Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ February 2021

The Good, the Bad, and the Just Plain Ridiculous

Adventures in Teaching Second Grade on Zoom

By Robin Loube

Rachel Pino has taught second grade at Forest Knolls Elementary School in our neighborhood for 11 years.  However, since the shutdown of in-person learning in March due to the COVID 19 pandemic, she has taught her FKES students in their homes and daycares on the Zoom remote platform from her own home in Burtonsville.  She describes serious challenges, an unexpected benefit, and some downright silly realities of trying to teach 14 seven-year-olds through a technological platform.  This interview was edited slightly for length and clarity.

What does your day look like generally?
So I get up at seven a.m. and start working almost right away.  The school day technically begins at 9, but I open up my meeting at 8:45 to give them an optional extra 15 minutes to enjoy each other and me, to build relationships and have fun.  We start at 9 o’clock with a class meeting which lasts about 15 minutes.  Then we have language arts until 11:30.  So it’s a very long block — two and a half hours.  And the County requires us to use two new rigorous curricula this year.  It’s pretty fast-paced.

We have time built in for “screen-free breaks.”  So I’ll put a 15-minute timer on the screen, and I encourage them to get away from their computer, go get a snack, go to the bathroom, play with their toys, play with their pets.  We have two screen-free breaks in the morning and one or two in the afternoon.

At 11:30, they have an hour and a half lunch and wellness break, so they should have time to play during that break period.

The ‘wellness break’ — that would have been recess?

Are lunches provided by the school now?
At certain designated meal sites, not at our school, you can go pick up a meal.  That’s another reason why the lunch break is so long, so people have time to travel to the meal site to get food.

And then?
After the lunch break, on some days they have specials, so they might have art, music, or P.E.  If they don’t have a special, then we would be doing science or social studies together.  Our math block is from 1:40 to 3:15.  School officially ends then, but I offer them a little extra time at the end of the day, totally optional, if they want it, if they need it.

Then I typically work two more hours grading, creating resources, and preparing the next day’s lessons.  It sometimes feels like my work begins then.

So what is it like to prepare lessons in this way on Zoom?
I would say the prep work is more, because you’re preparing everything in a Google slide show.  You have to have everything ready to go.  I teach with two computers, a document camera, and my phone every day.  A lot of technology.

We have to record all our lessons so, if students are absent, they can go online and watch the recording of the lesson and still be considered present.  I record all my lessons live during the class.

Something I have not experienced, but I know my colleagues have, is some parents have requested that their child not be recorded, so then the teacher can’t record the lesson live, and they have to spend time before or after the school day recording the lesson with no children present, just in case people need it.

And how do you monitor whether or not a child has watched the recording, so they are considered present for the purposes of accountability?
There’s a Google form that the family is supposed to fill out that attests that their child watched the recording.  And that form gets sent to the office so then the secretary can reconcile the attendance record.

What else can you tell me about monitoring students’ presence in your class?
So the way the County considers “present” is if the student has logged on for any length of time at all.  If they log on for one minute [laughs], they are considered present for that class period, morning or afternoon.  We take attendance twice a day.

In terms of your teaching, what percentage of your kids do you feel like are actually on there and engaged the full day?
Oh, the full day?  Zero percent!

There’s no way you can be engaged the full day.

Even with the breaks?
Uh huh.

When you say zero percent for the full day, what kinds of things are happening?
I see a lot of family members in the background.  I hear a lot of family members.  I hear a lot of TVs.  Sometimes children will be eating in the middle of a lesson, which makes it hard for them to follow along if they are supposed to be using a white board and marker.

Some of the kids at home have other siblings doing their schooling there as well.  I can hear teachers in the background, because they’re talking to kids in the other class.

And some of my kids go to daycare, so there’s kids all around them.  Which is an added challenge cause they have to wear masks, so it’s harder for me to hear them.

I feel that I can’t do my job adequately when there are so many distractions.  It’s hard to teach when there’s screaming in the background; when kids are wrestling in the background, it’s very hard to teach.

FKES second-grade teacher Rachel Pino works from home.
I also have a lot of children telling me they don’t have the school supplies, like they can’t find a pencil, when we, the second grade teachers, made school kits for every single child, with everything they needed like pencil, eraser, expo marker, notebook, and we had a distribution day, so families were invited to come to the school and pick it up.  My families that didn’t come, I drove to each of their houses and dropped off the supplies.  So I know they have the supplies, but they tell me, “Oh I can’t find it, it’s lost in my house somewhere.”

But they’re seven years old.  So.  And I can’t help them, because I can’t reach through the screen and say like, “Why don’t you look over here?”  I just have to say, “Can you please ask an adult to help you find a pencil?”

How do you monitor their understanding when you’re just seeing these little faces on Zoom?
One positive aspect of Zoom is the chat feature.  So I set my chat feature so they can only chat to me and they can’t see each other’s.  I allow them to write whatever they need to write to me, so if they want to answer the question that I’m asking, even if I don’t call on them, they can still write it to me in the chat.  That’s something you could not do in the classroom, where the one kid you call on is the kid you’re hearing from.  On Zoom, I’m listening to one child and I’m reading other children’s responses simultaneously, which is hard to do, cause it’s multitasking to the extreme.  But you are able to check in with other people and see how they’re following along.

