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Back-to-school scaries: transitioning to first grade in-person learning

Many kindergarteners will transition to first grade in-person learning for the first time. Find out how one first grade team helped students make the change.
Using technology for deep learning

As a new school year approaches, so does the return of the “Sunday Scaries.” This year, though, the scaries we joked about in the past will be very big and very real to some of our teachers and students. It will be difficult for those headed back to in-person learning for the first time in over a year. It will be even more challenging for kindergarteners who learned virtually and will transition to first grade in-person learning. 

My school district in Northern Virginia offered multiple ways to learn this past year, including 100 percent virtual learning and learning cohorts with A/B day students. The last nine weeks we were all brought back together for four-day in-person learning. 

Last year was also my first year as an Instructional Technology Coach. One of the best aspects of my job was helping with all the different types of learning. During our final weeks of in-person learning, Wednesdays were used as our planning and outreach days. On those days, I saw our teachers both struggle and triumph. I also worked very closely with our first grade team of both in-person and virtual teachers. 


First graders can’t just jump into in-person learning

Our team is an amazing group of teachers with over fifty years of experience between them. Their experience equals over 10,000 “normal” days in the classroom. These teachers knew the standards, knew the curriculum and had defined classroom management skills.  Many days, though, we were all still left overwhelmed. One particularly trying time was when we began to set up the students’ Chromebooks. We thought students would just jump right in and catch on, but we were very wrong. 

You see, what we didn’t take into consideration was that most of our first graders had been out of school for over five months. They had forgotten many of the small things we tend to take for granted, like how to walk in the hallway, unpack bookbags and log into their Chromebooks. More importantly, they needed support for how to learn in person and be a student. 

Merriam-Webster defines learning as “knowledge or skill acquired by instruction or study.” Students continued to receive instruction over the past year, but to what degree were they actually learning? For educators, what were you learning about yourself and your teaching or learning style? Were you the type of student you strive for your kids to be? 


A first grader’s start to in-person learning

Now imagine you are six years old. You walk into a huge school building that’s new to you. It’s the first day, so there are lots of helper teachers, but all the faces and names blur in your mind. You are totally overwhelmed. You finally make it to your classroom and are asked to sit in your seat. You are now an in-person learner, but what if you’ve never learned in a classroom before? 

All you know of school is that class is done in your pajamas at the dining room table, from your younger sister’s daycare center or a family member’s house. School and learning to you is something that has only been done from a computer. Never in a classroom with other children. 

This will be the truth for many of our kindergartners heading into first grade across our nation and our world. As teachers we are naturally ready to hit the ground running, full speed ahead. But we have to stop and think: 

  • Do they know how to learn and do they know how to be a student?
  • Do they know how to practice, hold a pencil and cut paper?
  • Do they know how to interact with their peers and teachers? 

All these things are important and things they “should” have learned in kindergarten. But last year they were in different places and situations, so keep that in mind as they transition to first grade in-person learning. I saw struggling virtual students who made gigantic leaps and bounds when returning to school— all because they finally had a safe, warm place and food in their bellies. I am writing this to say: have grace. Have grace for your students, have grace for their families and have grace for yourself. 

Could our students be “behind”? Sure, but we all know that it’s not where the student begins. It’s how far we can take them. It’s how far you can take them. Remember that every student is in a different place, on a different path. Their journey will get them exactly where they need to be. You are a small stepping stone on that path, but you have a chance to make a meaningful and lasting impact. 


Tips for heading back to the classroom with first graders

I know the transition will be trying, and some days will be very difficult. But here are ten tried-and-true tips to help. These tips are from my team’s journey back to the classroom last year. Hopefully, these tips will get you started on the right foot with your first graders. 

1. Build a community

Take your time to help learners get to know you and each other. Let learners know that it’s okay to ask for help and that your classroom community will lean on one another. 

2. Make no assumptions

Some students thrived with virtual learning, but some did not. Don’t make assumptions about their learning situation from the past year.

3. Routines and norms

Make routines and norms a priority to help transition them into first grade in-person learning. Spend a full week or more on them (trust me, we all need the reminder).

4. Get back to the basics

My school system, like many others, will be doing recovery standards for years to come. But who says you can’t take it all the way back to the beginning and ensure your first graders have a strong foundation in phonics and number sense.

5. Take it easy

The first few weeks of school everyone will need to build stamina. Try a meditation or reading block. Calm the senses and their minds! 

6. Reminders

Set reminders on your watch/phone to stay organized and to remember when to take a break! You’ll need it for first grade in-person learning this coming year.

7. Visuals

You’ll need visuals and so will your learners. Use visuals for unpacking, morning routines and anything that your students will ask you 1,000 times.

8. Practice, practice, practice

Your students will need a lot of practice as they learn how to work together and play together. 

9. Use your resources

One resource we used daily was link sharing through the Hāpara Teacher Dashboard. The kids thought it was magic and so did we! Have you ever tried to get 22 kindergarten students on the same website before? It can be a mess! Teacher Dashboard streamlined it, making it easy for teachers and little learners.

10. Go outside

Our students love learning outside, and it will give them a much needed break from sitting at their desk all day. 

Never forget that we—as teachers, parents and community members—are also still learning how to navigate through a global pandemic together. Make your class a family and teach them to lean on each other for support. When you have support you can conquer anything. 

Be honest with yourself and ask for help when you are feeling overwhelmed and stressed. Teaching is not an individual career; it is a community. Share your feelings with a teammate, a coach or in the Hāpara Community. We are all here to help each other grow and prosper. Now, let’s have an amazing year as kindergarteners transition to first grade in-person learning! 

Learn what to focus on when building a culture of digital citizenship, including conversation starters for learners and educators!

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