alternate option to U.S. History called “Child Study” and she found her purpose. After receiving her B.A. and M.Ed. from the Eliot-Pearson Department of Child Study and Human Development at Tufts University, Suzi stepped into the classroom and has remained there with the consistency, curiosity and enthusiasm that help young children thrive. Before joining the faculty at the Meadowbrook School of Weston 23 years ago, Suzi also taught at Radcliffe Childcare Center in Cambridge, MA, White House Preschool in Sudbury, MA, and Lincoln Nursery School, a parent cooperative preschool in Lincoln, MA. In her spare time she loves beach walks with her family and their whippets, water aerobics classes, and watching Celtics basketball.