My Journey to the Virtual World

going virtual

A question I get a lot since I began teaching with Florida Virtual School is, “How did you get into that?”  People are very intrigued by the idea of teaching virtually, especially teaching kindergarten virtually.  In fact, when I excitedly called my mom after getting the job offer from FLVS, my mom said, “KINDERGARTEN?  VIRTUALLY?  HOW are you going to do that?!”  My response:  “I don’t know, but I’m going to figure it out!”  To be honest, I had been applying for jobs with FLVS since having my daughter in 2013, so I would’ve said yes to ANYTHING they offered me.

What made me so interested in teaching virtually?  I was always fascinated by the use of technology in education.  I was actually the “technology model teacher” for my brick-and-mortar school.  This meant I had a technology cart with various gadgets and the only smart board in the school.  I got to go to different workshops on integrating technology in my classroom and I was also required to have an “open door policy” if teachers wanted to come check out how I was implementing my new learning in my lessons.  I entered education at an interesting time… I can remember when document cameras started to be divvied out and there weren’t enough for every teacher.  My first classroom had a TV in it (the kind that used to be rolled in on carts by substitute teachers to show a Bill Nye episode on VHS).  In this first classroom I also had to string extension cords carefully using command hooks and duct tape to set up my new technology.

But anyway, this idea of teaching virtually was right up my alley.

In 2013 when I first started looking into FLVS, they did not have an elementary program.  My degree is in Elementary Education, but that didn’t stop me from applying for anything and everything I thought I could possibly teach.  Drivers Ed, Parenting Skills, you name it… I applied for it.  I obviously did not get a phone call about any of those applications, but sending in my resume over and over actually worked in my favor.  When they started their elementary program, I got a phone call asking if I’d be interested in interviewing (for something I was actually certified to teach).  OF COURSE I was interested and the rest is history.

headset

I had a very smooth transition into teaching virtually.  Many teachers go straight from their brick-and-mortar classroom to their home office, but my path was a little different.  When I had my daughter, I decided to take a break from teaching and stay home with her.  To make ends meet, I tutored in the evenings when my husband would get home from work.  I mostly tutored high school students for the verbal sections of ACT and SAT.  This worked great because I got to be with my daughter during the day, but still contribute financially.  I enjoyed tutoring and this schedule, but I kept my eye on FLVS and applied for many jobs (as I said) during this time.  After 3 years of this work, I was ready for something more and the timing of the call from FLVS could not have been better.

What made my transition easier than most is I didn’t have a physical classroom to clean out (I had already done that).  I didn’t have a class to say goodbye to.  I was ALL IN for this new adventure.  As I am halfway through the 2018-2019 school year (my tenth school year as a teacher, my third as a virtual one), I have to say I have never been happier.  I have since had another child and only took 3 weeks of maternity leave when he was born!  This job has been such an amazing opportunity for me and my family and I still get to be a teacher and build relationships with awesome students and families.

flvs

(*Check out my post here if you want to read more about how this virtual kindergarten thing works*)

 

 

Class Time is the Best Time

If you’ve never been in a virtual classroom before, it may be hard to picture what it looks like.  Today I’m going to share all about Class Time!

What is “Class Time”?

Class Time is what we call our live lessons with our students.  I meet with my students twice a week in our virtual classroom for 2 hours.  We have Language Arts and Social Studies from 9:00-10:00 and Math, Science, and Technology from 10:15-11:15 (the students have a 15-minute break in between classes).  Our students log in to our classroom and can then see me, a list of friends that are in class with them, the content I’m teaching, and a chat box.  We use Blackboard Collaborate for our virtual classroom platform.  The students follow a link to get to my classroom and sign in with their name (this is how I can see who is in class with me).  See the photo below for what our classroom looks like.  (Student names have been whited out)

Class Time2

What do my lessons look like?

We make all our slides for Class Time in PowerPoint.  We combine subjects in our PowerPoint lessons; each Class Time day we have one PowerPoint for Language Arts and Social Studies and then another one for Math, Science, and Technology.  We then load the PowerPoint into Blackboard Collaborate and voila – lesson time!

