Maintaining the Magic of Kindergarten
“The magic of Kindergarten at Friends’ Central is hard to describe,” said Lower School Principal Melody Acinapura, reflecting back on the spring. “It’s teachers who transform their classrooms into rainforests, arrive at your doorstep dressed as a crayon, and organize trips to Harlem to expand the world and knowledge of our youngest learners. That did not stop when we were forced to teach virtually this spring!”
In speaking with FCS Kindergarten teachers Tanya Muse ’02 and Kristi Kallam, it’s evident that the secret to their successful transition to Virtual FCS was a potent alchemy of extremely hard work, dedication to their students, an abundance of creativity and collaboration, and plenty of technical know-how – all brought to life by the natural warmth and charisma of both teachers. Assistant Teachers Jared Deveau and Caleb Shelton completed the dynamic team and brought their own strengths and energy to Kindergarten learning.
“Kindergarten is the first time that kids start to get all the tools they need to survive academically and in life. I feel this responsibility to give them what they need in all aspects.”
“Kindergarten is the first time that kids start to get all the tools they need to survive academically and in life. I feel this responsibility to give them what they need in all aspects,” expressed Tanya.
Tanya and Kristi have worked together for nine years and are good friends. “We have very similar teaching techniques, and we think a lot alike,” said Kristi. There were a lot of lessons to prepare, but, as they were pre-recorded, the team was able to share some lessons with each other. Even so, adapting to teaching in the virtual world required a great deal of planning and work, especially with the added video recording and editing required for the new teaching landscape. What kept them going was the enthusiasm of parents and students alike. “Finding that engagement and keeping it up was challenging,” said Kristi. The Kindergarten team clearly rose to the challenge.
Theme Weeks, Creative Technology, and Surprise Visitors
The teachers maintained a sense of fun within the learning. They also kept to a firm schedule, which helped provide some structure and continuity. “Early on in Virtual FCS,” explained Tanya, “we decided that we were going to have themed Wednesdays. We tried one Wacky Wednesday, and we had a lot of fun with that, so we decided to do it every week.” The team brainstormed themes, including a Dino Day. With no dinosaur outfit on-hand, Tanya explored dinosaur filters online and found several on Snapchat. Enlisting the help of her son Omar ’26, she recorded her message to students with a T-Rex standing behind her outside on the front lawn, one small dinosaur indoors on her head, and several dinosaurs that appeared tattooed on her face. “It was really fun. The kids LOVED it,” said Tanya. It required some editing and various takes, but it was clearly worth it.
Another Wacky Wednesday theme was April Fool’s Day; Kristi and Tanya surprised their students by switching places and recording the Morning Messages for the other teacher’s class. Teaching Assistants Jared and Caleb would go all-out for their own recorded videos, really getting into character. Caleb recorded a lesson on roller skates, and, for one lesson, Jared pretended he was an Australian hiker in the woods.
The teachers recorded their lessons and morning messages and uploaded them into Seesaw for students to watch before reading the instructions for that day, including a question of the day, which was always related to the day’s theme. “It was a way to try to bring the continuity of Morning Meeting in the classroom to the virtual world,” explained Tanya.
Most kids were able to navigate Seesaw independently. “Using the platform of Seesaw allowed students to take ownership of their learning,” said Kristi. “We prepared students really well to use Seesaw. We started from day one, in September. The parents were really thankful. They couldn’t believe how well the kids adapted to these lessons.” Every Tuesday, for example, they had guided reading. Kristi would push out the correct level book to each student via Seesaw; they would record themselves reading, and then do a related activity.
Kristi has been using Seesaw for the past seven years, finding it a helpful tool for working with small groups where she needed to differentiate or as a way to structure free play, where kids might, for example, take a picture of something they made, share it, and explain it. She has always used it as a home-to-school connection for parents to get a sense of what their children were working on. Students and parents alike were familiar with the platform, so that made the switch to virtual a lot smoother.
Kristi had a Theme Thursday every week for her students. The theme was Around the World. She would set up a series of clues. Dangler, a toy sloth, is the class mascot, and she titled the challenge Where in the World is Dangler? For the first virtual week, in March, Dangler went to ancient Egypt. “The first clue was a triangle,” explained Kristi, “and then students had to read books about camels and hieroglyphics. Then they would do activities around that culture and that region, and, at the very end, the final clue would be ‘Where do you think Dangler is?’ And I always gave them choices – Is it an island? Is it Egypt? Is it Paris?”
“I used a green screen in my videos. I made Dangler talk using an app. That was probably the biggest highlight. It was such a big hit that a number of my students acquired their own Danglers, and we’d have ‘playdates’ with Danglers!”
