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Virtual Learning is Actual Chaos for Early Elementary Students

By Brenna Gonderman

Autumn has arrived. The days are getting shorter and the dawn of digital learning has begun. In order to help slow the spread of COVID-19 Milwaukee schools remain closed. But most families cannot afford to put their lives on hold. Working at a local childcare and youth center I have watched virtual learning unfold and worry that we are not able to meet the most basic needs of our children at this moment. This is particularly true for those in our city who are the youngest and living below the poverty line. What I see reveals more than just a moment of failure; it is the systemic failure of an education system desperately in need of re-imagining if it hopes to stay relevant in the emerging decade.
Born a Hoosier, I originate from a state where you are not mandated to attend school until you are seven years old. In Wisconsin, the legal age to attend school is six. In recent years there has been a push for K4 and K5 programs across the country. What used to be termed ‘child care’ has come under the purview of ‘early education’. It is an area that is somewhat blurred because while younger kids still require a great deal of nurturing, an increasing number of families depend on the dual-income of two parents participating in the work force. This has created a greater need for programs that expose young children, from poor and middle-class communities to rich foundational experiences while the brain is rapidly developing.
That said, one can debate whether our current approach of putting our four, five, and six-year-olds into video conference calls for large segments of the day is truly meeting that basic need for rich foundational experience. This is my experience with digital learning working with kids from K4 to 1st grade.
It is 8 AM and students are getting ready for breakfast. More will come staggered throughout the day. We are gathered in a classroom, but it is not anyone’s real classroom. The irony is lost on no one. Schools are currently closed to avoid children being together in close proximity, yet here we stand, a group of mixed ages, school affiliations, and readiness.
All come prepared to learn… virtually. Some students attend Milwaukee Public Schools. Others attend charter or language immersion schools. Each comes with a unique schedule, a set of applications designed to deliver the best results, and of course, the ubiquitous Chrome book laptop.
It seems rather glamorous, after living in India for a few years, to look out at a group of kindergarten kids, each armed with a laptop. But this allusion quickly shattered when one of my students mistakes the keyboard for a breakfast plate at the same moment another inverts it to make a ramp for a toy race car. The computers are tossed to the ground at the prospect of playing with a nearby friend.
First attempts to login are stymied by the fact that no one knows how to get passed the first login screen, let alone how to navigate amongst Google classrooms, meeting links, and assignment submission portals.
Some of the issues from the week described can admittedly be ascribed to a steep learning curve. Nothing that a little practice and persistence can’t overcome. Not necessarily reasons to give up. I am aware that we are all learning. Students, teachers, and care providers are equally unqualified for this particular circumstance and each day brings about new challenges: a lost charger, a forgotten computer, or an unexpected firewall. These are the weeds that can be walked through. It is only when we started to develop a more constant rhythm that my deeper fears about virtual learning begin to take root.
Even on the best of days, twenty kindergarteners on a zoom call is going to lead to some major challenges, And of course, it has. Many of these challenges are comical. Like the obsession, we see on-line with kids wanting to show classmates their dog (it does happen!) Or forgetting to put on their shirt. But all meme-worthy jokes aside, the negative consequences of these challenges are significant.
Working with children this young it that there is a small window to grab the child’s attention. The basic mechanics of muting, unmuting, and tabbing between web pages is extremely difficult for a child still too young to spell their name. Inviting the class to share their own viewpoint is a painfully long process where they become unglued.
One of the particular challenges of having many children digitally learning in a childcare setting is each class has “brain breaks” at different times. When one kid is being forced to look at a screen while other children are allowed to play it becomes a major punishment to have to sit still and listen to long unintelligible intermissions of troubleshooting. Simply put, the kids don’t want to do it. It becomes a battle that has turned excited first-year students into avid school haters. This is especially painful to see for k4 students, for whom this truly is their first educational experience.
Every teacher I have seen has taken a different tack when it comes to digital learning. Milwaukee Public Schools has taken on a more uniform approach that tends to miss the mark. There is usually a fairly long period of live instruction followed by homework submissions on an application called Seesaw.
These assignments are typically worksheets for tracing numbers and letters or for practicing basic addition. The issue with all of this is that while these worksheets might have been helpful in physical form, the student is not remotely capable of navigating the platform itself or reading the instructions without an adult present. And the parents are working.
In some cases, students don’t have the necessary touch screen or enough strength in their fingers to hold down and move the touchpad. I realized this when I saw one student trying to drag the cursor across the screen with his thumb. When I asked him what he was doing he gave me a thumbs up proudly, “It’s my strongest finger!” Other students get hung up because they can’t get the letters to look good enough and languish seeking impossible perfection. Some students are racking up 50 to 60 late assignments which they see every time they log in inside a bright red bubble. I didn’t realize that four-year-olds could experience adult stress, but they, too, feel the same weight we do under the crush of seemingly impossible deadlines.
Teachers are limited by the structure of the applications they use and seem unable to meet the immediate needs of the students. This phenomenon seems to be worse for public school teachers where the applications used have been standardized. This is not meant to be a dig at public schools. It is to illustrate how an overreliance on technology and delivery systems can be blinding and severely cripple an educator’s ability to meet the needs of the present moment.
The schools that seem to be performing the best are those able to be flexible. They have cut out all non-essentials. They tend to skip the live steam, opt for a short morning meeting, and focus on a few self-directed videos and activities each day. These students spend less time on the computer and are able to apply the knowledge of the day through play. One notable teacher scraped the first week of lessons in order to schedule a 1:1 meeting with students and parents to go over the basic mechanics of operating a computer. I was saddened when I hopped on the live steam and caught that same teacher being reprimanded by a colleague for not keeping the class going despite all the disruption.
Even before the current era of virtual learning, there has been a lot of criticism about pushing rigorous academics before a child is ready. Our teaching of basic mathematics does not fully align with the fine motor skills necessary to grasp a pencil. During the first seven years of life, a child is still devoting much of their brainpower towards learning to manipulate and control the movements of the body. Why as a culture do we need to put so much pressure of having children mature early?
And this all brings me to the point that depth takes time. When I look at what is happening to children , I feel helpless. I am proud of the teachers and parent who are pouring their hearts into trying to make this work, but it seems as though they are pouring their time and energy into a bucket with no bottom. We seem to have lost the ability to take a step back and examine what is really important.
Through all the stress of this past month, there have been some glittering moments. They have happened at the peak of chaos when there was no choice but to pack the computers for the day and go out to the garden. One particular day we put on a puppet show and everyone did their best to write their name on the ticket with shaky hands.
There is fear when we compare the development of one child to that of another when knowing that each child develops in their own unique time signature. And there is fear here, too, in pushing our youngest too hard. The fear of missing out. Or falling behind. It is a fear born in the world of adults that has no place in the realm of childhood. How many of us have forgotten our own childhood? How did the morning grass look covered in dew?
One particular morning a K4 student was having an exceedingly rough time and kept repeating, “I hate school. I don’t want to go to school,” while rolling under a desk. A nearby teacher responded with exasperation, “but you are too young to hate school!” It made me pause. Four IS too young to be hating school. Somehow, someway we have lost our way when it comes to education in this country. The most natural thing to a child is curiosity. We need to fight the dynamics of fear and once again trust that things will fall in place if the flame of curiosity keeps burning. And so I would like to ask of you, my community, what foundational experiences should we truly be protecting?