EVERETT — On a Friday morning just before Thanksgiving, the 22 first-graders in Miss Piatelli’s class look like old pros at the whole in-person school thing. The 6- and 7-year-olds sit together on the rug and listen quietly. Their hands shoot up when asked to give an answer. The wiggles, when they come, are few and far between.
A visitor to their classroom at the Albert N. Parlin School sees no obvious sign that they spent most of their milestone kindergarten year at home, learning the ABCs online amid a global pandemic. But Allison Piatelli and other first-grade teachers around Boston said their students’ classroom savvy is recent and hard-won, after some harrowing weeks of readjustment.
“If you’d been here on Sept. 1, you would have seen something very different,” said Piatelli, whose 22 students include 17 who are still learning English.
In Everett, where all schools stayed remote until last April, kindergarteners didn’t step inside their classrooms until spring. By the time they adjusted to the rules and routines, and a new environment inside a towering brick school in the bustling heart of this small, diverse city, it was time for summer vacation. Some never ventured into the school at all, choosing instead to stay remote through June.
As a result, teachers said, first-graders showed up this fall with more uncertainty and anxiety than usual, and far less familiarity with basic classroom etiquette like sharing, taking turns, listening, and sitting still.
“They had to learn how to be in school,” said Dennis Lynch, the Parlin School principal. “They’re coming from home into a room with 25 other kids, and they’re learning to adapt to our norms.”
Piatelli, who taught kindergarten before switching to first grade, said she sometimes felt like she was teaching both at once this fall. Whenever class dynamics broke down, she would back up and revisit basic lessons in communication and problem solving, she said, with help from her bilingual co-teacher, Alyssa Allen, who provides extra support to English learners.
“We had to teach them how to sit on the rug, how to play games with each other,” said Piatelli.
The teachers created a “Kindness Contract” and had each student sign it, to inspire healthier interactions with peers. A guidance counselor visited classrooms to provide supplemental lessons in resolving conflicts and “bucket filling,” the practice of sharing positive words and actions to build up others.
Along the way, there were rough patches. Piatelli remembers at least one day in early fall when she had to step out of the classroom, in tears, overwhelmed by the classroom demands. But by October, there were breakthrough moments.
“I remember one day when it was time for centers, and they all knew what to do — they got their Chromebooks and followed the directions, and I didn’t have to tell them,” she says. “I could see it was starting to click.”
Piatelli and Allen, like teachers in other districts, said their most critical task was patiently building relationships: taking time to get to know their students, and bond with them one on one, an investment that slowly improved the classroom atmosphere as the children began to feel safe, secure, and cared for.
Kristina Ward, a first grade teacher at Lincoln-Eliot Elementary School in Newton — and the mother of twin first-graders herself — said she, too, has prioritized relationships in her classroom, by “making time for small, meaningful interactions, asking them ‘How are you doing?’ and remembering to tell them, ‘We’re so happy you’re here.’”
“These kids have been all over the place,” Ward said. “If you spend a little extra time to build a relationship, then you’re in a position to make a plan, whether it’s for behavior or academics, and say to them, ‘OK, you and me, we’re going to do this.’”
Relationships between students have grown stronger too, and bonds first forged online have proven resilient. Ting-Ting Han, a first grade teacher at Winter Hill Community Innovation School in Somerville, delighted in the way her 16 students reconnected, even if they had never met in person.
“One student, who was remote all last year, came back this year and said, ‘You may not remember me, because I was on the computer’,” Han recalled. “And another student said, ‘Of course I remember you! You were our friend!”
Ward, a 10-year veteran of first grade, said she has been surprised by how excited her 20 students are about school — the special activities, like Wednesday yoga and “Freeze Dance Fridays,” but also the basics.
“Art in person; music in person — it’s all a big deal to them,” she said. “To them, it’s all new and exciting.”
For Parlin School first-grader Ashley Emmanuel — an outgoing only child dressed to the nines on a recent day in a plush pink hoodie, a mask with unicorns on it, and leggings patterned with kitty cats — the best part of in-person school this year has been the chance to interact with other children.
“I like school, and I think I got a friend,” the 6-year-old said proudly. “Her name is Genevieve, and she’s my best friend.”
At a table in the corner of the basement classroom, next to a large window, Emmanuel practiced reading simple phrases on a photocopied sheet. “Lots of things,” she articulated carefully, pointing at each word as she read it, as instructed by her teacher, Piatelli.
Emmanuel’s extra reading practice came during a part of the school day known as “WIN block” — it stands for “What I Need” — a new offering designed to help address pandemic learning gaps. Based on schoolwide testing this fall of all 1,000 students at the school, each receives 40 minutes of daily small-group intervention that targets their specific needs, said Lynch. Every eight weeks, the students rotate to new groups to work on different skills.
On follow-up tests, students have already shown significant gains, the principal said.
Lisa Fiore, a professor of education at Lesley University, said gaps are to be expected, given the recent and ongoing disruption. But she, like classroom teachers, stressed the importance of slowing down and prioritizing joy in learning.
“I hear so much concern about performance,” she said. “But in any year, there are children whose abilities fall across the spectrum, and they all make progress. … My message to parents is: relax and breathe.”