STCC partners with Head Start to create online preschool
By LAURIE LOISEL
SPRINGFIELD, Mass. – Springfield Technical Community College student Hannah Lavigne is leading a small class of preschoolers in story time and an activity. She had to plan the lesson and carry it out. She selected the book “Where Do Balloons Go?” by Jamie Lee Curtis, a story about a lost balloon and its many adventures, and came up with a related activity.
As teachers do, she held the book up to make sure the little ones could see the colorful pictures.
But the students in this Head Start class were no wiggle worms clustered around this student teacher’s feet. They were each in their own home, watching their teacher and classmates on a computer screen.
And from her own West Springfield home, Lavigne conducted the activity she planned, showing them two balloons, one buoyant with helium, the other gravity-bound. When Lavigne let go of the helium balloon, students squealed when it disappeared from the camera’s eye and their view, drifting upward to her bedroom ceiling. Maybe, like the balloons in the book, this balloon was having a dance party in the sky. They watched as the air-filled balloon dropped to the ground.
Welcome to Head Start at Home.
Last fall, Lavigne, like all STCC early childhood practicum students, completed her practicum teaching online.
In March, when the pandemic shut down schools, closed daycare centers and sent legions of college students into intensive online learning, professors in STCC’s early childhood education program didn’t panic; they adapted.
About 55 students are enrolled in STCC’s one-year certificate program or two-year associate degree program in early childhood education, including both Spanish-speaking and English-speaking cohorts.
Students are required to spend 150 hours teaching in the field under the guidance of mentor teachers. Prior to pandemic shut-downs, they logged those hours in a variety of settings: family child care operations, private childcare programs, public school preschool programs and federally funded Head Start centers.
When many centers closed down, STCC students were left without their practicum settings to return to. Luckily, many had already logged time in the field. And then the state reduced the teaching requirements to 75 hours.
This was a first for all of us, doing something remotely. With the right ideas and motivation, it became a very successful partnershipMahera Chiarizo, Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start program
“We sort of had to just muddle through and scrape ourselves over the finish line,” said STCC Assistant Professor Aimee Dalenta, who works in the Early Childhood Education program. “But then in the summer we were in a real pickle.”
To meet that need, Dalenta created a six-week long fully virtual pre-school for children ages 3-5 where STCC students took turns planning lessons, teaching them, and serving as assistant teachers.
The virtual preschool was a hit for both the students who gained practicum experience and the participating families whose children had enrichment experiences.
STCC students not only learned about good teaching, they gained first-hand experience in something all teachers understand: the need to adapt to whatever circumstances they face.
“We spent a lot of time talking about the flexibility it requires to teach online,” Dalenta said. “We talked about how marketable it makes them in an uncertain future. Working with preschoolers online is not an easy thing to do.”
For the fall semester, though, Dalenta knew the STCC virtual preschool could not be replicated. While it was a rich and successful summer experience, it was not a sustainable model. It also lacked something important to all teachers in training: the opportunity to work with experienced teachers, who provide grounding for student teachers and model teaching strategies. They needed mentors.
Dalenta reached out to the Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start program, long a placement for STCC practicum students.
Mahera Chiarizo, HCS Head Start’s director of education, was eager to team up with Dalenta to create a good learning experience for STCC students in pandemic conditions.
“This was a first for all of us, doing something remotely,” said Chiarizo. “With the right ideas and motivation, it became a very successful partnership.”
Chiarizo said the ongoing connection between STCC and Head Start has been a fruitful two-way street for many years.
“This is a pipeline for employment,” she said. “We really look at these partnerships as an opportunity to grow the field.”
Relying on the technology platform ClassDojo, which is used by Springfield public schools, STCC students were able to join their mentor teachers for virtual parent meetings, lesson planning, teaching, even taking advantage of professional development opportunities presented to Springfield teachers.
Though classes were taught remotely, the practicum sought to replicate typical student teaching experience in other ways: For example, starting off with a small assignment and gradually building up to increasing amounts of responsibility around both planning and teaching. And just as they do with in-person practicum placements, students are encouraged by their mentor teachers to reflect on what worked well with a given lesson, what they might have done differently and what they learned from the experience.
“It’s the same approach as if they were in the classroom, but it’s virtual,” Chiarizo said.
While teaching preschoolers via computer is not easy, Dalenta believes the principles student teachers need to ground themselves in are enduring, whether in person, on ClassDojo or any other technology platform.
“The fundamentals of good teaching pedagogy,” Dalenta said, “will always be the same until the end of time.”
Interested in applying to STCC? Visit stcc.edu/apply or call Admissions at (413) 755-3333.
About Springfield Technical Community College
STCC, the Commonwealth's only technical community college, continues the pioneering legacy of the Springfield Armory with comprehensive and technical education in manufacturing, STEM, healthcare, business, social services, and the liberal arts. STCC's highly regarded workforce, certificate, degree, and transfer programs are the most affordable in Springfield and provide unequalled opportunity for the vitality of Western Massachusetts. Founded in 1967, the college – a designated Hispanic Serving Institution – seeks to close achievement gaps among students who traditionally face societal barriers. STCC supports students as they transform their lives through intellectual, cultural, and economic engagement while becoming thoughtful, committed and socially responsible graduates.
Jim Danko, (413) 755-4812, email@example.com