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NewsMay 6, 2020

Creating new channels of learning in the COVID-19 era

Stay true to yourself to find your online teaching niche, alumna advises

As a child, Katelyn Twardzik ’15 enjoyed filming skits and plays with her friends. Her interest and ease in front of the camera led her to hosting a local cable access television show in her hometown of Dartmouth, Massachusetts.

Today, students in her now-virtual first-grade classroom are benefiting from Twardzik’s penchant for showbiz as she produces high-quality video lessons, some available on YouTube, that include math and cooking segments, guest musicians, puppets and exercise segments. View even a few minutes of one of Twardzik’s videos and you realize that, despite occasional technical difficulties and the loss of the spontaneity and opportunities afforded by in-person instruction, this teacher at Assawompset Elementary School in Lakeville, Massachusetts, is finding the way for her and her students to thrive during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I never saw myself creating videos for YouTube until this happened,” Twardzik says. “An interesting thing that’s happening is that many people are channeling their creativity throughout this whole thing.  Once I started creating the videos, it was like riding a bike and I remembered how to do it.”

Challenges and benefits

But that’s not to say everything always goes smoothly. Teaching first graders online presents plenty of challenges.

“Early-childhood education practices run off of engagement, driven through ‘manipulatives,’ center-time activities, creativity, imagination, movement and play. It’s hard to translate those elements into an online platform and then throw in obstacles such as technical difficulties, trying to make education equitable, and catering to the health, wellness and social and emotional aspects of the children,” Twardzik says. “Some of the children are intimidated and overwhelmed by not only this transition but the concept of talking to their teacher and classmates through a screen.

“That being said, it’s amazing how humans have the ability to adapt and evolve. Obstacles and challenges can oftentimes make us more resilient and present us with the opportunity for growth.”

And, she adds, there are a few clear benefits of teaching online.  

“Recording lessons online does allow me to get in the zone and stay on topic and on track without interruptions that would naturally happen, such as loose teeth, shoes needing to be tied, fire drills — you name it!”

Katelyn Twardzik holding a children's book and leaning against a tree.
Katelyn Twardzik ’15 has moved her teaching online with Youtube videos featuring fun and educational segments.

The present education model also makes it easier for her to collaborate with special guests, including singer-songwriter Maria Gauthier, who turned classroom-composed poetry into songs.


“People are not always available to take time off of work to visit a classroom during school hours,” Twardzik says. “But through this process, people are more available, and they film their footage on their phone from home and email it to me. The concept of a prerecorded video guest is something that I will consider in the future when we get back to the classroom in the school building.” 


Changing direction


Flexibility and adaptability, especially in the life-altering era of COVID-19, is essential, and Twardzik has reassessed and reset her life before. Before turning to teaching near her hometown, she worked in the hotel industry for seven years, and then in New York City as executive assistant to the chief executive officer of a software development company. She enjoyed the experience and the skills she gained, but something was missing.


“I gained a lot of skills there but felt really unsatisfied in my career, as I felt like I wasn’t making a positive impact in the world,” Twardzik says. “I love teaching because, although it’s a lot of work, we make a positive difference every day.” 


More about Katelyn Twardzik


What do you like most about your present job?


I love the school and the community at Assawompset Elementary! The teachers are all so creative and hardworking and, most of all, we care about our students so much. Our principal, Bethany Pineault, is also such an amazing leader! She’s so involved, which really makes our school feel like a family. She works so hard all the time, and during these times, she’s always coming up with ideas to keep families engaged. She has students video chat so that they can read books they wrote to her. She created a read-a-thon where students log their minutes and earn prizes. She creates weekly videos, and there’s always more in the works. 


What experiences at Lesley informed or shaped your present work?


My Lesley University experience completely shaped me as a teacher and a person! I have my master’s in early childhood education with creative arts in learning and graduated in 2015.  The concept of teaching through the arts appealed to me, as I previously had my bachelor of fine arts before enrolling at Lesley, and creativity is a big part of who I am, so I was excited when I stumbled upon this program. 


Beyond the pedagogy and theorists that are foundational in early childhood education, I believe that Lesley University teaches us to view the child holistically and to teach them to understand their place in the global community. What better way to change the world than through teaching a child? I can honestly say that each and every single professor (notably Michael “Shabaash” Kemeh and Carol Cohen) that I had at Lesley positively impacted my teaching today and contributed to the development of my character. I am also still connected with the peers of my cohort and consider them to be among my best friends. We had a group video call last night and about 10 of us joined! Most of us are teaching, and we all look back on our Lesley days very fondly. 


What advice do you have for other teachers looking to maximize online instruction?


I think it’s important to try not to be too intimidated by the many virtual teaching platforms. Check in with colleagues near and far for advice and guidance with anything that you’re struggling with. I’m a hands-on learner, and I have to play with a technical platform before I’m ready to launch. It’s also so important to be true to yourself while you discover your own online or distance-learning teaching style and to also understand that everyone has different circumstances that can be limiting or beneficial. Teaching is a profession that is personal and unique and just like learning, there is no one-size-fits-all formula.


How did you develop the confidence to put yourself out there on YouTube?


I decided to make YouTube videos after feeling really down about not being able to connect with my students. Teachers teach because we love it, and it’s a big part of who we are. I wanted to connect with the students and try to guide them through this difficult time in the holistic style that I teach in. I wanted to teach not just to the academics, but to their overall well-being which is my focus of the show.


Were you influenced by any children’s television shows?


I absolutely adore “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” and I’m inspired by how he appeals to the imagination and leads with his heart. I try to do the same in my teaching and in my videos.


Are you spiritual? What impact, if any, does this have on your pursuits?


I am very spiritual, which is the reason that I’m a teacher, I suppose. I needed to be in a job that made a difference in the world and could visibly see and feel the difference. I study Eastern philosophy and incorporate yoga and mindfulness into my teaching style. When I worked in another school district, I received a grant in order to become a certified children’s yoga instructor in the classroom. I incorporate yoga daily as part of movement breaks, storytelling and learning activities. I teach the children strategies that help regulate emotions, and I try to create a calming environment by both the layout of the room and doing things like playing relaxing music during journaling time. Students often ask for the “yoga music” throughout the day as an indication of it being a quiet and calm time.  


How do you see teachers responding to the challenge of virtual classrooms?


Teachers are getting really creative and we are putting our hearts and soul into developing innovative ways to deliver education, optimism and hope to our students and communities. Some teachers in my district (Freetown/Lakeville) are sending care packages, have created virtual vacation ideas, hold spirit days for Zoom calls, etc. We can all find our virtual teaching niche, do our part and be impactful in our own way and as a school unite in our mission to educate and uplift the community.