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A Fourth Grade Teacher, Finding Joy

Kat Prevo is in her second year of teaching fourth grade at Our Lady Queen of Angels in East Harlem, and when you ask her what she likes about teaching, her face lights up. “Every day is a new challenge—a new ladder to climb. I like the unknown in each day of teaching; I like thinking on my feet—and I like the process of watching the kids grow, in all ways.”

It is perhaps not surprising that someone who so openly embraces the unknown has found plenty of ways to continue enjoying the work in this year of unusual challenges. She even sees the upside of being a relative novice as a teacher in such circumstances. “Nothing can prepare you to be a teacher,” she reflects, “and nothing can prepare you to teach in 2020. I’m glad to be a newer teacher, because I am just starting to build my tool box, so this sudden adaptation has helped me do that.”

The third week of the Advent season asks us to focus on joy—to rejoice already, even though Christmas hasn’t happened yet. This week, Kat shared with us a reflection on where her joy is coming from, even when what we are all waiting for—a return to “normal” school life—is still a long way off. And her insights shed light on what drives promising teachers, regardless of the circumstances. 

Looking back to September, all of this school year was such an unknown. I had six students in person, and 18 learning remotely, and I was focused on keeping all of them at the same pace. My in-person learners would grasp concepts so quickly that we were all a little surprised. The remote kids needed longer, just simply because there was a larger group. So one of the first discoveries I enjoyed this year was how much trust I can place in the kids, because the in-person students have been extremely understanding; they do their independent work truly independently while I am assisting ones at home.

Kat and a student, pre-pandemic.

So it was a new learning environment for in-person kids as well as remote students. In fact, it was challenging socially for the kids to have such a small group. We all grow together over a school year, and that growth felt different this year being such a small group.

After the first quarter, more students came back in person, which was great, particularly for a couple of kids who were really shy. Remote learning works great some, but for other kids, it can be a challenge to work on a computer throughout the duration of a school day. In a regular in-person day, there are so many conversations that can lead to that kind of sharing, so I noticed immediately that those personalities who were originally shy behind the screen began to shine in person.

This made me reflect on what I can do in the online setting not just to teach them, but to build the online community more, to build a sense of who we are. We had done some “get to know me,” activities, but I started to do a lot more to highlight students’ interests, and I saw that it helped some of the online kids reach out about more than just school. There’s a lot I have learned about how I can teach so that they know they are loved and important, and the effort of building our online community has really brought me joy.

The first week in December, when the school went all-remote as a precaution due to two unrelated COVID cases, it was so impressive to see that the kids who were once shy online kept being outspoken when we went back to it. So for them, it was a good transition—the time in person, even just a few weeks, meant that I got to know them better, they trust me more, and they can make the most of remote learning.

Teaching the Middle Ages just calls for a crown.

There are so many ways we can connect and enjoy each other. A parent suggested we have discussion questions, so the students can engage with each other on Google Classroom more, and we’re enjoying those. One of them this week was, “If you could get a Christmas present for every child in the world, what would you get, and why?” I had also given students a way to generate their elf names, and they are now entering my zooms with those Elf Generated Names (example: Cuddly Twinkletoes Tia). They are also just greeting each other the way they would in the morning at school—really checking on each other—and even though it blows up my email inbox, I love it.

With remote learning, it seems like there are so many limitations, and there are—but there are also so many resources and opportunities for making it the best it can be. And that’s my other goal currently.

So many of the tools I’m finding help students to be meaningfully engaged. For example, I use Kahoot a lot to do a timed game/quiz for the do-now review, instead of just posting something on Google Classroom. The kids are always asking, can we do Kahoot? When are we going to do Kahoot?

Right now, as we finish up our unit on Islamic Empire, students are writing their own historical fiction. If they were all in school, they would design book covers that we would put up on a bulletin board, and we would trade stories so students could read some of their classmates’. They have worked so hard—outlining, doing a rough draft and a final draft, two weeks of work; I wanted to motivate them to finish and make it entertaining for them to read each other’s stories. So I designed a cover for each story in Canva, and then I put all the stories in Students are really proud of having their stories published this way.

I’m focusing a lot on holding myself and the students accountable around feedback. I can post anything in the world a kid needs, but if they don’t click the link, I won’t know until I ask a follow-up; there’s not as much accountability I can access as quickly with remote learning. So I’m determined to have follow-up about everything I post. If I have a read aloud on with a stop and jot included in the video, I better go back and reference that later in my live lesson. If I put a stop and jot on the board in person, they all do it; if I put it on a screen, who knows until I check?

Mostly, though, they are treating this like they would at their desks. They message me with questions just like they would raise their hands. Learning has to involve that support, that scaffolding—same as if I was in a building with them. They know I am at the computer from 8 to 4 and I have the app on my phone, and I am fine that they are reaching out, even on the weekends.

What I notice more than anything this year is that kids still have a love for learning, regardless of where they are. I can see that they do; if I put in the effort just like I would for prepping in person, that joy and that love of learning comes through.

Clearly, Kat’s thinking about this fall term reflects what Principal Liz Nuzzolese notes: “Kat has been thriving with new remote techniques and innovation while simultaneously adding her magic touch and amplifying a radiant joy for learning.” We love that her joy comes from the work itself—from figuring out what will help her students connect to the material and to each other—and our joy comes from watching her do it.