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Why Learning Pods Might Outlast the Pandemic

I visited on a Tuesday morning recently. The little apartment felt like a refuge from the beleaguered city. Toussant was sitting at a narrow desk in the kitchen, preparing the day’s lesson plan, while John Coltrane’s “Blue Train” played on a speaker. Before COVID, Toussant had been angling for a lead teaching job. “I realized, this is my opportunity,” she said of the learning pod. “It may not be in a traditional school, but it’s the same concept.”

At 9 A.M., the kids bounded in. (They’re being identified by pseudonyms.) A boy named Eastwood arrived, wearing army pants and a Spider-Man shirt. He hugged his father, Ekow N. Yankah, a law professor, at the door. “Who loves you more than Papa?” Yankah asked.

“Nobody!” Eastwood, who is now five, said, before running to hang up his backpack.

Robinson’s husband dropped off their daughter, Titania, who was wearing a pink skirt and a headband with pink pompoms on it. “Hi, Miss T.,” she said to Toussant.

A boy named Zachary burst in behind her. “It was so much work!” he gasped.

“What?” Toussant asked.

“Walking to school!”

Toussant scanned the children’s foreheads with an infrared thermometer—per pod protocol—and hustled them to the little work tables. “Four minutes till we have to get on Zoom!” she chirped. All six children in the pod are still enrolled at public schools, and they attend in-person classes a few days a week, on different schedules. That day, Toussant was facilitating multiple Zoom sessions. She helped Titania, Zachary, and Young’s son, Sky, put on headphones and get situated in front of their tablets. “The fun part is memorizing all their computer passwords and all the passwords to get into the Zoom meetings,” Toussant told me. Teachers appeared on the tablet screens, reading picture books and holding up calendars. The children wiggled, gestured, and occasionally shouted out answers to questions.

Two children did not have morning Zoom sessions: Daisy, because she attends a different school from the others (P.S. 3), and Eastwood, who is in pre-kindergarten. Toussant gave them handwriting worksheets to keep them busy. “What letter are we going to practice today?” she asked. Eastwood said that they were practicing the letter “S.”

“I know the S-word,” Daisy announced.

Eastwood giggled. “I only know the D-word,” he said.

Zachary looked up from his screen with interest. Toussant shushed them. “Let’s be quiet,” she said. “We have friends right next to us on Zoom meetings!” She told them to do their worksheets in the gym.

When the children aren’t on Zoom, Toussant instructs them, following a curriculum of her own devising. (According to O’Connor, many pod leaders have been tasked with creating curriculums, with little guidance from the schools.) She’s led several discussions about race, reading the class books such as “Don’t Touch My Hair!,” by Sharee Miller, and “Mixed Me!,” by Taye Diggs, about a boy who has mixed-race parents. The children have been eager to explore their similarities and differences. During one discussion, Toussant recalled that Eastwood put his hand next to another student, Jiva, and said, “You’re brown like me.” And then Daisy went over to Sky and said, “I think we’re both white.” They talked about the different countries their parents were from—Jamaica, Ghana, Pakistan—and the significance of Kamala Harris becoming “the first brown woman” to serve as Vice-President. “They were so into it,” Toussant said.

On the academic front, Toussant found games and activities that would help the kids practice the skills that they were learning in school on their “on” days. Kindergarten is when most children begin to learn how to read. Toussant has the kids play Go Fish and Hangman to practice sight words—common words, such as “the,” “and,” and “like,” which they need to recognize on sight rather than having to sound them out. But their favorite activity is a quiz game called Math Jeopardy, in which they practice addition, subtraction, and simple geometry. (Toussant has also instituted Friday spelling quizzes, a practice that was used by her own elementary-school teachers.)

When I visited, Toussant had three exercises planned: a phonics game that involved rolling dice and spelling words, another handwriting exercise, and a math worksheet that used counting cubes. But she’d learned not to attempt anything too ambitious after the morning Zoom sessions. “They’re just bouncing off the walls,” she said. Instead, she gave the kids thirty minutes of Choice Time, to unwind. Titania chose crafting, making purses out of construction paper and plastic jewels. Daisy and Sky played with Magna-Tiles. Zachary and Eastwood swung from ropes in the gym. “I’m pretending the floor is lava,” Eastwood explained.

