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Cardinal Classroom Connects Education Majors, Remote Learners for Enrichment

cardinal classroom

SUNY Plattsburgh’s early childhood education program has created a new initiative designed to give its teachers-in-training field experience at a time when classroom placements have been halted in response to the pandemic.

Cardinal Classroom, an academic support program for students in kindergarten through sixth grade, was designed over the summer when it became clear that COVID restrictions would force students into online and hybrid educational experiences in the fall, leaving the college’s education majors without in-class placements for student teaching.

“We recognized that we were going to need to get creative to ensure that our students had qualitative field experiences,” said Janis Krug, director of the college’s early field experience program, Project CONNECT. When the pandemic caused schools to switch to remote learning in March, Project CONNECT was put on hold as well.

Many children lost out on hours of instruction time in the spring, when the pandemic necessitated a shutdown of schools and programs, relegating students to distance learning, Krug said.

cardinal classroom logo“We wanted our students to help them by providing accessible tutoring services and assignment help,” she said. “It not only gives our students continued experience working with children, it also helps them get additional skills in designing individualized instruction, communicating and working with parents and practice using increasingly important technological skills.”

The program pairs SUNY Plattsburgh childhood education students with children in the community to offer tutoring, homework help and one-on-one adult-to-child connections.

“Cardinal Classroom was designed to be mutually beneficial — to help our college students continue to get real-life experience working with students in an educational way, and to help students in the community get access to services to bring them up to speed in the classroom.”

Not designed as homeschooling, Cardinal Classroom is instead designed to supplement instruction in school or at home, Krug said. It is not designed to take the place of regular instruction.

One surprise to come out of the program is its geographic diversity. Because it’s entirely online, they received registrations from students throughout the United States. While priority is given to Clinton County, and although 80 percent of the 160 students participating, Krug said the remaining 20 percent are from other states including Vermont, New Jersey, Virginia and Washington.

Close Contact with ‘Tutees’

Alex Smith, a senior education major from Canton, plans two 45-minute lessons or activities a week for her student, or “tutee.”

“They’re based on what the tutee is interested in as well as what they need extra help with,” Smith said. “I am in close contact with the tutee and parents when planning lessons.”

A recent lesson was about light pollution where Smith had her student create a poster about how to reduce it. To make them feel comfortable during a session, Smith may engage in partner reading.

“It can be difficult to find lessons or activities the student will be engaged in because it really depends on how they are feeling that day,” she said.

Cardinal Classroom offers tutoring services and support for English language arts, math and general social or emotional support, Krug said. Homework help is also offered for those who need help completing assignments.

Jaiden Varmette, a freshman from Moriah, N.Y., was excited about Project CONNECT field experience only to find out it was shifted online. She and a co-tutor have been meeting every Tuesday with their student. She and her co-tutor then meet later in the week to design the following week’s lessen plan. The pair have also met with their student’s mother to discuss strengths and weaknesses and areas of interest.

“We begin every meeting discussing the past weekend’s events and what they’re learning in school,” Varmette said. “We then either play a quick introductory game or complete a dance-along video or even a quick movie blurb from a favorite Disney movie.”

Element of Fun

She said she and her co-tutor try to make sure every lesson has an element of fun.

“Our sessions are designed to help our student succeed and are never more important than the mental well-being of the student, which is easily impacted because of online schooling and the lack of human contact because of COVID-19,” she said.

Junior Kristen Kavanaugh of East Meadow, Long Island, is working with two Cardinal Classroom kids — a first grader and a sixth grader.

“Engaging a student through a computer screen can be quite challenging, but it has offered me the chance to try new things and be creative,” Kavanaugh said. “I follow a similar plan for engaging both of my students. We always begin with a check-in to see how their week was. Next we do a sharing activity so my co-tutor and I can get to know the student better and the student can get to know us.”

They might share a family photo, do a pet show-and-tell, show an item that depicts a hobby or a favorite toy. They then do an ice breaker such as charades, Pictionary, or a quick STEM challenge, all to get ready for the lesson plan.

Learning Can be Fun

“I hope my tutees realize that learning — whether it’s in a classroom or through a computer screen — can be fun,” Kavanaugh said. “During my parent intake phone calls, the parents of both of my students shared that their children did not like the subjects I would be tutoring them in. Once I heard this, I knew that my ultimate goal would be to make my students love learning about that subject and learning in general. I know that I have gained an incredible appreciation for how flexible and resilient children are because of this experience.

“Both of my students face technology challenges, family issues and long to be in a traditional school environment again. Despite this, they show up every week with a smile on their faces, share in laughter with me and bring an abundance of enthusiasm,” she said.

Parent Marissa Bongo of Ballston Spa, N.Y., said her six-year-old son, Cameron, has been working with Cardinal Classroom for a few weeks. A teacher herself, Bongo said she learned about the program when colleagues posted about it on Facebook.

“At the time, our district hadn’t made any decisions about what opening would look like or if it would happen at all, so I figured I would sign him up just to have a little extra support,” Bongo said.

Cameron attends in person Monday through Thursday and is remote on Fridays.

(Cameron) was paired up with a senor education student to do some enrichment via Zoom a few times a week, and he is loving it,” she said. “It works great for our shortened remote Fridays, too. She picks a few activities from his teacher’s choice board and does them with him. It’s way more exciting to a six-year-old than doing them with mom or grandma.”

Varmette said that while COVID caused a halt to the conventional way of teaching, it’s given her new skillset of teaching online.

“It’s the new form of teaching due to this transformation of technology in society,” she said. “Gaining experience teaching online is definitely a skill I will need for my future career as an educator. (And) I think our tutee has gained a new perspective on tutoring and online learning —one that is fun and engaging instead of becoming a hassle.”

Varmette said her initial disappointment evolved.

“I’m so lucky for this semester’s events and the opportunities it has provided me that I might not have gotten elsewhere,” she said.

Cardinal Classroom will be offered again for the spring 2021 semester, with service dates running Feb. 22 through April 9. Registration information will be available here: https://www.plattsburgh.edu/academics/schools/ehhs/teacher-education/cardinal-classroom.html.

For more information, call 518-564-5140 or email Krug at [email protected].

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