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​Michelle Carvajal '18 in her dual language classroom in Pawtucket's Nathaniel Greene Elementary before the pandemic forced a transition to online learning

On March 23, after a week of preparing, planning and adapting, RIC alumna Michelle Carvajal ’18 started online classes with her third graders. She’s a dual language Spanish teacher at Nathaniel Greene Elementary School in Pawtucket, who is currently pursuing a double MA in TESOL (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages) and Bilingual Education at URI, 

“This has been a learning experience for many teachers, including myself,” she says. 

Her class uses a 50/50 model, splitting students’ time equally between Spanish and English. Carvajal’s students had already been assigned Chromebooks for use inside the classroom before the pandemic and were familiar with how to log into Google Classroom to access content like files, quizzes and videos. 
 
“Doing this throughout the year prepared students to be able to access the assignments I was posting daily,” she explains.

After the lockdown started, a survey was distributed for the families to see how many students needed technological support. The school and the district were able to provide the materials families needed, like Chromebooks and hotspots, for home use during remote learning. 

Carvajal believes this remote teaching/learning process allowed students flexibility they needed to complete assignments, increasing their response rate in a way that wouldn’t normally happen in the classroom. Out of a combined 38 students in both her dual language classrooms, 32 logged in daily to complete their assignments. 

“Many students were able to take distance learning and own it with no difficulty, making excellent use of the websites and resources they were provided through the lessons,” she says. “It was very beneficial to have a full day for students to view my lessons, read through the assignments and complete them at their own pace, rather than feeling that pressure to complete everything in the allotted time that they get in a classroom.”

Throughout Google classroom, Carvajal was able to share resources such as “IXL Spanish”, a platform designed to learn and improve grammar, spelling, pronunciation and conversational skills in Spanish. She also used websites like RAZKids to assign Spanish-language books, so students could continue building their reading comprehension.

“When I was live with students I made sure to do online learning activities through Kahoot!, a game-based platform where students can play and learn while earning points to be in the top three,” she says. “We would also watch educational videos on YouTube about topics that were chosen by vote, and later have follow-up discussions.”

Virtual learning with Michelle Carvajal '18Carvajal recalls that the first few weeks of remote teaching were chaotic, with many difficult challenges and extra work. “With the pandemic, we became available for parents at all times. We were messaging from 7 a.m. up to midnight on some days, since many parents worked at different hours,” she recalls. “It was very overwhelming and several teachers, including myself, were working ten-plus hour days, trying to make sure our students had access to all the resources they needed.”

Fortunately, time and practice make perfect. By the second month of distance learning, students were more independent with their log-in times and work, and teachers were working at a more regular pace.  

Carvajal believes it is important for students in dual language programs to be in the classroom where teachers can provide support in the new language and address misunderstandings as they arise, but she also worries about the safety of students, their families, her colleagues’ and herself. “I believe that it is important for all measures to be taken into consideration, but I fear for my colleagues who may have compromised immune systems, for my students who may be exposed through contact with other adults and children, and for the families that may be exposed, which could increase COVID-19 cases,” she says. Pawtucket has been among the Rhode Island cities and towns with the highest rates of infection.

She is also apprehensive about the constant sanitizing needed daily, in order to make the classroom as safe as possible. “Thinking about the chemicals and the time spent on sanitizing, I ask myself, how will this impact their learning?” She adds, “We are already limited with time throughout the school day to cover all the necessary topics and standards. Can you imagine the distractions this will create?”

As the new school year begins, Pawtucket has decided to continue distance teaching/learning for most students from mid-September through December, a decision that might change based on COVID-19 results. Only pre-K, kindergarten and special needs students will be taking in-person classes; the rest will learn remotely.

Despite the unpredictability surrounding the new school year, Carvajal believes that her and her colleagues still have an opportunity to make a difference in their students’ lives. “We are teaching them how to persevere in the midst of uncertainty,” she says. “If you are available to meet with them, if only for a brief period of time daily or a few times a week, it will provide the reinforcement they need to become independent learners and know that they are learning despite what is happening in the world around them.”

She concludes with a suggestion for parents: “Go on walks as a family, play a game or two, sing, dance, tell jokes, paint and tell stories. It will help you focus on something other than the current conditions we are all living in and will increase the memorable, yet positive experiences your child will reflect on later in his or her life.”