If 2020 taught us anything about the world of education, it is that adapting to new situations is essential now more than ever. The beginning of the 2020-21 school year found Dalian American International School’s teachers and students preparing for the possibility of going back to distance learning, even as they enjoyed the return to in-person learning that had come with the new year. The digital tools were introduced, taught, and practiced as a part of the day-to-day learning, hoping all the while that they would not become the sole source of student-teacher connection.
So, when the news came during Winter Break that learning in 2021 would begin from a distance, hearts sank and tears were shed, but there was some small solace in knowing that the technology would not be unfamiliar to the teachers and students who would be required to interact through it. The news also re-invigorated the discussion of how to keep younger students focused and learning through a wide variety of activities and physical engagement, beyond what could be achieved strictly online. From this discussion came the idea of student toolkits, a weekly-refreshed bag of physical supplements to the online learning students were already doing from home.
Through the enthusiastic collaboration of the whole Elementary faculty and staff, what had started as a cute personal touch for Pre-K and Kindergarten quickly became the weekly norm all the way through Grade 5. The all-in attitude of home-room teachers, specialists and EAL teachers meant that the toolkits began to include everything from modeling clay and musical instruments to science experiment materials and workbooks to support student practice and allow multiple options for student access to learning. The toolkit also provided an opportunity to supply students with basic school materials that they might not have access to at home during distance learning. The librarian taught multiple lessons on using the Destiny Quest online catalog system, so students can now request library books to be included in their toolkit bag, adding true student choice back into the reading materials made available.
And while these uses were already worth the effort, teachers also quickly realized they could leverage these toolkits as more than supplements and began to start each week with an overview of the new toolkit’s materials and how they would be utilized throughout the week’s learning. In this way, they ensure that nothing in the kit is simply busy work, included just for the sake of keeping students occupied. Instead, they can focus the student’s understanding of concepts through carefully chosen physical materials. Teachers also found that many students who did want more to do at times loved the inclusion of a menu of activities to enhance what had been taught. These optional activities ensure that students looking for enrichment are practicing the most relevant skills, but on their own schedule and according to their interests. Finally, included in the toolkits is a menu of “Take Care of YOU” activities to remind students that it is important to take breaks and get away from the screen and the sometimes-overwhelming act of learning online. The focus on Social Emotional Learning has been especially important in preventing this second round of online distance learning from disheartening the youngest and most vulnerable DAIS students.
While the benefits have been obvious and immediate, getting these toolkits to students is a labor-intensive process. Once teachers have determined which materials and supplies will be essential for the coming week, their Teaching Assistants collect and organize them and prepare the toolkit bags for pick-up. By Friday morning, all toolkits are ready to go and library books have been added. Between 8:45am and 4:30pm, parents drive through the school’s drop-off loop to collect their child’s new toolkit, while returning the previous week’s library books. For those few families unable to utilize the drive-thru pickup, alternate times or methods are arranged, including courier delivery when necessary. In this way, no student misses the opportunity and value provided by physically connecting to their learning, even at a distance.
After immediate positive feedback from parents, students, and teachers and seeing just how impactful the personal touch can be, the DAIS Elementary administration team has started weekly “teacher toolkits” with a little treat and a funny or inspiring quote or picture. Whether it is for students or teachers, these toolkits remind us all that, even at a distance, we are still in this together and Together is Better.
By Angela Beach,
Elementary Assistant Principal
Dalian American International School