Since the start of shelter-in-place, school teachers in Albany have noticed a troubling trend: More fourth and fifth graders are throwing tantrums, a behavior typically outgrown by the upper grades.
“This year the major theme is the isolation and the loneliness kids are feeling,” said Chloe Gross, who works with Kindergarten through fifth graders at Ocean View, Marin, and Cornell on socio-emotional education, mental health, and social skills. Gross is one of seven interns, themselves students working toward advanced degrees in psychology—and supervised by district mental health staff—who run small-group counseling sessions. The counseling intern positions are supported by SchoolCARE.
Gross says much of her role is psycho-education which revolves around giving kids the words to identify, reflect on, and regulate their feelings. She might start a gathering by showing memes of cat faces and asking, “What meme do you identify with today?” or use games such as I-Spy and Simon Says to create a space for kids to practice cooperation and empathy. Without in-person conflicts in the classroom or at recess, kids have little chance to play and clash with each other, and learn in the tumble how to disagree respectfully--and how to make up.
“Kids get upset if a game doesn’t go their way,” said Gross. “Then you see some students rise up and be supportive, opportunities they aren’t getting a lot of in Zoom school.”
Teachers who notice kids struggling online or hear from parents about outbursts at home can refer students to group counseling. Because of demand, individual counseling is at near capacity, but groups of four to five kids are opening, said Gross. Being in a group can help alleviate kids’ sense of isolation that might not otherwise happen in individual sessions.
“Parents are coming to me extremely distressed and feel their children are falling behind,” said Gross, adding that kids failing to sit still during Zoom class is developmentally normal. “In a sense, we're all behind right now. We're all doing the best we can, and I think it’s most important to focus on your child's overall emotional wellbeing.”
There’s a group of fifth-grade girls dealing with relational aggression and working on friendship skills. A group of second graders is forming around social anxiety, with some members saying they’re worried about how they’ll handle the return to in-person school.
“I tell them that they’ve been resilient this year, adjusting to Zoom class,” said Gross. “And that resilience is a skill, and they have it. It’s really empowering for them.”
For Albany youngsters, math can be as easy as jumping off a log, as Chrissie Prehn proves when she sings with her first graders.
Five little speckled frogs,
Sitting on a speckled log,
Eating the most delicious bugs. Yum, yum!
One jumped into the pool,
Where it was nice and cool,
Then there were four little speckled frogs . . .
Teachers, using assessments and in-progress grades, refer kids to Math Club, so called to suggest a social time and forestall any stigma. The focus with younger grades is on number sense and fluency, as kids work with concepts of addition and subtraction. Older kids tackle multiplication and fractions.
“Numbers are just one of the ways to represent math thinking,” said Prehn, in her fifth year in the district, first as a Kindergarten teacher and now at Cornell as a Math Intervention Specialist, a position funded by SchoolCARE.
“Students show math thinking in other ways,” said Prehn. “It could be with a simple picture in younger grades. In upper grades, it might be representing multiplication with a rectangle and arrays. Or in fifth grade, it might be showing equivalent fractions using fraction strips.”
“Even if you know the basic facts and can solve problems,” said Prehn, “sometimes it doesn’t make sense. The goal isn’t to have kids rattle off the answers, but to understand what they mean, to have confidence that it makes sense.”
Math Club is offered to first through fifth graders during dedicated intervention time via Zoom, two to three days a week. Each day, Prehn likes her students to check in on Zoom chat or via an emoji.
“Kids bring more joy if they feel safe with me and the other kids in the group. They share a range of emotions. ‘I’m feeling nervous about Math Club,’ or ‘I’m feeling excited to see the other kids,’ or ‘I’m excited we’re going to keep playing that game from last time.’ Then kids can take the risk to say they don’t know, or to try a problem they aren’t sure about.”
“I’m really hoping to break the cycle of ‘I can’t do math. It’s too hard. It’s too scary.’ I want to change the trajectory of how they relate to it.”
Winoka Turin, who teaches art for Marin and Cornell, had designed her lessons around watercolors so 500 watercolor sets were on order for Albany schools. But nothing is a given—especially during a pandemic. The order was caught up in a nationwide shortage. In response, Turin pivoted to water-soluble markers, reworked her lesson plans, and demonstrated the flexibility that she says art can teach to children.
“There’s an inborn propensity for some degree of flexibility,” said Turin. “But kids need opportunities to develop it, to get to use their brain in a different way.”
