Teaching Nursery School In-Person during a World-Wide Pandemic: Resilience, Hope, and Wonder

The following blog is excerpted from an essay by the same title, written by Meredith Dodd, Nursery Teacher at Chicago Laboratory Schools, November 26, 2020. IFSEL thanks Meredith for sharing her perspective and allowing us to publish her essay for a wider school audience.

A consistent rhythm of care is essential for young children’s health, education, and well-being. Last winter, an unwelcome word-number combination, Covid-19, disrupted family life and our children’s education. Our lives as parents and teachers required new balancing acts, and now, months later, there is collective hope for a vaccine to open classroom doors again. In what ways can we connect our hope for an end to the pandemic to our children’s futures?

Children’s wonder is the virtuoso, the most powerful instrument for hope.

I propose that we create a new, collective composition of care titled, The Resilience of Wonder. Children’s wonder is the virtuoso, the most powerful instrument for hope. The only parts that need tuning are adult decision-making on how to direct.

As a mother and an early childhood educator I find it important to slow down and listen for wonder’s resonance. Once I pay attention and heed wonder’s message, I see what I need to do. I make changes to how I perceive my roles. I pull myself together and self-organize, tweak my approaches to parenting and teaching. I tune into children’s imagination and let it inspire curriculum planning. Their wonder breaks through my resistance to feel the effects of hardships. Their wonder encourages me to think of possibilities.

My heartfelt desire in late May was to walk with my classroom of twenty-three pixelated Zoom tiles of four and five-year-old students to the school garden in its spring glory. The garden is magical. I thought it could surely open the 11-inch screen wide enough for each student to walk through.  We could gather together under the magnolia tree hug, dance, sing, dig, plant, explore, and laugh. At long last, in September, spring’s hope for connection was realized. My three-year-old nursery school students entered the garden, masked, and full of wonder. All I imagined emerged, except for the hugs.

Caterpillars transforming into butterflies in the garden are a source of wonder.
“We moved forward, prepared with an intention to balance the stress of the unknown with joyful anticipation of children walking, not zooming, into their school.”

The essence of nursery school is wonder. Children’s wonder resides in the unfolding of the unknown. How was wonder going to express itself this year in classrooms designed for Covid- 19 mitigation? There were limits on singing, limits on sharing, limits on unraveling children’s curious and original “what -ifs”; all these limits placed on us by a very real, microscopic “what-if” of Covid-19.

Our first step as teachers during Covid-19 is to remain confident in ourselves and in our knowledge of young children. Early childhood educators are resourceful, creative, and think in terms of possibilities. We moved forward, prepared with an intention to balance the stress of the unknown with joyful anticipation of children walking, not zooming, into their school.

“One of the most important aspects of our in-person program’s success is the two-in-one. Two, physically separate and socially connected pods, equal one whole classroom. Yellow pod and blue pod create a green classroom. A simple concept that provides infinite entries into discussions and revelations of identity, community, feelings, participation, and wonder.”

Our in-person program is successful. One of the most important aspects to its success is the two-in-one. Two, physically separate and socially connected pods, equal one whole classroom. Our years of pre Covid-19 implementation of a pedagogy of trusting relationships guided our design approach. We thought of the two pods as colors weaving together a curriculum of caring connections. Yellow pod and blue pod create a green classroom. A simple concept that provides infinite entries into discussions and revelations of identity, community, feelings, participation, and wonder. The pedagogical pallet was set. The next step was implementing it into practice.

Children thrive when classroom teachers are consistent. The school set the standard for the head teacher to be in each pod fifty percent of the time. Therefore, we needed to develop a system to meet this expectation. At the same time, integrate stability, predictability, and a cohesive educational plan for our students in each classroom that makes sense to families, too.

The approach we are using is a flow system. The flow system supports our school’s goal of being with each pod equally. It requires team-based shared leadership, a cohesive purpose among the teachers, and flexibility to adjust plans to support our students. In each pod there are two teachers. The four teachers can move between the pods, the children in each pod can only mix outdoors. There are no more than fourteen people in each room. For our team, we agreed on the following flow structure:

Our outdoor spaces are freedom.

1. One assistant teacher remains with the same pod throughout the year. This teacher is the foundation of consistent relationships.

