Some of the best times I had as a student were during after-school programming. Whether at my school or at a local nonprofit agency, they provided me with a safe place to get my work done, spend time with friends, and participate in activities unavailable during the traditional school day.
I now serve as director of a 21st Century Community Learning Center for a school district in southern New Jersey. Most of the students we serve are economically disadvantaged and are Black and Latinx. I’ve been proud to have the opportunity to contribute to providing a safe and enriching environment for students similar to the places I attended growing up.
This year, though, it wasn’t clear whether the coronavirus pandemic would keep us from helping students. In a normal times, we see 125 to 150 students every day, offering courses ranging from cooking to engineering to college test prep, plus physical fitness programs, such as yoga and intramural sports. Our campus is lively during the school day, but it is even more so after school.
Since COVID has quieted the halls of our building, we agreed to continue our program remotely — not knowing if it would work. Could we provide students with an authentic experience close to what they’d receive in person? Virtual instruction has posed challenges during the regular school day, and we knew it would be a challenge for us as well.
But the virtual mode we’re in has provided us with a level of flexibility that has allowed our program to thrive even under the strain of a pandemic. We adapted, and we’re making it work. Here’s how.
Spicing up our offerings. One challenge we had to overcome this year was our inability to offer any in-person sports activities for our students during the pandemic. In the past, we’ve had several intramural sports programs, in addition to weight training and exercise opportunities. These were our most popular programs.
We’ve pivoted. Similar to master classes offered by celebrities, we now offer students master classes in baking, yoga, survival techniques, public speaking, and drama. During the semester, our students are learning to tap into their entrepreneurial aspirations as well as engage in self-care.
We’ve also added e-sports opportunities. Students have joined an e-sports league and get to play first-person games for prizes and rewards. For those of our students who are more interested in creating games of their own, we started a video game and coding class where they can learn how.
Adjusting start and end times. When held in person, after-school programs begin immediately after school (at 3 p.m.) and end roughly at 6 p.m. However, with many schools running on hybrid or remote-only schedules, there is a chance to start and end a little later, making it easier for students and instructors to participate. If a particular activity is best scheduled from 4–7 p.m. run it then.
This may be particularly beneficial to programs serving mostly high school students, and in remote-only districts, which are more often districts where Black, Latinx, and low-income students are in the majority. While our program has yet to implement this strategy, it remains an option for us.
Partnering with other programs or program sites. Our district runs program sites at two schools. But because the schools are 25 miles apart, students from the schools typically don’t interact with each other after school. However, running our program remotely gives us the opportunity to have students from both schools take programs together and engage with each other. It’s improved the liveliness of our programs and has built camaraderie among the students.
Getting students to attend and participate in a virtual program right now is tough. Students may be dealing with fatigue from all the Zoom calls or Google Meets. So finding ways to change things up and introduce your students to new peers — by collaborating with another site in your district, a school outside of your district, or an organization that hosts an after-school program like the 21st Century Community Learning Center, may be an option worth considering. If you can’t collaborate, just speaking with other after-school providers can offer insight on how you can make your program better during the pandemic.
In normal times, after-school programs help students in all sort of ways — lowering truancy rates, keeping children safe, and keeping them out of trouble, in addition to giving parents peace of mind about their children while they are at work.
Now, students’ and families’ needs might be a little different. But it’s still vital that students have opportunities for leisure, learning, and gathering with each other outside of school in ways that foster good habits. Here is where after-school educators, if we’re innovative and open-minded about what opportunities we offer to students, can keep them engaged, learning, living, and loving.
Rann Miller directs the 21st Century Community Learning Center, a federally funded after-school program located in southern New Jersey. His writing on race, education and politics has also been featured in Hechinger Report, Education Week, and the Grio.
Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools.
To address this gap in the research, my colleague, Iheoma Iruka, and I studied data of children from different socioeconomic and racial/ethnic groups from across the United States.
What we found surprised us.
Storytelling among African-American children
For our research, we used national data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, a study of about 14,000 children born in the US in 2001, that examined their development, school readiness and early school experiences. We focused on 6,150 children who were identified as African American, Asian American, Latino and European American.
To understand the role that storytelling skills play in the link between language and early literacy, we used data from when children were two years old until they were five years old.
When the children were two years old, parents were asked to describe their children’s language abilities. Later, when children were four years old, their storytelling skills were measured by asking them to retell stories they had just heard a researcher tell them. At five years old, children were given an assessment of their early literacy.
For most racial/ethnic and socioeconomic groups of children, we found that children who had better language skills as toddlers did better on the literacy assessment when they were five years old.
But when we looked at how storytelling plays a role between early language and early literacy, we found that when it came to African-American children, it made a big difference. For these children, the higher their storytelling scores, the better they did on the early literacy assessment. Interestingly, it didn’t make a difference for the other groups.
What this study tells us
Storytelling skills may be less important for the early literacy skills of most children. But for African-American children, these skills seem to be important for early literacy in a way that may not be true of other children.
The strong storytelling skills of African-American children may stem from the cultural and historic influences that have fostered a preference for orality among African Americans.
