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ASU Prep preschool teachers reach families despite closures

Boy in a hat cutting squares in a piece of paper

An ASU Prep Poly student doing a cut-out activity at home.

June 01, 2020

Teaching preschool is a full-contact sport. The hugs and sharing and messy hands are all part of a great day’s play and also support the crucial socialization as well as gross and fine motor skill-building that kids need for kindergarten and beyond.

For schools in Arizona and around the world, it’s unclear when classrooms may go back to the way they were. In the meantime, a group of educators at the two ASU Preparatory Academy preschools continued through the spring semester to reach their young pupils and their families through technology and individualized attention as well as targeted resources to prepare the next few years’ kindergarteners for what’s ahead. 

The families of about 30 preschoolers at the ASU Prep Poly Preschool and the ASU Prep Phoenix Preschool have been connecting through virtual lesson plans and video chats and apps but also through more tactile tools. ASU Prep Polytechnic Preschool teacher Maggie Pfaffenberger said that her school’s outreach has included dropoffs to people’s doors with printed lesson plans, coloring pages and also what she calls “brain works” that are unique to each child.

“Brain works are things that are challenging for them,” she said. “In class we talk about growing our brain, that growth mindset.” 

For some kids it might be playing with clay or cutting paper with scissors; for others it might be learning letter sounds or differentiating between six and nine. The activities are crucial to developing both resilience and the fine motor skills that will prepare the kids’ hands for holding a pencil. Normally brain works are self-directed activities in the classroom, but the ASU Prep Poly teachers dropped off manipulatives targeted to specific students’ skill sets in March to keep the brain work going.

Christina Carrasquilla, who is a senior lecturer at ASU’s Graphic Information Technology program, is a Poly Preschool parent who appreciated the continuity. She has two children at ASU Prep Poly, ages 5 and 10. She said home and work life are now blended but that access to the kinds of learning that her preschooler, Tommy, has at school has been essential.  

“Tommy loves to show us the brain works he completed in school, and now he is excited to show us how to complete the works; like he is the teacher and we are the students,” she said. “Having access to brain works that he would do in a typical day at school has made learning from home more normal.”

Though the educators use Razz Kids, ABCMouse, Dream Box, Class Dojo and other apps to support students’ continued instruction, educators are also emphasizing kids’ emotional well-being during this time of isolation.

Phoenix Preschool teacher Nicole Ainsa, who has been an educator for more than 10 years, hosted three regular Zoom meetings a week that included songs, lessons about shapes and numbers, writing exercises and more. It has been meaningful for kids to see each other, but it has also offered an invaluable outlet for the children to express the emotions they’re feeling and practice the meditative techniques they learned in class.

A recent chat among Ainsa’s class lasted an hour instead of 30 minutes because students were expressing their sadness and worry about the pandemic; one of the pupils’ parents had tested positive for COVID-19 that week. 

“One student said she was not doing good, that she was sad, and the look on her face showed,” Ainsa said. 

She said the kids took turns talking about their feelings and used words from a song they had watched together to help name their feelings.

“They were listening to each other, responding to one another, waiting for one to stop speaking before they shared, brainstorming, supporting each other,” she said. “This was with seven 3-to-5 year olds, and they were not all muted. I thought this was huge!”

Cynthia Henriquez is an ASU Prep Phoenix parent of kids ages 5 and 8. She said her preschooler, Penelope, has loved these video check-ins with her teachers, as well as art and reading practice.

“I’ve enjoyed being able to spend additional time with my kids, but it has been a constant struggle to keep them engaged in school work,” Henriquez said. “Both my husband and I have very demanding jobs that require lots of conference calls throughout the day. Most of the time we find ourselves having to do school work after we’ve finished our work day.”

Ainsa and Pfaffenberger emphasize that keeping preschoolers’ sense of normalcy while also keeping their skills sharp is crucial for their future schooling. According to First Things First, the academic and social benefits of quality preschool experiences carry over into adulthood, especially for children from low socioeconomic backgrounds. One study demonstrated that a good early childhood education can make a child four times more likely to graduate from college. 

ASU Preparatory Academy Head of Schools Anna Battle said that offering rigorous and community-minded education is both ASU Prep’s mission and a passion for the schools’ educators.

“ASU Prep is dedicated to preparing Arizona students for academic success and a lifetime of learning and growing,” Battle said. “We’re dedicated to continue serving our families, students and communities by meeting people where they are and ensuring that kids are ready for the next step in their progress, to kindergarten and beyond.”

Pfaffenberger said it’s vital to her as an educator to continue to connect to her students and be a resource to families.

“I think the socialization part of teaching is innate in teachers,” she said. “Not having that presence of the students is a challenge. We are continuing to be virtually present to parents and students and letting them know we are still there.”

For Ainsa, the connections are as crucial to her as they are to the students, and she doesn’t want them to feel forgotten. 

“This is not a typical environment for our youngest learners, but if this is all we can do at the moment, I don't want to let them down,” she said.

Pfaffenberger was at the ASU Poly Preschool campus in May to help clean the facilities and prepare for their return, though much is to be determined. The preschool won’t be open this summer, and the fall semester may look different. Whatever the future holds, Pfaffenberger said she’s ready to greet her students because as a 30-year teacher she loves their joy, inhibition and fire for learning.

Her emotion-filled message to this year’s students, especially her rising kindergarteners, is that she’s proud of their accomplishments but most of all for the effort they’ve put in all year long, before and after school closed.

“I’m proud of what you’ve accomplished. You can do it, even with struggles you can do it. You’re ready. I’m proud of you. I believe in you.”

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