Mastering the Art of Creating Joyful Learning Spaces in Virtual Kindergarten Classrooms
Tonja Armstrong-MacInnis is Linden’s Early Learning program specialist, and effective fall 2021, she will also be Associate Principal–Elementary School.
Take a peek at Tonja Armstrong-MacInnis’s Zoom classes for early learners and you will instantly realize that you are in the presence of someone who has mastered the art of engaging students in her virtual classroom. Shifting to online learning, often at a moment's notice due to government regulations, has been a challenge for all teachers, but especially for Kindergarten teachers like Tonja. "Even though they may be considered "digital natives," asking early learners to participate in Zoom lessons is making them take a huge leap in their learning journey," says Tonja.
Knowing that in-person classes provide the perfect setting for fostering student engagement and social-emotional development during play- and inquiry-based interactions with peers and teachers, how do you continue teaching towards these goals within a virtual setting? According to Tonja, the answer lies in taking full advantage of online tools to get to know one’s students even better.
Leveraging Virtual Learning in Key Ways
Tonja Armstrong-MacInnis with her students during an in-person class. At Linden, every student is celebrated for being unique. Our teachers vary their lessons to reach all types of learners.
One-on-One Meetings Facilitate Personalized Approach to Teaching
At the start of virtual learning in March 2020, it became quickly obvious to Tonja that in-person classes could not be fully replicated virtually. At Linden we know that relationships matter to girls and that every Linden student is unique. A more personalized approach was needed to help ease student transition to the new learning environment so that they would feel more comfortable and connected. “I discovered that having daily one-on-one virtual meetings with my students was key to maintaining a connection with them. This is where I could find out how they were doing, how they were feeling, and what was working for them,” explains Tonja. “After I initiated our 15-minute individual meetings, I really saw the students’ joy of learning, and they began to look forward to their ‘teacher-time with Tonja.’ I could see their personalities come through when they realized they could express what they needed through our Zoom meetings." As a result, students started being more responsive in the rest of their classes as well.
Students learn to count and express themselves using a variety of online tools.
Empowering Students to Lead the Inquiry Process Via Interactive Puzzles and Games
Once her early learners became more comfortable with their Zoom classes, it was time to get more creative. “I found that I could pull them in via interactive games where we could end up having a lot of fun,” says Tonja. This took her on a hunt for inquiry-based online puzzles and tools to engage her students while staying on track with the curriculum. Armed with suggestions from her Linden colleagues and her own research, Tonja has been using Toy Theatre which offers many math and reading games, as well as EPIC and Seesaw — tools that allow students to learn and express what they have learned, all within the online environment.
Using online tools to facilitate creative expression.
Students are always provided with choice and flexibility in their online classes, which helps them voice their opinions and preferences, an important cornerstone of Linden's girl-centred program. “What ends up happening is that I allow my students to pick what they want to work on for the day. They have many choices around reading, writing, math games, and puzzles, which also give me opportunities to work with them individually. In a surprising way these tools have become a lovely extension of our in-person classes,” says Tonja.
Tonja motivates students to learn to count using a variety of online tools.
Thanks to our resourceful teachers and online tools, Linden's early learners have continued to develop skills, such as counting, addition, subtraction, multiplication and division while enjoying themselves. The reading games Tonja has introduced in her classes have also helped expand their vocabulary and spelling capabilities. In addition, online music, art and colouring games have been a key area for inspiration and digital creativity
Tonja's students having fun with music.
Re-Establishing Social-Emotional Connections
Students happily learning and expressing their feelings in a virtual setting.
One of the biggest concerns about missing in-person kindergarten is fostering student social-emotional development in a virtual environment—a concern voiced by the Linden community at the start of distance learning.
“We still have virtual classes with all of the students in my class to make up for gaps in social connection. I design activities that tap into their curiosity and creativity and even allow them to integrate their physical environment. We talk about what’s going on outside our windows, we do journaling, and we describe our feelings,” says Tonja. "I am constantly looking up different videos to engage my students and change the pace of the day. Zoom is a great way to watch educational videos together and then discuss what we've learned,” shares Tonja. “I have also created a 'Reading Club' and have had my friends, family members, teachers, and students join our classes and read to us.”
Elementary students also enjoy a weekly Zoom Cooking Club, offered by Grade 6 teacher Savannah Barker and run by students. The club strengthens social connections across different grades, and allows leadership opportunities for students who can opt to share recipes and culinary creations.
Earlier in the year, Linden faculty also surveyed students and parents to elicit more ideas for virtual community-building activities. This led to the creation of a hugely popular “Fun Committee” that initiates challenges and games for students throughout the term.
A recent "Fun Committee" challenge featuring Tonja Armstrong-MacInnis.
Providing Structure While Changing Pace with Frequent Brain Breaks
“Most families miss having in-person connections with teachers. We would often see each other, either in the morning, or at the end of the day when they would pick up their children,” says Tonja. “This is why families have been so grateful to receive regular communication from teachers, who have not only been sharing their curriculum plans and schedules with them, but also been more flexible in meeting their children’s individual needs.” The Linden School has a parent portal that lists each teacher's schedule of classes and Zoom links for easy access. Administrative staff and teachers send frequent updates and newsletters to families.
While Linden teachers have strived to keep their virtual class schedules similar to in-person teaching schedules, they have allowed for more flexibility in varying and changing the pace of instruction. This is because diverse ways of teaching and learning keep students more engaged online. “Students need to stretch, move and talk, so we integrate class instruction with more videos, music and exercise. We incorporate a lot more moving, dancing, rhyming words, and exercises while on Zoom. We do yoga with them. One of our favourite games is 'if it rhymes, we move, or we freeze,' says Tonja. "Another family favourite is dancing to the 'Good Morning' song —where we often have families join in to move and get the day started off right — it is wonderful to witness lots of moving and grooving!" she adds.
Linden's virtual classes cover all aspects of the curriculum.
Early learners have been practising how to use online tools when sharing stories with each other during in-person and virtual classes.
Tonja preparing her teaching resources for a return to virtual learning after spring break in April 2021.
When moving classes to a virtual setting due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Linden teachers have gone beyond all expectations by stretching their creative imaginations and becoming extra-resourceful in finding ways to engage their students. Find out how your daughter can take advantage of our personalized program and learn with teachers like Tonja!
We look forward to getting to know you and your daughter.