Kevin G. Gallagher has been teaching kindergarten for 35 years. Over those years, he’s taught more than 1,000 kindergartners — that’s the size of a small town.
His physical classroom is at Bryant Elementary School in Seattle’s Ravenna neighborhood, and since March, he’s been broadcasting mini lessons on YouTube, as written about recently in the Seattle Times. He’s put together hundreds of short videos in which he reads stories, talks to kids about taking charge of themselves and has honest conversations with parents. (Find a playlist of highlights here and here. He also has a website.)
Last spring, every teacher, every parent, every kid was operating in survival mode. We asked Mr. Gallagher, who receives rave reviews from alumni and their families for his teaching in person and online, how he’s approaching this upcoming school year, and what families should do to prep for distance learning.
In your 40-plus years of teaching, is this the craziest start of the school year?
I would say there have been lots of moments over the years that have been nutty. But they’ve been moments. This one takes the cake – or takes the mask.
What do students need to know coming into this school year?
Screen practice is important. Do they know how to use a keyboard? Have they swiped? Do they know the icons of the microphone and video? Scrolling and the back button and the erase button? I’ll be ready to teach that, but any skills that kids can come in with will be really critical. The quicker the kids can manage this, the quicker Mom and Dad can get out of the room and take care of life.
I’m asking about screen stamina, screen duration. How long can your kid sit comfortably? Fifteen to 20 minutes a day, if we’re able to, for kindergarten feels right and reasonable. (But not in a row. Five- to seven-minute videos.) Other grade levels will have increasing amounts.
What do you want from parents?
Number one, I want to hear from families.
This year, I’m adding a question: “What’s the experience been like overall?” Are they working from home? How have kids responded to their reduction to the outside world?
What about illness? And death? It was at arm’s distance for a lot of us, until it wasn’t. Have families suddenly been quarantined for 14 days? So that we as teachers can understand and turn on the empathy jets for families that have experienced loss.
Especially at the younger grade levels, a lot of the student management is going to fall to the parents.
The reason schools were successful was because we had the students with us for six months. We knew them. They knew us. They knew school. We’re in a different framework for the fall.
The relationship with the teacher is paramount. In the classroom, we definitely see who is looking out the window and who is looking at a friend. We will realistically only be at 70% understanding who their child is. We need to hear from parents, lots of communication that tells us kids are bored with this lesson or my kid couldn’t get enough of that one.
Be ready to be super-flexible with each teacher, each grade level, each district. It’s never going to be perfect for any of us.
In-person, hybrid, remote … plans for opening the school year have been all over the place. How have you been dealing with the uncertainty?
Back in May, there was a full-page graphic in the New York Times that said, “No One Knows What’s Going to Happen.” I ripped that out and I keep that behind me in all the Zoom presentations. Mother Nature is wreaking havoc. It’s how we’re responding that is making the difference. The best we can do is be ready to pivot, flip over backwards.
Let’s talk about what happened back in March.
School closed so rapidly. We had an hour-and-a-half notice. It was 11:30 when we got an announcement: “Check your email.”
Within a day of closure, I felt the absence from my side. What we needed to do is see each other. I thought, “I’ll make a video and I’ll put it on YouTube.” (I’d never done so before). I had one video on Monday that just let them know I was here and I was going to figure out how to do this. Within a week, I had 12 to 17 videos.
Within three or four days, a mom contacted me. It was all she needed for her child who was wound up: “Oh, there’s Mr. Gallagher.” And literally all the angst went away.
That was the turning point.
Your parents just went from your mom and dad, to your mom and dad and your teacher and someone’s employee. These people are scrambling at home and suddenly you’re teaching and your boss is sending you emails. I figured the best I could offer was to provide as much as possible to your 6-year-old. The kids need to have some sense of familiarity and safety and routine.
You’re working on adding coronavirus to your kindergarten curriculum.
It feels important to me that kids have factual knowledge about world experience.
The reason we are not at school is because of coronavirus. Understand the whys, and share with teachers what their personal family experience has been.
What’s your plan for this school year?
Just put our armor on and head into battle. With no swords, just laptops.