You know, I don’t think it’s the best way, because a lot of second graders are still struggling with basic reading/writing skills, but they’ve gotten a lot better as the year has gone on.  It’s not perfect English, which is fine, cause I like to say “I’m fluent in kids’ spelling.”  [Chuckles]  I know what they’re trying to say.  It’s just more cognitively taxing for them.

I also have some children, a couple in particular, who are shy, so they don’t want to raise their hand and say it, because they could get it wrong in front of their friends, but they will write it to me in the chat.  And they will also tell me personal things about their life, like, “I’m feeling sad today,” which maybe you don’t feel comfortable saying out loud, but privately message me and I’ll be there for you to talk to you about it.

So this is a positive, maybe an unexpected one.

What about discipline?  I mean, does anybody disrupt or that kind of thing?
We try to do a lot of positive reinforcement.  So I do a student of the day, every single day.

Did you do that before Zoom?
Absolutely not.  We would do reinforcement on a weekly basis or a biweekly basis.  Now I have to do it every single day.  So whoever is selected as the student of the day, we celebrate them as a class community for whatever positive choices they made that day, like participating, completing their work, being kind to others, keeping their camera on (sometimes kids turn it off and then you don’t know if they’re there at all.  They get to select from what we call a “bravo board,” so they can choose to wear pajamas as their reward, wear a hat, or bring a fluffy friend to class, just fun things that hopefully keep them engaged.

Among all these challenges, what would you say is the hardest thing?
The hardest thing is when the technology doesn’t work.  One day in December, when we had all that crazy snow, my neighborhood lost power.  I was on Zoom with the kids, we were starting our day.  I got kicked off Zoom, all the lights went off in my house, so I’m trying frantically to get back on, but I can’t connect to WiFi, so my kids were in a zoom meeting without me.

I think there was ice in the lines or something because, when the power came back on and I signed back in to Zoom, we reflected as a class, we talked about what to do if that happened again.  We were supposed to take a test, so I started the test, and I’m required to monitor them to make sure it’s their own work.  The power went off again.  This happened repeatedly throughout the morning.  And, at that point, I had no heat in my house, so I was trying to call BG&E to figure out the situation.  I didn’t want to deplete my whole phone battery when it was my only way of getting in touch with the outside world, so to speak.  So I couldn’t get on Zoom through my phone, because my battery was not full.  So then I just had to use my personal phone to send a message to parents through an app called Class Dojo that class was cancelled for the morning.  It was incredibly frustrating.

What do you see when you test them, in terms of their achievement, compared with your classes pre-pandemic?
It’s hard to say.  They also didn’t complete first grade, because we were doing virtual learning at the end of first grade as well.  And the County changed the curricula this year, and they also changed many of the platforms we use to collect data.  So it’s apples and oranges.

What do you miss most about being in the classroom with the kids?
I really miss having a sense of classroom community where we’re all in the same room doing the same thing at the same time.  It’s not just me.  A lot of teachers are feeling overwhelmed and frustrated.

I understand you used to run a second grade tutoring program with community volunteers.  What can you tell me about that and how you’ve adapted it to today’s circumstances?

A long time ago, the school purchased a reading program to be used by volunteers, who each worked one-on-one with a child for 45 minutes, reading and writing.  Then it was announced that the school no longer had the money for that program.  It broke my heart.

So that summer, I wrote a curriculum aligned with second grade for volunteer tutors to use.  I called it Rock ’n’ Read.  That cost the school zero dollars.  But we needed lots of supplementary materials, so I arranged for the Clothing for Cash bin to be installed at the front of the school and used that money to help support the project (see box below).  I also got a grant through the Library of Congress that allowed me to pick up surplus books for the children for free.

With the shutdown of in-person learning in March, I transformed the tutoring program into Rock ’n’ Read Penpals.  This year, 11 community volunteers are paired with 21 second graders who may benefit from extra literacy practice or social interaction and who are not already receiving other supports.  I provide them with books, games, and other colorful materials to support their letter writing.  I have to buy all the books now, though, because I haven’t been able to get free books from the Library of Congress since March.

What does it cost per child for the Penpal program?
At least $100.

And what proportion of that is your own money?
Probably a lot of it.  [Laughs]

[Loube, a retired Prince George’s County ESOL and Reading Recovery teacher, has lived on Cavalier for 31 years.]   ■

How Neighbors Can Help Support Rock ’n’ Read Penpals and Other Projects at Our Local Forest Knolls Elementary School

  1. There is a white Clothing to Cash bin in front of the school, shown at right.  Everyone is invited to donate clothing, other textiles (even rags), and shoes.  All donations should be tied up in plastic bags.  The school is paid $1 per pound of materials and receives a check once a month — between $15 and $100 — based on the weight of the donations.  The donated items are sorted by the company between clothing that can be reused and that which will be recycled.  The money is used to support several projects at the school, including Rock ’n’ Read Penpals.

  2. Neighbors can also donate by writing a check to Forest Knolls Elementary School, located at 10830 Eastwood Ave., Silver Spring, MD 20901.  Write “Rock ’n’ Read Penpals” or “Needy Families Fund” on the memo line of the check.  (These are two different projects.)

  3. If community members would like to donate electronically, direct donations can be made to the Forest Knolls Parent-Teacher Association at

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