All this should lead us to believe that African-American kids, with their strong storytelling skills, should do better with their reading skills. However, we know that African-American children are failing to learn basic reading skills. A nationwide test of reading achievement showed that four out of five African-American fourth graders failed to achieve competency in reading in 2013.
So, why are African-American children not performing better in reading? More research is needed, but possibleexplanationssuggest that the low-quality schools many of these kids go to end up having a negative impact on their reading skills. In addition, many of these kids may have language skills that differ from those expected at school.
Why does storytelling matter?
For most other kids, studies suggest that storytelling skills may show their influence when children are older.
And that could be because storytelling uses “decontextualized” language. Decontextualized language differs from conversational or contextualized language in that decontextualized language functions independently from the immediate context or shared knowledge between listeners and the storyteller.
As children tell stories, they gain practice in using the same type of language that is used in written text, which can help them as they learn to read.
While teachers and parents have been told to read books to children to support their language and literacy development, encouraging children to tell stories as a way to support language and literacy has received less attention.
So, what can teachers and parents do?
Many schools have a “show-and-tell” time that can allow children a chance to practice storytelling skills as they share information about a valued object. As teachers and peers ask questions, they can facilitate children’s storytelling skills.
Parents and teachers can also model storytelling for children by sharing their own experiences, in the form of a story that has a clear beginning, middle and end, and addresses the questions of who, what, where, when and why. Using props like wordless books, puppets, dolls and photographs may also help children in developing stories.
While learning to tell stories can be useful for all children, this skill may be most needed for those at risk of achieving reading competency.
Whether children are currently going to school in person, learning remotely or doing a mix of both, digital tools and texts are becoming much more commonplace for K-12 education during the COVID-19 pandemic.
I’m a professor who researches the use of technology in education. I’m also the father of three children between the ages of 4 and 9 who are all learning from home. You might think it would be easy for me to get used to this new normal. Sadly, that’s not true.
Despite all my technical know-how, even I struggle to manage the large variety of digital tools and apps that my children use for schoolwork, let alone the numerous websites, accounts and passwords from their classes that my family has to keep track of.
Beneficial but complex
The transition from relying mainly on physical textbooks printed on paper to digital educational content, tools, apps and other resources was was already underway long before the pandemic. K-12 teachers use everything from online videos to interactive websites and from games and apps to digital textbooks that meet state standards.
I believe digital educational resources have a lot going for them. In contrast with the static text in physical books, digital resources involve dynamic content such as audio, video and animations. They may also have components like games and simulations that let kids interact with technology or each other.
Some are equipped with adaptive and smart features that automatically tailor the instruction according to individual students’ mastery levels. For example, “intelligent tutors” use complex algorithms and artificial intelligence to mimic human tutors and provide students with a personalized learning experience.
These apps, texts and tools make it easier to search for key terms, take notes that kids can find and use later, assess mastery and get creative by making charts and doing other things that are typically harder to do on paper.
With more students having their own school-issued tablet or laptop because of the pandemic, digital educational resources are likely to remain indispensable for modern K-12 classrooms even once life gets back to normal.
I consider this to be a good thing in general. At the same time, I have some concerns. One is that educators should not adopt and use these digital resources the same way as they might treat physical textbooks, because they have different characteristics.
While most had good content and aligned well with academic standards, many weren’t user-friendly enough or properly geared for K-12 use.
Supporting children who learn online
No matter how good these digital resources are, they need to be integrated with all other learning activities.
For example, a math class may take advantage of the free videos available through Khan Academy, use Zoom for group work and collaboration, and use Google classroom for organizing assignments and communicating with peers and teachers.
That means there’s a lot to keep track of. Therefore, kids – until they turn 10 or so, and their parents – need a lot of help getting the hang of all this technology.
I recommend that families help children understand when, what, why and how to use everything. One way to go is to map out the variety of URLs, apps and tools used for specific classes, alongside their child’s usernames, passwords, access codes and group names, as well as schedule details. This will help kids access their digital resources for the right class and at the right time – on their own.
I also suggest that parents monitor their child’s technology usage, taking care during the day to limit distractions that can interfere with learning. When working on digital devices, with entertainment games and YouTube videos only a click or two away, kids can easily veer away from their virtual classrooms. Especially for younger children, whose self-regulation skills are not fully developed, parents and caregivers need to attend to them periodically.
In other words: Just because kids are quietly doing something on their iPad during school hours, it does not necessarily mean they are engaged in schoolwork.
Parental controls can help. There are parental control features on individual devices like Apple’s Screen Time on iPads. There are also some features on internet routers like the Netgear’s Circle – Smart Parental Controls worth exploring. These features can limit what kids can and cannot do on their devices – such as buying stuff without permission.
Even where remote learning and socially distanced socializing are the norm, parents can still aim for a relatively healthy balance, to the degree it’s possible, between screen time and time spent offline. See if you can persuade your children to put away their screens before and after school and during their lunch breaks, whether it’s to exercise, read, cook or play board games.
Kui Xie, Cyphert Distinguished Professor; Professor of Learning Technologies; Director of The Research Laboratory for Digital Learning, The Ohio State University
The importance of the relationships that develop in classrooms is often taken for granted. With online learning, students and teachers can no longer greet each other with high-fives and fist bumps or develop a sense of connection through direct eye contact. Their interactions are now restricted, and in a growing number of communities they are limited to communications through computers.