“Kristi’s use of the stuffed animal gave anchor to touring the globe. It was highly creative; it pulled together her social studies unit of cultures around the world in such a high-interest way.”
Lower School Assistant Principal Ginger Fifer
“Kristi’s use of the stuffed animal gave anchor to touring the globe,” said Assistant Lower School Principal Ginger. “It was highly creative; it pulled together her social studies unit of cultures around the world in such a high-interest way.”
“One of the places we visited was In Your Own Backyard,” shared Kristi, “and I linked it to the insect unit, where we raised praying mantises, ladybugs, and butterflies.” For that particular day, Kristi made what she described as a “Honey-I-Shrunk-the-Kids” video. Using special effect, she shrunk herself to the level of the grass. Another Theme Thursday “visit” was to Space. For this video message, Kristi put herself on the Millennium Falcon, where she was captured by Darth Vader. “The kids went crazy – they loved it!”
The teachers ensured there were plenty of opportunities for students to connect with them virtually as needed, including Community Fridays, where they’d meet with their classes in small groups synchronously to wrap-up each week’s learning. On Community Fridays, there would be a range of activities for students, including guided reading in small groups and sight-word bingo. Light Lab Director Brie Daley occasionally dropped in to help out – on one Friday, she stopped by to play a game of Kahoot with Kristi and her class.
Tanya encouraged parents to set up a meeting with her if students just needed some check-in time. “I had quite a few students who took advantage of that as often as they could. I didn’t mind! I miss and love my kiddos!” She also made a point of visiting students’ homes – safely and at a social distance, of course! She went several times to each home over the course of the spring – in the first case, to hand-deliver workbooks and other supplies students would need for virtual learning. The parents were extremely grateful. The second home drop-off Tanya made was in honor of World Book Day. The teachers chose The Day the Crayons Quit as the highlighted book. Tanya and her sons dressed up as crayons and delivered a stuffed crayon to each student. In the book, the crayons write letters to their owner Duncan. Tanya made postcards with the crayons on them, addressed to each student from the crayons. “It was huge for my students. They got to see their teacher being silly, which I normally am, and they got a little toy.” It was important to her to maintain the authentic experience of World Book Day, despite not being able to be together in the classroom.
In return, Tanya also had a student, Nathan, pay a visit to her house. He delivered her a hand-made bird feeder. “I was so moved by the gesture. I was in tears. It’s really nice when you get something from your student that’s student-created and to know you meant something to that student.”
“Being an African American woman, it’s important to me for the few kids of color that I have in my class to know that I’m here,” Tanya continued. “I understand. I relate. I used to be in your shoes – literally, because I went to FCS. And it’s important to me that they know I’m always here for them. But it’s also for me to make an impression on them. Every year, I purchase books for my African American students – a picture book that reminds me of them, or that I think they’d like. Recently, I’ve been giving them either the book Not Quite Snow White by Ashley Franklin or the book I am Perfectly Designed by Karamo Brown. And they love it. They understand the significance of the books.” Tanya has made a personal connection with author Ashley Franklin, who has given Tanya various shout-outs on social media. Franklin regular connects with Tanya to discuss Tanya’s anti-racist, anti-bias, social justice curriculum for young children, and Tanya uses her book as part of that, which thrills the author!
Kristi, whose house an hour away made student drop-off visits difficult, was equally committed to maintaining the connection with her students during the pandemic. She would try to record one personal video every day – either a teaching video or a morning message. And, in turn, she would enjoy receiving the occasional personal messages on Seesaw from her students – “Hi Mrs. Kallam. I miss you so much. I just want to tell you I love you!”
Kristi met with her students as a class each week for Community Friday, and she provided ample opportunities for students to check in with her in real time that were different each week. One week, for example, she held a Lunch Bunch via Zoom that anyone could join just to chat. Another opportunity was Weekend News on Monday, where students could drop in virtually and talk about their weekend. Typically, around 9 to 11 kids would take part in these gatherings, which were always optional. There were also one-on-one meetings with each student every two weeks, which she and Caleb would take turns holding.
“Virtual FCS was difficult. No one had the blueprint for how to teach online this way,” said Tanya. “We had to figure it out. In Kindergarten, kids are impressionable. I think that’s why Kindergarten teachers are so bubbly. I was determined to make sure that the experience they had with me in the classroom was, as much as possible, the same online. The only thing I can do is be myself and make sure they’re learning.”
By all accounts, the learning not only continued smoothly for Kindergarten students, but it also remained joyful and fun. The teachers both shared plenty more examples of creative learning techniques that they were able to bring to Virtual FCS. “Whether it was being chased by dinosaurs or finding themselves lost in space,” said Principal Melody Acinapura, “our Kindergarten team, led by the incredible Tanya Muse ’02 and Kristi Kallam, was nothing short of spectacular!”
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