Student Tools

During Class Time, the students have the opportunity to turn on their microphone and camera and share their thinking, show their work, or boast their dance moves during brain breaks.  They also have access to a tool bar (which I turn on and off as needed) and their tools consist of stamping, drawing, typing, line drawing, and movable objects on the board.  The students have access to some items all the time like the ability to vote or give me a green check/red X, smiley faces, and the ability to raise their hand, to name a few.  There is also a chat box in our virtual classroom that is open all the time.  In kindergarten, it’s mostly parents communicating for them in the chat box or asking me questions.  Sometimes one of my kinder friends will just start typing random letters and/or emojis in the chat box.  When this happens, I simply turn off their chat privileges.

Engagement

Keeping a 5-year-old engaged is a challenging task regardless of your setting.  In the virtual setting, it can be even more challenging because you can’t see them unless their camera is on.  I keep this in mind when planning lessons and try to make them as appealing as possible.  Lots of interaction with the material can really help.  The more the students are able to do (just like in a brick-and-mortar classroom), the more they will be engaged with the material.  We also always take a brain break about halfway through each class so the students have the chance to stand up, get their wiggles out, and have some fun.  And, as you may know, I love to use props.  Hats, glasses, headbands (my personal favorite), and any other prop I can incorporate can help to keep my young learners focused on me.

ME1

What do we do?

We do everything you’d see in a brick-and-mortar classroom.  We read, write, do science experiments, dance, sing, do centers… you name it.  The only difference is we are not physically together.

Management

I’m not going to lie, once you get comfortable with operating the virtual classroom, management is SO much easier than that of a physical classroom.  If a student isn’t using the tools, microphone, camera, etc. correctly, then guess what?  You just turn off the permission for that student and carry on.  This is obviously something that would be addressed in conversations with the parents, but the distraction can be immediately removed in that Class Time.  Fortunately, in kindergarten, the biggest issue I have is when a friend screams in their microphone or scribbles on the board.

Challenges

The biggest challenges in the virtual kindergarten classroom have to do with taking turns.  When we are doing a whole-group activity, every student wants to do it and they sometimes have a hard time waiting for their turn at this age.  But with practice, and activities like centers, they get better throughout the year with this.  Also, there are some limitations in Blackboard that make turn-taking a challenge.  For example, only 6 cameras can be on at one time.  So, during a brain break, only 6 kids can show off their dance moves and that’s it.  Something else that can be challenging at the kindergarten level is the students need a lot of support in operating the tools and being successful in the virtual classroom.  Most have their home educator sitting with them to assist during Class Time, but there are times when the home educator must step away.  In this event, it is hard for the student to navigate the lessons alone, especially in the beginning of the year.  Even though my students are 5 and 6, they do pick it up pretty quickly and some can participate in Class Time independently by the end of the year.

 

When I made the change from a brick-and-mortar classroom to my virtual classroom, I wasn’t really sure what this would look like.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised to find that the only big difference is the platform:  we are in a virtual room on the computer.  But the kids, the teaching, the fun – that’s all the same.

Stay tuned for highlights on my Instagram page to see Class Time in action.  Have any questions?  Drop them below!

 

Picture Books in the Virtual World

picture books

Even though I am not physically with my students, there is nothing I love more than sharing a great picture book with them.  But how do I do that?  As you may know, I see my students twice a week for our live lessons.  This is where the students come to our virtual classroom and can see me and interact with the content I’m teaching.  When teaching, I use the camera that is built into my laptop.  This way the students see me the whole time and I can easily show them things like picture books.

Here is a sample of what my students see in their video box:

ME1

I also have an external camera hooked up to my computer that I can set up to point down on anything I may want to give them a better view of (e.g., picture books, math manipulatives, science experiments…)

My favorite way to read a book to them during class is using this external camera so they can get a good look at the illustrations and it’s less awkward than trying to show them the book through my laptop camera.  I also have a gooseneck phone stand that I hang my external camera on to get a good angle.

Here is my setup for reading during Class Time:

Read aloud

 

Another way I share picture books with my kids is I record a video of myself reading to them each week.  I pick a book that fits with the theme for the week or simply a book I love and I want them to love, too.  This is another way I use my gooseneck phone stand.  I use my iPhone to take a video of the book while I read and then I upload it to YouTube.  This allows me to convert the link to a Safe YouTube link and send it to my kids easily.  Since I don’t “have” them every day, I can’t just pull them in and read to them.  This is my way of doing that and sharing books that I love with them.

Gooseneck

Reading picture books and seeing students get excited about reading is one of my favorite parts of being a teacher.  I’m happy to say I have a found a way to translate that love into my virtual teaching world.