2. The third assistant teacher is our studio art teacher. She switches “home base” pods with me, the head teacher, every week. She introduces new art mediums for the pods to explore.

3. As the head teacher I move in between the pods throughout the day to lead meetings, support play, and engage students with specific skill-building activities. The week I spend in each pod allows me to settle into the rhythm of each small community,

4. The routines, schedules, and classroom designs mirror each other. This symmetry provides confidence and clarity for all participants in our pod-based learning community: teachers, children, and families.

Children and adults flourish in the absence of walls. My team created the walls that nestle our small learning communities. Yet, they are walls that remind us of the requirement of pandemic imposed balancing acts. Robust, affirming teaching and learning requires healthy bodies and visibility.

Our outdoor spaces are freedom. Each classroom at our school has access to their own outdoor space any time of the day. This allows for pods to come together as whole classrooms. This availability of outdoor space comes from our extension of our definition of school. Our school landscape now extends into the Hyde Park public, outdoor spaces. The outcome of this expansion is our visibility as capable, confident, engaged, and knowledgeable citizens. The community learns to respect the early years of human development when children’s education includes visible, active participation outdoors in their communities.

It was important to my team that, as best we could, the pods serve as a second home. Places for the three-year-old to explore independence, to belong as part of a peer group, and open their minds and bodies to the wonder of new experiences. It was additionally important for each teacher to be part of the classroom in a role authentic to each of our interests and

strengths. Our goal as early childhood educators is to model the kinds of relationships we hope for our students. Caring, kind, and open to cultivating new perspectives on how to be a part of a group.

“As a result of teaching in person during a pandemic, our pedagogy - that learning is not linear and trusting relationships are key- is strengthened. Learning is a weaving together of many acts.”
Chicago Laboratory School Garden Painted by a 4-year-old

As a result of teaching in person during a pandemic our pedagogy that learning is not linear and trusting relationships are key is strengthened. Learning is a weaving together of many acts. These first months of teaching required us to think deeply, take time, appreciate complexity, recognize limitless perspectives, and take joy in the process of discovery. decisions made that allowed for our current Covid-19 early childhood classroom structures were not easily accomplished. Our advocates communicated the necessity of in-person early learning for the educational health and well-being of children, families, teachers, and the school.

The children continue to learn together with us in-person. They speak with mask-muffled words along with newfound powers of expressive eyes, eyebrows, and gestures. In time, the hugs and bright toothy smiles will return. Children’s words and actions, no longer masked, will emerge as beacons of wonder, just as they did in the garden. Their resilience of wonder will fill old spaces with new, unencumbered relationships. They will offer us new perspectives on participation, knowledge, balancing the unknown, and how to ensure visibility for all to speak, be heard, and make a difference. Imagine all the possibilities of our collective resilience for a caring world.

  •  
Meredith Dodd

Meredith’s teaching is structured to build young children’s democratic dispositions through social emotional learning, mathematics, symbolism, and ecological systems’ approaches. During the course of her career, Meredith has worked in a Dewey-inspired context, a Reggio Emilia-informed school, as well as travelled to Anji, China, to learn about AnjiPlay. An expert documentarian, Meredith loves to help people understand the power of documenting children’s learning in ways that reveal children’s growth in comprehension and understanding—and inform teachers’ decision-making. Meredith Dodd is a Lead Teacher at University of Chicago Lab School, a 2020-21 IFSEL School.

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Deepening Approaches and Practical Tools for Middle and High School Advisors and Homeroom Teachers


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A simple, profound, and essential practice to maintain balance and guide decision-making for all ages (K-12th Grade)


IFSEL’s approach to Check-In offers a simple and profound practice that activates self- and group-awareness and is the foundation for all social and emotional learning.


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Introduction to an SEL-Rooted Advisory Program for New Advisors

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Practical strategies and approaches for being an authentic and accessible Advisor within an SEL-Rooted Advisory Program


This experiential workshop is designed for new advisors at schools that already have worked with IFSEL to build and deepen their advisory program.


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An ideal way for all current and prior IFSEL schools to welcome new faculty to this work.


This workshop will introduce IFSEL’s Whole-Community Approach to SEL through a series of meaningful and creative experiences.


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This 90-minute workshop will help teachers rediscover a sense of purpose, clarity, and calm for the coming months. (Grades K-5 or 6th-12th)


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