In Your Neighborhood

Nourishment for the soul

In a pandemic, when grandkids connect with grandparents

Photo by Toby Simon

Ray practicing Taekwondo on Zoom as part of her Kindergarten classes.

Photo by Toby Simon

Ray began her Kindergarten classes on Zoom at her grandparents' home.

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By Toby Simon
Posted 10/26/20
A grandparent finds a new “career” direction with the practice of remote Kindergarten classes over Zoom, helping to nourish the soul.
How has the need to improvise within our educational system improved the often rote delivery of information in the classroom? Are there new traditions of learning that can be established and built into future curriculum, after the pandemic? What are the benefits of including grandparents as an important participant in the education of grandkids?
How do kids learn best? What are the best metrics of education? In my pursuit of a career as a writer, I often had to depend on working as a cook in a restaurant. How did I learn to cook? In large part, it was the art of necessity, when the returns from my freelance writing career were not enough to sustain me.
I worked as a cook in restaurants in Seattle, Washington, D.C., Northampton, and Greenfield, a fallback survival skill.
But, if I am honest, much of my fascination with cooking came from being an observer as a child, watching my mother cook, and taking note of her frequent improvisations that left the cookbook instructions behind.
When my son was younger, he, too, was observant, particularly whenever I was preparing meals for guests on the grill. Now, he was become quite the cooking aficionado in his own right. On a recent visit, I gifted him all my cookbooks – the autographed copy of the Horn of the Moon cookbook from author Ginny Callan, a Mexican cookbook by Diana Kennedy, the Kwanzaa cookbook that had the best recipe for jerk chicken [or for vegetables].
The knowledge we pass onto our children and grandchildren is not just about rote learning in a classroom. It is about providing the space for observation, learning, sharing, tasting, and improvisation around all the daily tasks of life. Those often are the most important, lasting lessons – not what your SAT scores were.

WELLFLEET, Mass. – As Joe Biden looked out at an audience of senior citizens and asked earnestly: “How many of you haven’t been able to hug your grandchildren for the past 8 months?” I was reminded once again of our good fortune. This has not been our experience with four of our six grandkids.

The majority of my friends have been deprived of visits with their grandkids since families are so spread out these days. Yes, everyone has upped their Zoom and FaceTime skills with their grands, and most have created ways to stay in touch remotely on a daily basis. But my friends are also really, really sad to not be able to see their grandkids in person.

Nothing does more for replenishing the soul than our grandchildren. They nourish us and we crave it. They love our visits and when they’re over, we start planning the next one.

A quick Google search on the topic mainly addresses how grandparents can stay connected with their grandkids during COVID. I didn’t see much on becoming a Kindergarten teaching assistant for remote learning.

A new career twist
Our granddaughter Ray’s first two weeks of remote Kindergarten at her New York City public school took place at our home in Wellfleet. As has been the case since the pandemic began, Peter and I have been available to take on some of the childcare responsibilities for two of our three kids’ families while their parents work. With school starting, Peter and I were busy:  he played with our 2-year-old granddaughter Shirley, while I attended remote Kindergarten with Ray.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but I do not know how families are managing to do what’s required during this pandemic without help. I know there are many families where this is impossible and the consequences will not be insignificant. It’s overwhelming and hard and frustrating and challenging.

Those parents lucky enough to still have jobs need to work plus pay attention to their young ones’ educational, emotional and social growth and development. With a toddler under foot or a baby in arms or another school-age kid, it’s even more daunting. When families can rely on grandparents or other family members driving distance away, this can be a remedy.

Zoom, zoom, zoom
My expectations for remote Kindergarten weren’t much. How can any teacher manage a bunch of squirmy five-year-olds in a Zoom classroom? What would the day look like? Would kids just sit in front of a computer for four hours each day? What techniques could be used to engage little ones?

There has been lots of negative reactions aired so far about remote learning: it requires much adult attention; kids claim it’s boring; and parents are frustrated with how the teaching is going – and parents worry whether their kids are falling behind both emotionally and educationally.

Adding to the disparities in educational opportunities in our country, families with means are able to hire teachers or tutors or college students to work daily with small pods of kids while other kids are left alone to learn remotely, often with minimal involvement from adults.

But here’s what’s been quite OK about our granddaughter’s experience so far with remote Kindergarten. The school has encouraged parents or other adults to allow the kids to work independently and, from what I observed, they are. Five weeks in, Ray is still enthusiastic.

To mute or un-mute, that is the question
By day two of school, every kid in the class knew how to mute and un-mute themselves. [Yes, this is a rather sad notion.] Before the first week was over, each 5-year-old could log on to the computer independently, find the class schedule and get in to the Zoom meeting, tapping all the right prompts, a feat many in my generation still can’t do.

There are many appropriate breaks during the day that allow for small group work with the teachers as well as independent work in the home. Some of this work can be done without the help of an adult; others require some supervision. The school day ends earlier than in-school classes. On a regular basis, the teacher asks all the kids to un-mute themselves and say in unison “I am smart! I am strong! I am unique!”

There are Zoom small meetings within the larger ones so that the kids can talk and ask each other questions, talk about their art projects, their weekend plans, their emotions and their favorite toys. There’s a star of the day where a new kid is introduced to the class. Ray’s teachers have figured out how to foster interaction among her classmates.

And, her favorite part of each day is a Taekwondo lesson taught by teacher Oli. In addition to the moves she’s learning, Oli includes a daily discussion on the philosophy of this martial art and why its “pillars” are important.

Remote Kindergarten is far from ideal. Kids need to be playing with other kids; they crave the daily interactions with their peers and the need to feel part of a school community. For a New York City denizen, Ray had the daily park experience where she played for hours with kids she didn’t know but wanted to play and interact. She laments about not playing with friends and talks constantly about her plans “when the virus is over.”

A fly on the wall
Being a fly on the wall for two weeks of remote Kindergarten gave me a glimpse into the Herculean task these teachers have and how much planning and work has gone in to the process thus far. It’s impressive. It’s also allowed me to observe the rich diversity of Ray’s class and what each little one brings to school each day. It’s also provided some good laughs.

At one of the class meetings, Oli asked the kids to tell them about a project they’re working on. Ray raised her hand, waited to be called on, un-muted herself, and held up a postcard. She explained she had put the stamps and mailing labels on the cards.

Oli looked carefully at the card and said: “Oh, are those cards to remind people to vote?”

To which Ray replied “Yes, but not for Donald Trump, of course.”

Toby Simon is a frequent contributor to ConvergenceRI.

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