What is your favorite picture book right now?  Let me know in the comments!

Unplugged

 

 

There’s a Headband For That!

As a virtual teacher, my students only see my head for the most part.  I’m in a little box on their computer screen (unless they drag it to make it bigger and I’m not sure how I feel about that) and I’m competing with whatever else they may have going on at home:  TVs, siblings, pets, you name it…

Also, my students are 5 and 6 years old, so capturing their attention can be a challenge.  I obviously want them to look at me and what I’m teaching, so I have enlisted the help of props to encourage them to focus on me.  Props can include things like hats, glasses, and my favorite, headbands.  I do not have the self-control to pass up a cute headband when I see it and my collection grows almost weekly.  I’ve had teachers reach out and ask where I find my headbands, so here is a list of my favorite places to look for them!

headbands

Target 

There are THREE places to check in Target for cute headbands.  The first being the Dollar Spot.  This is a great place to find the holiday and seasonal headbands.  I’m anxiously awaiting their Christmas/Winter headbands to come out!  You can also find cute headbands in the headband aisle (with the hair brushes/hair ties) and in the party section.  I have found unicorn headbands, tiaras, and a crown headband, to name a few, with the party supplies.

Dollar Tree

This is another great spot for holiday and seasonal headbands.  My favorite headband from Dollar Tree is a butterfly headband I found in the Spring when we were observing the life cycle of a butterfly.  I will definitely be checking here for some Christmas/Winter ones as well.

butterfly headband

Five Below

If you have a Five Below near you, this is a must!  They have super cute decorations for a physical classroom.  They also have fun headbands including seasonal ones.  My favorite headband I got at Five Below is my rainbow and pot o’ gold headband for St. Patrick’s Day!

rainbow headband

Amazon!

Let’s all take a moment to appreciate the variety and convenience that is Amazon.  Just this week I thought, “I need a scarecrow headband!”  I go to my Amazon app, search “scarecrow headband”, find one for $7.99, and it’ll be on my porch this afternoon.  HOW AMAZING is that?!  The sky is the limit for headband possibilities.

Oriental Trading

I needed a cute galaxy-themed headband for an upcoming vocabulary parade next week.  I couldn’t find anything on Amazon and came across the perfect headband on Oriental Trading.  I paid $8 for the headband (or so I thought) and when it arrived I found I had ordered a DOZEN galaxy headbands.  So, if you are doing a group theme or you need them for students, this is a great place to look!

galaxy headband
Headbands are a fun way to get into the theme for whatever you’re teaching or to simply be fun and make the kids want to look at you!  Either way, I love a good headband.

So what am I missing?  Are there other great places to find headbands?  I need to know!

Little Justice Leaders

I had the wonderful opportunity recently to sample a box from Little Justice Leaders.  They are an awesome company that has a box subscription service that contains resources to help children learn about social justice issues.  Subscribers get a box each month that focuses on a different social justice issue.  Every box has arts and crafts, projects, books, and other activities that are geared towards helping your child understand complicated issues.  Talking about these topics with kids can be difficult and this kit makes it easy to start the conversation.

Currently the box is made for families, but they are launching a classroom/teacher version soon.  I used this box with my daughter, who is 5, but the knowledge and picture book that are in the box are easily transferred to a classroom.  The box is made specifically for kids in grades K-4.  All of the activities are age-appropriate and FUN!

The theme this month is LGBTQ and the box has so many tools to understand and learn about this community.  Here’s what was in our box:

LJL

  • A welcome/instructions card that explains each item in the box and how to use it
  • An Understanding Terms card that provides definitions of important vocabulary related to the theme
  • A picture book – Heather Has Two Mommies by Leslea Newman
  • A History Lesson card – for this theme, the lesson is about the history of why the rainbow is associated with the LGBTQ community
  • A rainbow flag
  • Rainbow heart stickers
  • Arts & crafts project – we received a blank canvas, multicolored buttons, scrabble letters to spell the word LOVE, and a glue pen to create our own rainbow design
  • A rainbow pin
  • Picture cards of 2 important figures in this community – we received two cards that taught us about Laverne Cox and Audre Lorde
  • Books to Learn More card with book suggestions on this topic for both kids and parents
  • Tips for Parents card for raising inclusive kids
  • Action Steps card with ideas about how you can learn more and take action around this issue
  • Conversations Starter card – ideas for how to start the conversation about this topic with your child
  • A hand-lettered card with the design that says “define yourself”

I personally love all of the cards that teach you about the topic and give you ways to talk to your child about it.  I also love that they include a picture book.  Teachers and moms use picture books all the time to teach their children.  This is a great way to give your child an age-appropriate introduction to different topics.  Adding in a fun arts & crafts activity is pretty cool, too!  My daughter and I loved making the rainbow art together.

