Five Lessons Learned from Teaching Elementary Online

Twenty-seven rambunctious six-year-olds clamored into the classroom asking questions in Portuguese and English. They were generous with their hugs and excited to be part of a new international elementary program. It was February 2020, and my colleagues and I were in Santos, São Paulo, helping the Grade 1 team navigate new K-5 materials in our Learning Management System. After working with the technology, we spent time with the students — coloring, writing, talking, and laughing together. 

Classroom visits such as these are among my greatest joys as the Academic Director of a global school district. A short-time after this visit, our partner schools across the globe closed due to COVID, and our blended programs became fully online programs. The February 2020 launch of our elementary program has taught me important lessons about working with K-5 students and teachers in these online contexts. Below are the top five takeaways I am focusing on as we support elementary schools in preparing online options for the coming school year.

Teachers Matter. 

Dr. C is a performer and singer. She views the online platform as a new stage for her important pedagogy. Lately she has been sharing photos of her covered in number stickers, dancing with stuffed animals, and utilizing other performance surprises to keep her young learners engaged.

Mr. H. doesn’t like technology. He misses his classroom, misses workshopping with students at the kidney shaped table in the back of his room and he especially misses the energy when the students spill in from the hallway.  While his students know that he misses seeing them face-to-face, they don’t know how he feels about teaching online. Each day Mr. H goes out of his way to be enthusiastic about learning in this new model. 

What Mr. H and Dr. C share is a love of their students, a commitment to making this new approach work, and a love of teaching that still shines across the video conference screen. This passion translates directly to student learning and engagement outcomes. Studies have shown that  teachers continue to be the single greatest predictor of achievement and connection. The ways educators demonstrate care and high-expectations matters more than any other characteristic in student success.

Ms. L is honest and vulnerable with students. She shares that she is also new to online learning and her vulnerability puts kids at ease. Ten minutes into a lesson, students feel like they are sitting criss cross applesauce on the floor. She sings phonics songs and eagerly asks her young scholars to contribute to the conversation. 

Technology is a learnable tool.

After a lesson, Ms. L told some of us that she practices navigating the technical tools ahead of time with her son. The technical learning curve is real—it is also surmountable. In my experiences, young students often leap over this curve ahead of their teachers. Harness the technical skill set of young learners by asking for their ideas, and assigning students to technical support roles (e.g. much like the in-person “line leader” role). 

Families are critical partners in the learning process.

Four months into our new program, one of our international partner schools shared that since moving online, the Grade 1 math classes had become a family event. Parents and grandparents were logging-in with their children to count, add, subtract, and manipulate numbers in English. 

While this experience might not translate directly to the U.S. context, families continue to be essential learning partners in online elementary programs. We need to make sure they know how to access digital materials, help their children login for synchronous classes, and that they supervise appropriate online activity. Different children need this support to different degrees. 

One of the greatest strengths of these new models is that they cause us to think differently about space, place, and community. As school learning shifts to living rooms and kitchen tables, new school conversations are happening at different times and between different family members. Further, students learn that classrooms are flexible constructions and that learning can happen anywhere. 

The model requires flexibility and movement.

Utilize intentionality around the online schedule and build in purposeful movement breaks. Seven-year-olds weren’t made to sit in front of a computer (or iPad) screen from 7:30am-2:30pm each day. Students need kinesthetic breaks during online sessions and a full log-off every 45 minutes. Elementary learners, whether online or offline, are still elementary students, which means they need to wiggle, sing, and stretch.

As we develop online/ blended elementary classrooms, students need a combination of synchronous (online/real-time instruction) and asynchronous (off-line or anytime practice/instruction) strategies. Utilize different combinations of whole group, small group, and independent sessions to help students master concepts, learn skills, and practice new strategies.  Use synchronous moments to build community, talk through class material, and directly teach new concepts. 

Equity is essential in serving kids.

As we transition to more online learning options, we must advocate for equitable access. This requires creative community-based solutions.

How do we make sure all students have access to devices, reliable internet connections, and the materials needed to learn from home? How do we support families in partnering with children in these new models? How can we open up community spaces to create new kinds of classrooms? How do we run breakfast and lunch programs to students learning from home? How do we honor confidentiality and privacy during video conferences?  How do we cultivate safe space in online settings? How do we expand choice to all families?

