‘I don’t want this to be like teacher TV': An Anchorage kindergarten teacher welcomes students to a very different first day of school

Lessons, story time and songs are all virtual. And teachers must work in tandem with parents to educate the district's youngest children.

In Karen Gordon’s Northwood Elementary kindergarten classroom, the walls are plastered with colorful signs and posters, each hinting at the lessons she will teach during this school year: geometric shapes, numbers and alphabet letters, a large blue “word wall” for vocabulary and phonics and a big, blocky calendar.

Tuesday was the the first day of kindergarten for the Anchorage School District. In a normal school year, Gordon’s classroom would be filled with a crowd of students and their parents.

But this year, due to the coronavirus pandemic, the district decided to start the school year entirely online. So on this day, Gordon is standing alone in her classroom.

[Anchorage schools are online, so how will this work? Questions and answers about the coming school year.]

She is in front of her laptop, which is on top of a tall, rolling cart that will later help her move around the room to show the class the posters and other props when she starts teaching. Tiny, empty green chairs are tucked in around the hexagon-shaped tables where they would normally sit.

Speaking to the laptop screen, Gordon will need to explain a new set of classroom rules designed for teaching “virtual” school in a Zoom video classroom.

But first, she greets each new student as they log in.

“Good morning, good morning! Can you unmute? Hi Edward, I see you! Hi Hazel!” she says.

One student is logging in from her mother’s workplace. A different student joins the Zoom class with a cellphone from a car in a parking lot where she waits with her mother for a doctor’s appointment.

“Good for you, Mom,” Gordon tells the parent.

[Thousands of students are leaving Anchorage schools. It could mean a loss of millions in funding.]

One student can’t join the class because the family hasn’t yet received a Chromebook laptop from the school district, according to Gordon.

She’d asked the students ahead of time to each make a celebratory sign to show the class on their first day -- it’s to help the parents celebrate as much as it’s for the kids.

There are just 15 students in her class this year. Twelve log on for the first day. Normally, the elementary school has two full kindergarten classes with 18 to 20 students each.

During the class, a 40-minute Zoom session that begins at 9:15 a.m., Gordon spends time troubleshooting the software with family members helping the 5-year-old students log on. Generally it is their parents, although one big sister is helping.

Gordon makes sure everyone has their sound and video on and that their videos are labeled with the student’s first name.

She expects this to take some practice.

There is background noise and chatter coming through the Zoom, but Gordon doesn’t want to mute the kids; it’s too much of a hassle to teach that on the first day. Snippets of families speaking in Spanish and English waft through the call.

Gordon leads the class through some introductory exercises. She shows a photo of herself as a kindergartner and calls on each student to share their age.

[Class is back in session in Anchorage schools, with empty hallways, virtual learning and a host of challenges]

She hopes to build trust and understanding with her students. Some can be a little shy.

“I need to become one of their people. And that’s hard to do through the screen,” Gordon later says.

But she’s watching as some students begin to “light up.” Gordon has held practice Zoom sessions and one-on-one family meetings, so the children are becoming more familiar.

She tries to include variety: a song with accompanying sign language, dance motions to “get the wiggles out.”

“I don’t want this to be like teacher TV,” Gordon explains.

The day’s academic lesson is learning the letter A. The capitalized version, then lowercase. Its phonetic sound.

Apples, alligators, astronauts.

She holds up printed cards of the students’ names, and the class searches for the letter A in each name.

There’s also time for a story. Gordon holds up to her laptop the classic children’s book “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” and flips through its pages, reading aloud.

She then asks a daily question:What is your favorite animal?”

It gives each child the opportunity to share, just to get them talking and connecting.

“It’s relationship-building that matters,” she says.

• • •

The school principal, Deanna Beck, said she worries for some students that she now can’t see in person. Some lack school supplies, books and internet, and Beck is depending on teachers like Gordon to contact families and find out what they need. Northwood Elementary is a Title I school, meaning that many families in the school live at or below the national poverty line.

Gordon is trying to support parents, helping them get information for computers and school lunches. She’s even tried to help some find child care.

She says she’s taking on each problem one by one, piece by piece, day by day.

Everyone -- Gordon, the children, their caretakers -- is taking on a new and different set of challenges.

“I’m so proud of these parents who are really, you know -- you’re going to have to figure out how to do this within the constraints of your life,” Gordon says later. “I am impressed with how they’re trying.”

Gordon’s classroom is filled with toys, books and art supplies. In one corner, stairs lead to a little loft -- the perfect height for small children -- with a window overlooking a large green field, a pair of binoculars resting in the sill. Many of the toys in the room are hand-me-downs from Gordon’s own children.

She’s tried to create a kindergartner’s paradise. But her class might not get to experience it this year, she says.

Still, most of her students haven’t been in a classroom and so don’t know what they’re missing. In some ways, that makes it easier, she says.

Zoi Maroudas’ 5-year-old daughter Athina is in Gordon’s class. Maroudas is busy running her own business. Her husband also works. The family doesn’t have enough laptops at home for everyone or the space to work in separate rooms.

Still, Maroudas and her husband now get to experience the most foundational year of Athina’s education in a totally new way, she said.

And they’re learning teaching tricks from Gordon.

“I get to see how she starts teaching our children how to put sounds together and take words apart,” she said.

• • •

As Gordon’s first lesson hits about 30 minutes, she can see her class beginning to squirm, even over Zoom.

She leads them through the end of class chant, a call and response:

“See you later alligator.” Then, “In a while crocodile.”

Gordon makes a hand motion with each animal goodbye. The chant goes on.

“Now really loud,” she tells the class for the final one.

“So long King Kong!”

• • •

Emily Goodykoontz

Emily Goodykoontz is a reporter covering Anchorage local government and general assignments. She previously covered breaking news at The Oregonian in Portland before joining ADN in 2020. Contact her at egoodykoontz@adn.com.