Teleconferencing software like Zoom can mimic face-to-face conversations and lessons. An array of digital tools can improve the quality of these sometimes awkward interactions. Some are text-based, delivered either live or pre-recorded.
Pictures, audio clips, videos, emojis and GIFs help people get their points across more clearly and colorfully. Rather than seeing them as frivolous, we recommend that families and teachers not be afraid to encourage students to use those tools to build and strengthen social relationships with their peers and their teachers.
Students will also benefit when schools create opportunities to spend non-instructional time with other students online because it makes it easier to forge personal connections. To be sure, schools also need to set and enforce clear “netiquette” – online manners – to discourage digital bullying and support a positive culture. This is especially true when a new semester gets underway.
Technology can help. For example, videos and other online resources can instantly show students how a particular topic might be essential for certain careers. And we recommend that teachers tell students to briefly interview relatives and friends, whether by using Zoom, email or the phone, about why a particular topic that they are learning might be relevant to their own lives.
3. Establish new routines
Students benefit from routines at school, because routines help them to organize and use their time efficiently throughout the school day. These can include short breaks between classes when they can interact with their peers and take a mental break before they begin their next class. Online learning, even with some daily instruction happening in real time, is more self-paced and self-managed. Kids will benefit from a new daily routine that suits their virtual school schedule and their family’s needs. Students are likely to be more engaged with online learning if they are expected to get ready for the day by acting as though they were actually going to their school building, and not just roll out of bed and turn on the computer.
For example, while a student is watching an online instructional video, we recommend that parents and other guardians from time to time get them to briefly pause the clip. Try asking “Do you understand what you’ve seen so far?” If not, suggest that they start it over. Offer to help them puzzle through what’s being taught. If that doesn’t help, assist with scheduling a personal meeting with their teacher.
Editor’s Note: Lisa Huisman Koops researches how parents incorporate music into everything from daily chores and routines to family and religious practices. It’s something she believes has taken on more importance now that families are spending more time together in close quarters due to COVID-19. Here, Koops elaborates on the concept of parenting musically and what it involves.
1. What is parenting musically?
Parenting musically is the way I describe what happens when moms and dads use music for many nonmusical tasks and goals. These activities can involve everyday things or ways to better relate to one another. For example, a mother can sing a song to help cue her kids to brush their teeth. Or a father can use a playlist to make Saturday morning chores more fun. Children can also sing songs with grandparents through videoconferencing as a way to deepen their emotional bonds.
An example of parenting musically – helping a child brush their teeth for a certain amount of time. Author provided (No reuse)1000 KB (download)
An example of parenting musically – helping a child speak about their day. Author provided (No reuse)2.02 MB (download)
These are just some of the ways to get children to see the richness in the ways they can experience the world through music.
2. What are the most interesting examples you’ve seen?
Several families in my research project used music to help develop their child’s identity. For instance, by singing Hungarian folk songs she had learned growing up, one mother encouraged her daughter, Francesca, to sing them over Skype with her grandparents in Hungary.
One couple curated a playlist for their daughter Maggie as a way to nurture her identity as an African American girl growing up in a transracial adoptive family with white parents.
This family intentionally introduced a broad range of musicians, including many who are African American, and talked about the importance of familiarity with music as a form of social meaning.
Other families used music for transitions and rituals. One father composed little songs for his son Joel to help him through his bedtime routine. The songs were cues for what each of them needed to do as well as a joyful way to connect.
Another family, who were observant Orthodox Jews, used music throughout their daily and weekly religious practices and holidays. For instance, the children learned songs at home and school about Purim, a Jewish holiday, that explained the background and significance of their celebrations.
3. Does parenting musically involve formal music lessons?
It depends on the family. There can be more than one reason for parents to engage their children in music through formal lessons as well as in everyday life. I’ve found that having several reasons for enrolling kids in music lessons might help keep children interested when enthusiasm flags or practicing becomes a struggle.
Parents should communicate whatever their and their children’s hopes and dreams are to music teachers. If a teacher assumes the goal is for my daughter to be the top violinist in a youth orchestra, when my goal is for my daughter to understand and accept that it’s OK to struggle to master a difficult skill, there can be a mismatch that leads to frustration on all sides.
There’s no one right way to parent musically, and no one best way to be musical. Learning informally with online materials, taking time to explore children’s musical passions through listening to music together or rocking out to quarantine parodies – these are all ways to enjoy and grow with music.
For me personally, the goal of parenting musically is to embrace experiences with my four children today that help us navigate hurdles in life, bring us together as a family and develop skills and interests that will be with them throughout their lives.
There’s nothing like sage advice from an elder to keep you grounded as a new parent and inspired by your faith. Below you’ll find a compilation of two-minute parenting podcast shorts by Dr. Melvin E. Banks, founder of UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.). We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program called Daily Direction, which covers a variety of issues and topics. So when your little one takes a short nap, get your coffee or tea, find a spot on the couch, and enjoy!