These are essential challenges to explore as we move to online models. In fact, if we aren’t problem-solving around these kinds of questions, we aren’t serving students. In this uncertain and unprecedented season in education, we must continue asking hard questions, implementing new solutions, and continuing to be vigilant in putting students first.

Like many in education, I am hopeful that we will emerge from this uncertain time with reimagined strategies and tools. I am also hopeful we will begin to envision new possibilities for teaching, learning, and community, and that we will use these lessons to better serve students and teachers. 

Encouragingly, Dr. KFW

Holding Space for Connection

It’s early in the morning and I am enjoying the way my medium roast coffee with milk tastes like home. Dawn is just starting to break across my front window. In the States, the days are getting longer as we press toward spring.

Earlier this week I was in Brazil, working and learning with teachers and students, seeing old friends, and starting my days with strong coffee and sweet pineapple. There, people told me they were looking forward to more fall breezes. 

I have so many stories to share from this trip. This first one begins with an Uber ride and ends with a 6-year-old comedian.

An Uber Driver with 13 Siblings

Our Uber ride has arrived and the four of us pile in.

“Boa noite. Qual é o seu nome?” (Good evening. What is your name?)

“Boa noite. Sou a Kathryn.”  (Good evening. I’m Kathryn.)

I look at the uber app on my phone to find the driver’s name. “Marcelo, sim?” (You are Marcelo, yes?)

“Sim. Você fala português?” (Yes. Do you speak Portuguese?)

“Estou aprendendo.” (I am learning.)

“Ótimo.” (Wonderful.)

The drive is 15-minutes long. During that time Marcelo tells us his life story. We learn about his 13 brothers and sisters. We see photos of his lovely wife and daughter. He is very proud. We learn about the upcoming trip he is taking to visit a brother in Japan. 

We learn these things in little bits, told with enough patience and pauses for me to translate them to my colleagues. 

As we make our way, through the busy São Paulo streets, Marcelo asks us about our faith, our work, and how often we’ve been to Brazil. I translate the answers back to him. 

The car feels like it’s moving at a slower, easier pace than the Saturday night blur and bustle outside. When we arrive at our destination, Marcelo says, “Eu vou desligar o carro. Eu quero dar um abraço em cada um de vocês. Obrigado por ouvir a minha história.” (I am going to turn off the car. I want to give you each a hug. Thank you for listening to my story.)

We embrace, all of us changed from this spontaneous connection. 

What gives certain places weight in your heart? 

On Sundays, Avenida Paulista is closed for traffic, which opens up a huge stretch in the middle of the city for artisans, musicians, and walkers. I’ve had the gift of so many Sundays on Avenida Paulista that I now know some of the artisans. I smile at the potter whose coffee cups have the most glorious glazes. I stop and buy more paper earrings from the young woman who has a fondness for wild designs and also a finicky credit card machine. 

I think about a line from a poem I wrote last year: 

When did this city evolve from being somewhere I visit, 

to somewhere I return to? 

What gives certain places weight in your heart? 

After a rainy week, the sun is shining today. We weave through the crowds to an ice cream stand owned by a young woman. I buy us scoops of ice cream and ask the young woman if she will take our picture. 

“Claro!” (Of course!)

We group together and smile at her. She laughs and comes out from the stand to take the photo from the other direction. 

“Se você quiser tirar uma foto, deve ser com meu carrinho de sorvete.” (If you want to take a picture, it should be with my ice cream stand.)

The young woman beams as we pose in front of her stand. Sweet, sticky strawberry ice cream runs down my fingers. 

She couldn’t have imagined this, but there she was 

My friend is zooming through the streets at dusk to get us to the highest point in the city before sunset. She wants to show us the view. 

“The lights on the buildings look like beads on a necklace.”

As we drive, she tells us about her mother who is recovering from emergency surgery. 

“It can happen so suddenly,” my friend says. “One moment, you’re fine and the next you’re not.”