LJL3

Another great thing about this company?  For each box sold, they make a donation to a non-profit working in the area of the social justice issue that is discussed in the box.  Additionally, as often as possible the products are sourced from socially conscious, small businesses owned by women and people of color.

As a mom and a teacher, I am so excited about this company and their passion for raising loving, respectful, and tolerant humans.

Check out their website: www.littlejusticeleaders.com

Code for 25% off your first TWO boxes:  VIRTUALELEMENTARY25X2

 

 

 

Fall Snacking and Sorting

We are starting our kindergarten science unit on sorting this week.  Normally we use Chex Mix as a fun (and tasty) way to practice sorting.  Chex Mix is great for sorting by shape, size, color, and texture.  This year I want to spice it up a little bit and use a Fall-inspired recipe.  By recipe I mean my 5-year-old and I dumped in things that sounded good!  Really any snacks that you love mixed together would work.

Here’s what we used:

  • Pretzel sticks
  • Chex cereal
  • Raisins
  • Mini marshmallows
  • Candy corn
  • Mini chocolate Chips (I wanted to use the candy corn M&Ms, but Publix was out of them. If you can find those, I highly recommend them!)

fall snack mix

Now we have a delicious and easy snack that’s great for sorting.  I’m going to share my Fall “recipe” with my students on Tuesday just in case they want to make the same one and we will do our sorting activity on Thursday.  They’re invited to bring any kind of snack to class that they can sort.

(Reminder:  I have Class Time with my students on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so that is the only time I am live with them)

I’m going to challenge my students to sort their snack in a way that makes sense to them and then share how they sorted.  This mix lends itself to sorting in a variety of ways because lots of shapes, colors, textures, and sizes are present.

Have you ever made a snack mix like this?  Let me know your must-have additions in the comments!

Brain Breaks!

DarraGrowthMindsetBrain (2)

Brain breaks are a BIG part of most classrooms that you will see today.  These mental breaks help students refocus, get some wiggles out, and most importantly – have fun!  Brain breaks are important in every classroom and, especially in the virtual world where a lot of time is spent on the computer, we are always looking for ways to get our kids UP and MOVING!  We meet with our students for one-hour sessions and we always put a brain break song in the middle of that hour.  We have tried brain breaks that don’t involve a video/song, but our students seem to like the songs we play the most.

How do we do a brain break like this in a virtual classroom?  This is very simple; we share a link and the song/video plays right there on the screen for our students.  My favorite part is the students will turn their cameras on during brain breaks and show off their dance moves.  All the brain breaks we use are found on YouTube and we always make sure to convert the link to a Safe YouTube link first.  Our students have come to favor certain ones and here the ones we are LOVING right now (I have the YouTube channels linked):

Jack Hartmann

jack

Jack has a song about almost anything you are teaching in your primary classroom.  He also has songs that are just for fun.  One of his most recent songs, The Floss Dance, is a new favorite in my class.  His Letter Sound Workout is always one of my go-tos to play for my kindergarten students.  Jack is special to us because, like us, he lives in Florida and has come to visit us (virtually) twice!

 

Koo Koo Kanga Roo

koo koo kangaroo

If you’re teaching nowadays, you’re probably familiar with their song Pop See Ko.  One of my favorites in class is Get Yo Body Movin’.

 

Blazer Fresh

blazer fresh

My favorite, Banana Banana Meatball, is a great song for learning patterns!  This trio also has a lot of educational songs that would be great for mid-upper elementary.

 

Badanamu

badanamu

You’ll find lots of dance and educational songs here, but their song Ponytail is the most popular in my class!  Warning:  This song WILL get stuck in your head for days.

 

The Learning Station

learning station

This group has a lot of classic favorites like Shake Your Sillies Out and Boom Chicka Boom as well as educational songs.

 
I am always on the hunt for new, fun brain breaks!  Share your favorites in the comments.