The camera flicks on, and here’s Mr. Gallagher again: Today, he’s dressed as Spiderman.
Kevin Gallagher, or Mr. Gallagher as his Bryant Elementary kindergartners know him, is home filming a YouTube lesson. Gallagher zips up his Spidey-sweatshirt until his head disappears into a hood-turned-mask. “I’m going to take attendance this way today because that is just funny,” he says.
He pulls out a yellow highlighter, recites his students’ initials and gives each a little wave. Gallagher then rings a bell and waves a tiny American flag. It’s time for the pledge of allegiance.
In the days since school buildings shuttered, Gallagher has done what many considered to be nearly impossible: keep his young learners regularly engaged online, even now into the summer months, as they prepare to enter first grade.
In the great online learning experiment that’s unfurled here and across the nation, there’s concern our youngest children have been largely left out. Statewide surveys didn’t track whether that’s true, but the state’s education department is suggesting schools that reopen buildings begin with those in pre-kindergarten through fifth grade first.
In ordinary times, early learners spend their days using play and group time to learn; counting pennies helps with addition and subtraction, picture cards help with vocabulary. School is song and dance and sorting through bins of rocks or feathers. It’ll be hard to pull off in socially distanced classrooms in the fall. It was even tougher to translate to a screen.
But Gallagher, who has taught kindergarten for more than 30 years, has found a way to do it.
His answer: daily, short YouTube videos that mimic what he’d teach in person. He dresses up — he has more than 30 festive ties and countless colorful button-ups and costumes — and uses props to keep lessons lively. Some days, he reads story books aloud or works through math sheets on screen. He also spends time talking frankly about emotional topics: transitioning to first grade, daily life during a pandemic and protests over the police killing of George Floyd.
He’s a fast talker and thinker, but finds just the right pace for each lesson. Slow and contemplative when reading a Langston Hughes poem, explanatory when filming his collections of quilts or vintage German toys. The videos, his students’ families say, offer a hopeful model for what early education can look like if remote learning continues. It is expected here and elsewhere at least part of the time next school year.
“Mr. Gallagher performed some kind of miracle,” said Christina Hanson, mother of 6-year-old Cassidy Hanson. “Not only does he understand how kids think, but he cares about how they feel. Somehow, through a screen, Cassidy was able to feel that.”
On March 12, the day schools abruptly closed in Seattle, Gallagher had 15 minutes to break the news to his kindergartners and usher them out of Bryant Elementary’s Room 103 one last time. There would be no more daily business meetings — when students sit at the front of the room and share news, like what they had for breakfast. No more working at tables together. No more recess.
Their little faces dropped. Five-year-old Louisa Plummer silently wept.
But inside Gallagher’s virtual classroom — his dining room, kitchen, guest room, at varying times — school would continue. His students traveled across the U.S. as he filmed a giant map and taught about the Census. In a series on personal responsibility, Gallagher reminded his students to help with chores at home. On April Fool’s Day, students watched as Gallagher donned an “invisibility cloak” and pretended to be hidden.
The videos are short, 10 minutes or less in most cases, and now make up a catalogue of more than 400 lessons accessible to anyone; he has more than 70 followers on his YouTube channel but only 24 students. This style of teaching is based on a technique called the “flipped classroom,” which involves instruction at home or before class. Before the pandemic, the model relied on collaboration between students and teachers during classroom time — a challenge once buildings closed.
Gallagher’s method isn’t perfect. Uploading videos to YouTube, instead of hosting them live, keeps him from interacting directly with his students in real-time.
Louisa, the 5-year-old, was upset one day when during a lesson she raised her hand and Gallagher didn’t call on her. Gallagher couldn’t see her, of course. She was watching the video long after he’d filmed it. For several weeks, Louisa worked attentively at a table she’d set up to look like her school desk, her dad Bren Plummer said. Eventually, Plummer said, Louisa lost steam.
But the model worked well for other reasons. YouTube videos can stream on smartphones, so students without access to a computer could watch them; all of his students had reliable internet access, he said. Bryant Elementary is primarily made up of white students, who tend to be better supported by the education system relative to children of color, and who may be more likely to have a device or be connected than their peers. The uploads gave families flexibility to tune in whenever was convenient. Gallagher also gave students and families time each week to meet with him virtually and air thoughts or concerns about how school was going. Students occasionally sent him photos of their work.
“Parents just became full-time caretakers, they’re still an employee someplace who is now working from home, and now they’re a teacher,” Gallagher said. “My thinking was, I’m going to give you 30 to 70 minutes a day and you just do it when you can or want to.”
Gallagher became a pro as the weeks wore on. Instead of spending every afternoon filming and uploading — a process that took unexpectedly long — he’d film days worth of videos at a time.
Katie Sorsensen, who worked as an intern teacher in Gallagher’s classroom this year and was just hired full time at Bryant, in Ravenna, says she was “blown away by his love, his passion for teaching.” In her first few weeks under his mentorship, she said, she took down 300 pages of notes she hopes to remember. This spring, she helped by filming videos of her own.
During the last week of school, Gallagher returned to Bryant to give his students a tour of “the big Back There” — an oversized closet at the back of his classroom with a creaky door. Gallagher spends the year building this up as a mysterious, no-go zone he promises to show his students at year’s end. This time, his students visited virtually.
Before he switched the camera off, he moved the camera in to focus on Room 103 for a few fleeting seconds. Empty tables were spaced far apart. It was quiet.