We nod. We’ve all experienced this with people we love. For a moment, her words blur and I am no longer in the car. I am with my grandma in another state, in another country, across the ocean. 

Something pulls me back into the conversation. My friend is telling us about the under-resourced hospital and how she fed the strangers who roomed near her mother. 

“They didn’t have anyone,” she tells us sadly.

She said she couldn’t have imagined this, but suddenly there she was cutting up meat, adjusting bed pillows, and bringing in extra linens for people she had just met. 

We arrive at the overlook just as the light is starting to change. We take photos and watch the sun dip into the sea. The lights shine across the shore exactly like beads on a necklace.

Their secret handshake starts with a high five

The students will arrive in a moment. For now we are organizing crayons, preparing ourselves for the chaos and excitement of twenty-three 6-year-olds.

The first child to enter walks right up to me. In a few moments, we will learn that she is both the class leader and class comedian. For now, though, we are just meeting for the first time.

I lower myself to her eye level.

“Você fala português?” (Do you speak Portuguese?)

“Estou aprendendo, assim como você está aprendendo inglês.” (I am learning, just like you are learning English.)

She looks at me seriously and to make sure I am telling the truth, she quizzes me. “Um dois três…” (One, two, three…)

When I answer, “quatro cinco seis!” (four, five, six!) she giggles and gives me a hug.

Now that we’re such good friends, she teaches me their class’s secret handshake, which starts with a high five and ends with a fist bump. 


In each of these moments, what gave us the grace and good sense to hold space for connection? Maybe it has something to do with being so far from home and feeling a little bit lost ourselves. Then again, it bears mentioning that sometimes even at home we still feel a little bit lost and searching for connection.

Regardless of where you go, almost everyone you meet warms when they show you photos of their families. Small business owners are always proud to showcase their work. When someone is sick they need our prayers and when someone is lonely they want to be seen and heard. These things transcend place.

What if these simple sparks of human connection are what tethers us to each other?

This may be my most important lesson from last week.

The more I travel, the more I’ve learned that it isn’t the unfamiliar landmarks that give us direction, but the familiar spaces we share.

With you for the journey,


The Universal Language of School

Hanoi Journals

I slide off my high heels, adding them to the large pile of shoes at the front of a brightly colored kindergarten building in Hanoi, Vietnam. Looking down the hallway I notice dozens of irregular snowflakes each cut with kid scissors and hung with a teacher’s care. I feel at home.

While I have never been to Vietnam before, much less this specific school, my global travels have shown me that there is a shared humanity that runs across our school hallways. Whether I am at a Catholic school in Brazil, a private school in Vietnam, or a public school in the United States, there are several things I know to be true. These things transcend language, culture, and worldview.  In fact, they may be the magic that makes schools work.

Connection matters

  • It only takes one spark of laughter to change the whole tenor of a classroom. 
  • Learning a new game can bring people together.
  • Though we show it in different ways, we all need to connect.
  • It is absolutely possible to sit with someone who speaks a different language than you and have a conversation.
  • Friends can share a joke without saying a word.
  • There is a renewed sense of possibility each morning when we greet students and colleagues. 
  • Few gifts are more treasured in a school day than receiving art from a student or a hot cup of coffee from a teacher.

Kids are Kids

  • Young children need to dance and sing.
  • Middle school students are curious about everything.
  • You can see both the lasting glimmers of childhood and the new glimmers of adulthood flash across the faces of high school students at play or work.
  • Kids carry big worries and big ideas and they don’t always know how to express those.

Universal Language

  • We straighten our gaze with determined focus when solving an interesting problem. 
  • When we see something beautiful, we want to share it.
  • We nod when we say thank you.
  • We crinkle our eyes to show delight.
  • There is a telltale kind of tired that teachers everywhere wear on their faces at the end of a school day.

I am grateful to Wellspring International Bilingual School for inviting us to spend the week with students and teachers. While I did manage to learn a few phrases in Vietnamese (thank you mostly to a group of sixth grade students), more importantly I learned that it doesn’t take spoken language to say many of the things that matter most in school including: thank you, I see you, I value you, and I’m happy you’re here.

Appreciatively yours, Dr. KFW