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As Kansas City, Kansas, Students Come Back To Classrooms, It Feels Like The First Day For This Teacher

Walton Fellow Maria Martinez has decorated her virtual workspace at her home in Lawrence with the trappings of a real classroom.
Carlos Moreno/KCUR 89.3
Walton Fellow Maria Martinez has decorated her virtual workspace at her home in Lawrence with the trappings of a real classroom.

Maria Martinez, a student teacher at Mark Twain Elementary, wonders what it’ll be like to teach her kindergarten class in person for the first time all year. Here’s how she prepared for them.

With support from the Walton Family Foundation, KCUR has asked student teachers in the Kansas City area to write about their experiences learning how to teach during a pandemic. We'll be running their stories as a series of teacher diaries in the coming weeks.

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The past few weeks have felt almost like those leading up to the first day of school. As students are welcomed back to the classroom, we are following all social distancing rules and mask regulations. We’ll have students seated in “cohorts” so they have the opportunity to experience working with their peers without mingling with other groups. Though students will be seated behind clear dividers, they’ll finally be able to see their classmates, talk and make friends.

Setting up my classroom made it feel so real. This is happening. The students are really coming back. It’s been a year since students were sent home for spring break and didn't come back. The classroom was still packed up in boxes, and the last couple of weeks have been setting up the desk configuration and the classroom library. My lead teacher and I have also been stocking cabinets with supplies, creating colorful bulletin boards and making the classroom a place students can enjoy.

A bulletin board Maria Martinez designed to welcome her kindergarteners to Mark Twain Elementary in Kansas City, Kansas.
Maria I. Martinez/KCUR 89.3
A bulletin board Maria Martinez designed to welcome her kindergarteners to Mark Twain Elementary in Kansas City, Kansas.

I am excited to be able to see students, step aside and help a student who needs one-on-one attention, do hands-on activities that are not possible over Zoom and build student-teacher relationships that are harder to accomplish online.

Social-Emotional Learning, or SEL, is something we can never get enough of in kindergarten. This first week will be learning how to be in the classroom. Students will be learning how to walk down the hallway as a class, rules for the classroom and how to raise their hands. They’ll have to wear their masks and practice social distancing. The whole class will be learning how to be back in a classroom.

Students will be sitting in desks and chairs throughout the day with breaks in between, but this is still very different from sitting in their living room on the couch, laying on the floor with a pillow or favorite stuffed toy animal, with all the distractions like pets, electronics, cartoons, etc. Now they will be in a classroom where the environment is conducive to learning. The students will not be able to share manipulatives, toys or books like they normally would.

Each student has their own station of materials at their desk just for them. Though many students will be wearing masks for the first time all day, I've noticed already that students participating in connectivity hubs (stations set up at the school for students who need help accessing their online classes) are very good about keeping their masks on correctly and not becoming distracted with them too much.

The noise level and behavior management is handled differently virtually versus in person, though the expectations are the same. I can stand next to a student’s workspace and use non-verbal communication like proximity or eye contact for behavior management, but on Zoom you can't do that. This is something I find to be easier with classroom management in person and a learning experience for my students.

Though there are many upsides to coming back to school, there are still some aspects of in-person learning in the current environment that will be different from “business as usual.” Students will not be participating in small groups in the same manner as pre-pandemic. Small groups and “cooperative learning structures” are beneficial for students to have more of a voice in the classroom but will not be conducted the same way as they might violate social distancing rules. There are some like “Think-Pair-Sharing,” where students are answering a prompt by deliberating with a partner, which can be easily adapted to the new environment. Others like “Four Corners,” where students practice voicing their opinions on a topic by physically moving to places in the classroom, may not be conducive to staying six feet apart.

The struggle with Zoom is how much “teacher talk” is heard in each lesson. Now that we are in the classroom, we can hear the student voice and they can become that much more involved in their learning.

Though there are many unknowns and questions that I haven’t even thought of yet, I am excited to see the kindergarteners in class during this fourth quarter of the school year, essentially gaining that piece of teaching experience that many student teachers are missing this year: the classroom.

Maria Martinez is a senior at Emporia State University in Kansas. She is currently a student teacher in a kindergarten classroom in the Kansas City, Kansas, Public Schools. She is one of two Walton education fellows sharing her experiences in the classroom this semester.
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