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Classroom 'Circle Time' Moves Online During Coronavirus Pandemic

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Now that schools and workplaces have closed in response to coronavirus, It can seem like everyone has at least one video conference call on their calendar—even 4-year-olds. 

Some pre-K and elementary teachers have started to move circle time, a daily fixture in many early years classrooms, online. 

In class, kids might sit on a rug in front of the teacher during circle time, singing songs, having conversations, and practicing routines. Now, through the internet, their faces show up in little boxes, forming grids across screens. 

The path to remote learning remains uncertain for many teachers—but especially so for those who work with the youngest children. 

Children in pre-K or early elementary grades need help logging on to devices and figuring out directions, and they can't spend unsupervised hours working on digital assignments. They learn through hands-on exploration of their physical environment, and they need to move their bodies—activities that are hard for teachers to engage them in through a screen. 

"We're all in a huge learning curve," said Renae Lurenz-Seguin, a pre-K special needs teacher at Gulf Elementary School in Cape Coral, Fla. Amid all the upheaval that comes with school closures, checking in for circle time can give her students some sense of normalcy. 

"It's comforting to them to have some of the faces and routines that they're used to," she said.

Personal, Daily Connections

As soon as schools closed, Lurenz-Seguin knew she needed to maintain a personal, daily connection with her students. Many of them are still developing language skills, and she wanted to continue building on the progress they had made in class, she said. 

In Lurenz-Seguin's virtual circle times, she breaks the block of time into chunks. First, she and the students sing a good morning song, then they move onto the days of the week, then practicing vocabulary and having conversations. 

For teachers who want to connect with students virtually, it's best to focus on discrete activities where children can be actively engaged, said GG Weisenfeld, an assistant research professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey.

Even in physical classrooms, long periods of sitting and listening can be hard for young children, she said. But reminding students to follow routines, like taking turns talking, is harder to monitor on a screen, she said.

Giving students a task that they can do on their own and then share out can also help younger kids stay engaged in a virtual setting, said Susan Friedman, the senior director of publishing and professional learning at the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

For example, she said, teachers could ask students to find something red in their house, and then bring it back to show to the class. "The interaction is quick, it's to the point, and it's done with," Friedman said. 

This week, Lurenz-Seguin did an activity similar to the one Friedman described—all of the students hid an egg in their houses, and then told the class where they were hidden. 

The Florida teacher also uses the group setting as one avenue for students to keep receiving services from the school's speech language pathologist, who joins the calls along with other instructional staff. 

But for teachers who are mainly looking to connect with kids, there are other options besides circle time that may be easier for students and parents to manage on a regular basis, experts say. Teachers could record a video or audio message that goes out to all the students and their parents, and then ask them to record one in response, said Friedman. 

The "asynchronous" method still gives children a chance to see a teacher's face and hear her voice, without the logistical issues inherent in gathering 10-20 preschoolers or kindergartners on one video chat. "It doesn't necessarily mean that they're sitting there in the room, and waiting to go through everybody's technical issues," Friedman said.

Now that families may be using screens more often, to chat with relatives or keep children busy while parents work, teachers should also be mindful of how much screen time they're requiring of students, Weisenfeld said. 

No 'Clear Set of Guidelines'

Circle time isn't the only way Lurenz-Seguin is continuing instruction. She and other teachers at her school have also been creating activity bundles, and posting ideas for parents to do with their children on Google Classroom.

It's just not feasible for instruction to be online-only for kids this age, she said. "They're learning how to cut, learning how to glue," she said. "They're still working on sitting in a chair for three minutes."

Children in this age range need in-person adult contact to help them learn, and lots of hands-on, sensory activities, said Weisenfeld. But that takes time on the part of parents and caregivers, she said, presenting big equity issues. "That's a challenge for us all," Weisenfeld said. "How can we support parents?"  

Lurenz-Seguin is trying to figure out those challenges in real time. Not all of the students at her school have access to the internet. The district is providing Chromebooks and hotspots, but it's been a struggle to reach all parents, she said, and not everyone is set up with the technology yet. 

Even when it comes to low-tech activity packets, Lurenz-Seguin is aware that managing remote instruction for young children puts big demands on parents and other caregivers. "It's kind of an organizational piece that we don't want to overwhelm parents with," she said. 

When it comes to best practices for educating young children remotely, there isn't much that's definite yet, said Friedman. NAEYC's early learning standards don't transfer easily to a virtual setting, she said. 

"We don't have a clear set of guidelines for a time like right now," Friedman said. 

Photo courtesy of Renae Lurenz-Seguin.

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