Turin has taught in the district on and off for 16 years, first as a teacher, then as a volunteer, and now in a position funded by SchoolCARE to teach art to K through 5th grade. She characterizes her projects as multimedia heavy, layering oil pastels and colored pencils and, when available, watercolors.
Teaching remotely, she misses seeing her students’ enthusiasm as they dive into the materials to make something new. But the online format has some advantages. Since her demonstrations are recorded, every child gets a close-up of the demo on their screen, and they can hit pause for the luxury of more time.
Because elementary students, already developing their critical faculties, start to take their creations—and both successes and blunders—personally, Turin talks freely about her own “Oops!” moments as she works. “They’ll hear me laugh at myself. ‘Oh, my gosh! My owl looks like a penguin.’ They can hear I’m finding humor in the problem rather than distress.”
For a cartoon lesson, she chose “aliens on the move” as the subject, because unlike a cat—always two ears, whiskers, a tail—an alien has infinite possibilities.
“With art there’s a multitude of correct answers,” said Turin. “Your correct answer may be different than mine.”
The Library Tech
Barbara Lewit, the AMS library tech, stood waiting in the library doorway on a rainy Wednesday afternoon. Behind her were tables heavy with books she’d pulled and bagged, ready for the day’s handoff. Each book had been safely quarantined for two weeks.
“Now is very different,” said Lewit, whose position is funded by SchoolCARE. In normal times Lewit would help students browse the well-stocked shelves. Now kids come to the library door—but no further.
Lewit’s assistance frees up AMS Librarian Linda Perez for other responsibilities, such as acting as curator, asking students about their interests and then offering appropriate titles. Perez also helps students pick books from new genres to expand their reading tastes, runs online clubs and designs lessons—work she couldn’t do without Lewit’s support.
While the library is operating differently, some things haven’t changed: eighth-graders still need materials for their I-Search project, the academic culmination of middle school.
Eighth-grader Nathan Joffe, whose I-Search topic is cosmology, came by for the books he reserved on black holes and nebulae.
“I don’t read a lot, but I like a good book,” says Joffe, who’s been a more regular library patron during the pandemic (to the relief of his mother, who also happens to be the Marin Elementary librarian). “I’ve definitely gotten bored. The coronavirus has made me read more.”
Sixth-grader Ernesto Kuo came by with his mother, Weiqi, who says books are better for the eyes than being on the computer all day.
“I like reading a real book, like not online,” says Ernesto, who especially enjoys Rick Riordan’s series. “It’s better because of the pictures. I just enjoy it more.”
Dance—it’s all in the timing. And yet, what a time it is: it’s 2021 and school is on screen. Homes have different internet speeds and with digital latency and lag, how can remote dancers come together?
At AHS, Kara Baker’s dancers are making it work through improvisation.
This year, dance class became film school by necessity, and her students became videographers. Instead of the big group pieces that AHS has staged in the past, they created solos and small ensemble pieces outdoors. Students researched dance films for production aspects they could borrow, such as lighting techniques, camera angles, and settings. Their aim: high production value without the fancy equipment. Then they edited the footage and sound, bringing the work of the dancers together in a coherent and entertaining winter showcase.
“How quickly they’ve adopted this new modality of performing is the silver lining to all this,” says Baker, whose position is partially funded by SchoolCARE. Baker teaches beginning, and by audition, intermediate and advanced dance. “Our department has a place for anyone. We grow students wherever they are. All grades, all ability levels. Everyone’s welcome.”
AHS dancers are now working on the Spring Dance Concert for a June 4th release.
“Dance is great for mental health, to express things you can’t articulate in words,” says Baker. “Some dancers aren’t particularly chatty. You might think they’re extroverted because they perform, but not necessarily. Instead of talking it out, they’re dancing it out.”
Mental Health Support Groups
“Most kids I see are trying their best,” says Rachel Gordon, a mental health coordinator for AMS, AHS, and MacGregor High. “They really want to do well in school and be socially connected, but this pandemic is really hard.”
Gordon, along with mental health specialist Shelly Ball, runs support groups for teens with the help of trained interns. Her work at AHS, which is partly funded by SchoolCARE, draws on her experience with foster kids in Oakland and familiarity with OUSD programs.
“Teenagers want to be with their friends and be independent, to gain the sense of self, of who I am in this world,” says Gordon. “Now they can’t do that in the way that is normal.”
Gordon has developed groups to offer social-emotional outlets to various AHS populations: