Kim Balek from the Freedom School in St. Louis was highlighted this summer as a teacher who exemplified BRIE teaching. Here is what Kim shared with us about how she worked to maintain the Biblical, relational, integral and experiential parts of her classroom even though she was teaching virtually.
“The easiest pillar to sustain during remote teaching was definitely the relational pillar. I met with my students every day in the morning doing our morning meeting. I wanted students to have some resemblance to what our classroom looks like so I continued as much as I could in the remote setting similarly to how I do in the classroom. I started each day as they logged into zoom with the same greetings: handshake, hug, highfive, or boogie. We just did it all across the screen. I continued differentiating reading and math instruction through small groups meeting with students over zoom 2, 3, or 4 times a week depending on their ability level with reading and math. These times that I had together with my students became a little more relational even than what they are in my classroom. I continued my use of class dojo and earning of coupons. But their choices became virtual options and were mostly all relational in nature. I had lunch with several students over zoom, dance parties with students over zoom, and others chose show and tell and spend time sharing with their classmates. Our Friday morning meetings became completely relational in nature. I spent time with kids sharing their writing from the week, and praying together.
I visited each kid in the class at their homes at least once, many of them two or three times over the course of the spring. I also extended the relational nature of how I teach to the families. I told the families that I have high expectations but also high support for students in my class and that I would be extending what I do for my students to the whole family. It was amazing to see the growth and depth that I was able to have with families over the course of the spring months. I had several families that live in my neighborhood and I would walk to their houses and spend time with the families outside. One of the families even drove over to my house at one point and called and said, "we're outside. Can you come out?"
I was also able to sustain the Biblical pillar as I spent time each day in worship with my students. And as things came up I was able to share Christ with my students and their families. One mom I had had a very difficult year with and once things went virtual, reconciliation was able to happen. There was a complete 180 degree reversal in my relationship with her.
It was a lot harder to sustain the integral pillar. Teaching first grade, I had to rely a lot on parents' ability to help work with their children. I needed to keep things as simple as possible. And that meant not having integral lessons. I used the reading curriculum and math curriculum that we have at school. I created a lot of youtube videos and posted them to my newly created youtube channel and then linked those videos to the google doc lessons for the day. It was basically a checklist of things that needed to get done each day with the expectation that parents would photograph their child's work and text the photographs to me for evidence of completion.
As for experiential ... it definitely was weak as well. It was easier to hit the experiential pillar when it came to writing. One of the writing assignments I gave to the kids for the week was to ask their parents their least favorite chore, to do that chore for their parents, and then to write about the experience.
My days during distance learning were consumed in the mornings. I got up and had a half hour of "school time" to prepare for the day. I then met with the whole class for a half hour doing our morning meeting. I had another half hour in between morning meetings and small groups to give kids down time before being back on the computer. Then I started four rotations of kids logging onto zoom for small groups. Two rotations for small groups for reading and then two rotations for small groups for math. Two or three times per week I hopped on zoom again for lunch with students and scheduled dance parties in the afternoons as well. Parents would send students' work beginning right away in the morning and all the way up until I went to bed. In order to keep track of those details I logged assignments as they came in since it was all virtual and I didn't have a stack of papers that I could just get to later. Luckily I don't have much as far as at home responsibilities. As a single woman, it was actually helpful for school to spill into the evenings because it kept me busy and connected to the families from my classroom. Once school was finished for the year, I felt less connected relationally and began to struggle more at that point than I had when I was constantly busy. During the school year normally, I do a lot of my preparation work on weekends so it was pretty natural for me to do that during the weekends during distance learning as well. Prep looked a lot differently. Instead of making copies, I was creating videos uploading them and hyperlinking them to google docs. It was about the same amount of time I took during in person learning, it just looked very different.
I would definitely say the relationship with families was an unexpected good thing that came from distance learning. The chance to have reconciliation with the one mom was something that I never dreamed possible. I never before had spent time visiting students' homes but now it feels like something I want to continue doing. I want to be able to continue having the depth of relationship with families once distance learning is not the norm. I'm not sure how that will work with families working, but it's something I want to figure out how to make work.
We will be starting this year in person. I don't have to figure out how to make distance learning more integral. But I have a feeling I will be making in person learning more integral than I have in the past as I will be spending more time outside with my students and will want to pull strands of reading, writing, and math from the experiences we are able to have outside as a class. I'm still thinking things through ... still playing with things in my mind, and I'm not completely sure what things will look like but I'm just taking one step at a time trusting the Lord to lead and to make straight this wild and crazy path.”
Thank you, Kim! Thank you for sharing how you met the challenge of virtual learning and what lessons you learned. We hope other teachers can learn from your experience as well.