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NewsJul 26, 2021

A teacher takes lessons from a pandemic year

First grade teacher Vita Franjul ’19 reflects on a historic year

Woman on stage at Lesley Commencment behind the podium speaking into a microphone and wearing a black cap and gown.
Vita Franjul speaking at Lesley's Commencement in 2019

Vita Franjul has always loved school.

Her dreams of returning to the classroom as a teacher took shape at Lesley, where she majored in Elementary Education.

She deftly balanced academics and student activism, co-founding the inaugural Bridge the Gap diversity conference and serving as the Undergraduate Student Government finance chairperson. She won multiple awards for her leadership and involvement in student life and at her 2019 Commencement, she represented her class as the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences student speaker.

A Boston Public Schools graduate, she hoped to teach in the system that had nurtured her love of learning, and after completing her practicum at the Eliot School in Boston’s North End, she was thrilled to be offered a job there teaching first grade. But her first year in the classroom was disrupted by the pandemic, bringing both challenges and new opportunities to observe, grow and learn.

“We’ve been able to lean on each other and work really closely as a first grade team,” she says. “We were able to share resources, check in with each other. It’s been really great having each other when we’re going through this new experience.”

Vita Franjul '19 on the first day of teaching first grade
Vita Franjul is pictured on the first day of teaching first grade.

From the start, Franjul loved the nurturing, collaborative atmosphere at the school. Her fellow teacher and Lesley alum Cristina Santos M.Ed. ’97, who was Franjul’s supervising practitioner when she interned at the Eliot, has been an invaluable friend and mentor.

“I check in with her all the time about everything,” Franjul says. “I was her student teacher so this was our third year working together.”

When the Eliot closed and pivoted to remote learning in March of 2020, the strong connections held. Educators at the school worked collaboratively with each other, forming a supportive network that helped them all adjust to teaching on Zoom, keeping their students and families engaged, and sharing new ideas and resources.

“One of the best things about this experience was being able to work together so you didn’t feel so alone,” Franjul says. “The workload doesn’t feel as heavy because we share responsibilities and resources and take a little bit off of each other’s plate.”

Returning to the classroom

By the time Franjul began her second year of teaching, educators and students were more accustomed to remote learning. Franjul had never considered herself very tech savvy, but she found that trying to keep her first graders engaged in learning pushed her to explore different platforms, websites and online tools that she wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. And the challenges of teaching remotely made her feel even more connected to her fellow educators.

The Eliot resumed fully in-person classes on April 26, 2021 and despite masks and new social distancing requirements, both teachers and students were glad to be back in the classroom.

“It was really joyous,” Franjul says. “The kids were just super excited to be back. It was their first time being all together, so it felt like another first day of school.”

Making the transition back to life in the classroom after months of on-screen learning took time. Her students were familiar with everyday school routines, but they were also used to learning independently.

“There were definitely a lot of things to figure out logistically,” Franjul recalls.

She led her class through community-building exercises, establishing new routines and setting expectations. To keep her students from getting overwhelmed, she balanced learning with dance and movement breaks and took them to eat lunch outside around the splashing fountain on the Paul Revere Mall. And she and her students were excited to return to normal classroom activities like "Writer’s Workshop," where students create a realistic fiction series based on a character they invent.

“Writing is a big thing,” Franjul says. “They can get very creative with it.”

Her students were eager to share their stories with classmates, projecting them on a screen, reading them aloud, and celebrating the end of the unit with a “publishing party.”

“It's like an author celebration,” Franjul explains. “They choose one piece that they’re really proud of and excited to share. Sometimes I’ll laminate the covers on card stock or bind them or put them in fancy folders. They're just really excited to share their work and they love the publishing parties.”

She’s been impressed with her first grade students.

“They're super flexible, they’re really resilient. And whatever you tell them that they need to do in order to make the school day work, they do it and they're just happy campers.”

Lessons for the future

Franjul is focused on professional development and eager to continue growing as a teacher and begin pursuing her master’s in education.

Vita Franjul (right) at Lesley's 2019 Commencement with College of Art and Design student speaker Tianna Rivera and Commencement speaker Anita Hill.
Vita Franjul (right) at Lesley's 2019 Commencement with College of Art and Design student speaker Tianna Rivera '19 and Commencement speaker Anita Hill.

“Project based learning has been a great area to explore. I love opportunities to learn from other educators and explore different avenues that I'm not necessarily used to or familiar with.”

As she reflects on the past year, Franjul finds unexpected positives, although she’s thoughtful about the exhaustion and frustration that so many teachers experienced.

“Something that I always try to keep in mind and remind my fellow educators is that we tried our best. It was a challenging year and we were dealing with things that were unexpected. I learned so much in ways that impacted my teaching forever.”

Most of all, Franjul continues to take heart from her first graders.

“The way that they respond and adapt to these situations is so inspiring. As a teacher, it just makes you feel proud to be in this field of work, because you know how important it is to children to have the structure and routines of a classroom and what it means to them. I’m feeling really proud of the way that they handle things, and always trying their best to have a smile on their face and doing what it takes to make the school day work. Teaching first grade is so precious. And it was such a tough and challenging year, but rewarding and joyous and celebratory in a lot of ways. I just feel really grateful.”