At 11 A.M., they had a morning meeting. The students sat on the alphabet carpet, and Toussant stood at a whiteboard, holding a pointer. “Good morning, West 4th Pod!” she announced. They called out, in unison, “Good morning, Miss T.!” They reviewed the day’s schedule, and then it was time for a ritual called Community Circle. “Anything they want to talk about, we’ll talk about it,” she explained. “They can share things and ask questions.”

Four- and five-year-olds are more sophisticated than we give them credit for, Toussant said: “They want to know everything.” In addition to race, they have tackled topics such as Presidential elections, same-sex marriage, and their bodies. It helps knowing that the pod parents are open-minded. “They want their children to be having these conversations,” she said.

That day, they were concerned with less weighty topics. Eastwood made an announcement. “Today is my brother’s birthday,” he said. “My mom let him open an early present this morning.” There was a discussion about the present and about an upcoming birthday party that Sky would be having in the pod. “We’re going to have a piñata!” he said. For my benefit, Toussant steered the discussion toward pod learning. “Why are we in a pod?” she asked.

“Because of the coronavirus!” the kids said, in unison.

They talked about the ways it differed from regular school. “We’re at somebody’s house,” Titania said. “It’s also a smaller group.” The children agreed that they were learning more in the pod than they had been before.

There were a few drawbacks. “I miss the playground,” Eastwood said.

“I don’t get to go outside anymore, because of the virus,” Daisy complained. Titania said, “I miss being in big groups, because we had more friends.” She talked about the other children who she used to play with at school, before the pandemic.

I felt a pang. These kids were the lucky ones, but they were still under strain. Once the novelty and excitement wore off, pod learning was just spending day after day in a tiny apartment, with five other children.

At this point, several kids were writhing on the floor. Toussant announced, “O.K., friends, we’re going to stand up for a minute, because your bodies are a little wiggly.” She played “ABC,” by the Jackson 5, and they had a brief dance session.

There’s one thing that everyone seems to agree on about this school year: when it’s over, the gap between the wealthy and the poor, already enormous in New York City, will have become a chasm. O’Connor has been tracking low-income families from past research projects, and, in general, she said, the education picture is grim. Some children are babysitting younger siblings while attempting to do their own remote learning. “Last year, some kids were not able to even get on remote,” she said—meaning their academic growth was likely stunted.

Meanwhile, under Toussant’s tutelage, the children in the West 4th Pod have pulled past their peers. They started reading, according to Toussant, several months ahead of schedule. Eastwood, the preschooler, is even further ahead. (Robinson said, of her daughter, “We weren’t even sure she’d learn how to read this year. Instead, she’s coming home and trying to teach her baby sister how to read.”) Something similar has happened with math. Young said, of her five-year-old son, Sky, “He’s doing math at the level of my second grader.” When the kids were beginning to solve first-grade-level “story problems”—arithmetic exercises that involve reading a scenario and then solving a math problem—Toussant started to hold back on some types of math instruction, out of concern that the kids would be bored when they return to regular school. (The parents later asked her, after a vote, to keep going.) The experience has made Toussant a small-group-learning enthusiast. “These six kids are now my purpose every day,” she told me. “To be able to deal with them in such an intimate setting, where you can focus on everyone’s individual needs—I wish this were something that all parents could do for their children.”

Not all learning pods have been so successful. “I’ve heard a lot of nightmare pod stories from my friends,” Robinson said. “It’s basically like being on a co-op board. And, as everyone in New York City knows, that can be a headache.” Many pods have fallen apart due to disagreements over COVID safety, or personality clashes among the parents, teachers, and students. O’Connor described a pod that fell apart because the parents felt that one child was monopolizing the teacher’s attention. “In a bigger setting, with twenty-five kids and multiple teachers, that probably wouldn’t have happened,” she said. The virtue of learning pods is also their flaw: with fewer people involved, it puts more pressure on individual relationships.

Source: Why Learning Pods Might Outlast the Pandemic

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