400 and counting

Reflecting on the last year and feeling so much gratitude for all the families who trust/ have trusted me with their children. It remains astonishing to me that I am able to interact with so many families from all over the world from the comfort of my home. I’ve been “online” since the late 90’s and never imagined that my job would one day exist in this ephemeral space! My time in these joyful group learning experiences is nothing short of a blessing. Facilitating virtual learning experiences rooted in Reggio and Yoga inspired practices transcends the distance and the screen, and proves that responsive relationships are (and should always be) the foundation of education. Beautiful spaces are fantastic and much appreciated (and necessary!) but the relationships are really what make learning spaces magical. There are real connections being made and strengthened every day in this unique context of Outschool and I couldn’t be more excited about seeing where this journey will lead.

hello!

I’m grateful to everyone who reads this blog and visits this site, so just wanted to say thanks and (re)introduce myself. I have some exciting things in the works for Family Yoga and Reggio-inspired education that I’ll be sharing soon, but for now….

Mardi Gras 2021 mode

Hi! My name is Andrea, I’m an Early Childhood Educator, Yoga Teacher and Artist at heart. In my teaching practice I seek to honor a strong image of the child- meaning that I believe all children are capable and competent participants in learning experiences.

I began my career as an educator 16 years ago as a Teaching Artist in K-12 classrooms; I’m now an Early Childhood Educator and Yoga instructor facilitating virtual Reggio-inspired experiences and Yoga classes for children. I’m pursuing my Master’s in Innovative Early Childhood Education, with a focus on the Reggio Emilia approach to Early Childhood Education. Right now my main focus is on providing high quality, Reggio-inspired and Yoga-informed educational experiences via Outschool while I deepen my knowledge of the Reggio Approach to Early Childhood Education and conduct research on the possibilities for extending the reach of Reggio practices. My future plans include moving into the realm of educational policy and advocacy.

In addition to my work with children, I’m a Louisiana Pathways Trainer who provides professional development to Early Childhood Educators on the topic of Yoga and Mindfulness practices. I also offer an asynchronous course on this topic through Udemy.

I’m a 2020 graduate of Wild Lotus Yoga’s Soul School and a certified Children’s Yoga Instructor with six years experience teaching Children’s Yoga. My Yoga classes focus on sharing Yoga practices in engaging, child-friendly ways that encourage social-emotional learning, kinesthetic awareness, cognitive development and imaginary play. 

Along with Yoga, I love spending time with family, exploring outdoors, gardening and creating art. My friends and I created a Mardi Gras nonprofit, Krewe of Tradition, for my hometown of Houma, LA that continues to expand and delight. One of my favorite ways to decompress is by exploring Instagram and Tiktok- I am a huge proponent of mindful media intake, and have found these social media platforms to be beautiful spaces for connection and inspiration (follow the links if you’d like to connect there).

Thanks for reading!

If…

This is a book that opens minds and connects people. It is one of my absolute favorite books to share with young children because it opens up so much space for wonder, curiosity and freedom. One of the reasons why I began working in Early Childhood Education was to be able to spend time around humans who carry an uninhibited sense of artistic creativity and wonder. For better or worse, young children tell it like it is. I admire this trait in people and encourage it with children. With its beautiful images and mysterious questions “If…” presents a space for exploring other “what if’s” that’s both playful and sophisticated. I think this connects so strongly with young children because they too are playful and sophisticated.

image of the child

There are hundreds of different images of the child.
Each one of you has inside yourself an image of the
child that directs you as you begin to relate to a child.
This theory within you pushes you to behave in
certain ways; it orients you as you talk to the child,
listen to the child, observe the child. It is very
difficult for you to act contrary to this internal image.
For example, if your image is that boys and girls are
very different from one another, you will behave
differently in your interactions with each of them.

Loris Malaguzzi

Teachers who hold this strong image of children take up the roles of co-creator, partner, advocate and co-constructor of knowledge in their teaching practice. In my work as a facilitator of synchronous online learning experiences I am working to uphold a strong image of the child through respectful verbal and non-verbal communication during our class time and in the documentation I share with caretakers. In our classes this includes encouraging caregivers to afford children control of their mute/unmute button, asking open-ended questions, embracing “off-topic” sharing (i.e. if we’re looking at dinosaur images while the group is talking about dinosaurs and one child brings mermaids into the conversation I don’t discourage them from speaking about mermaids) and bringing attention to observation & documentation practices (i.e. showing children that I am writing down their answers, re-stating their answers/thoughts in ways that communicate respect & curiosity and sharing content informed by their interests). 

Many American factory-model schools seem to operate on a product-based, one-size-fits-all assimilation method that leaves little or no room for honoring the unique interests and abilities of children. For the most part, this approach maintains the notion that children should be “seen and not heard”, further betraying the image of the child by choosing to not actually see the child at all. Children who are able to keep hold of their hundred languages in these settings are often viewed as “problems” and eventually forced into the mold created by the adults or made to believe that their creative languages are things to also be practiced in a certain way (i.e. “art” = “everyone must follow the steps to make a frog that looks like this teacher-made frog or you’re not an artist”) In my experience as a student and teacher in traditional American school settings, it seems most of the barriers to supporting strong images of the child stem from adults who are products of generations of participation in the factory-model educational system. 

I am hopeful that through the practice of embracing curiosity, reconnecting to our unadulterated childhood inclinations and viewing children through the lens of respect and competency a path to overcoming these barriers will manifest in a way that reaches all children.

Reggio-inspired Education in the Virtual Space

Before I launch into my thoughts on this topic, I want to state that I know everyone is trying their best- especially in recent months. Parents of young children in particular are deserving of much grace and support as they work to navigate these trying times. I in no way mean to belittle or diminish anyone’s efforts as I look at parent engagement through the lens of innovative educational practices. My criticism in the paragraphs below (and posts to follow) is pointed at the traditional Western system of education and how that influences adults and children.

In my experience, young children essentially behave the same in the virtual learning space as they do in a physical learning space. The major difference between the experiences, as it relates to what I’m seeing during my Zoom/Outschool classes, is the influence and/or interference of caregivers. The children who are offered complete autonomy and children who attend meetings with a supportive caregiver (i.e. one who does not interfere with or interrupt their experience) consistently contribute to the group in ways that indicate authentic, reciprocal engagement. Occasionally children will participate in the experiences with caregivers who appear to be unsure of how to afford space in  a Reggio-inspired learning experience. In this latter category I get the sense that these caregivers are behaving the same regardless of the context. For example, even after I offer “best practice” suggestions of how to provide children with access to the class experience that are aligned with a strong image of the child, some caregivers will mute the child, restrict access to the device during the class and/or answer questions for the child if she hesitates or seems unsure of how to respond to an open-ended question. 

As I reflect on my teaching practice and the possibilities for bringing Reggio-inspired practices into the virtual space, I often return to the question of how to utilize documentation in my new, somewhat ephemeral classroom experiences. Loris Malaguzzi’s thoughts on documentation provide inspiration, as he explains in the Hundred Languages in Ministories, “Teachers must leave behind an isolated, silent mode of working that leaves no trace. Instead, they must discover ways to communicate and document the children’s evolving experiences at school. They must prepare a steady flow of quality information addressed to parents but appreciated also by the children and other educators. This flow of documentation, we believe, introduces parents to a quality of knowing that changes their expectations and their views about the experience their children are living; they take a new and more inquisitive approach toward the school experience. With regard to children, they become even more curious, interested, and confident as they contemplate the meaning of what they have achieved.”

In October 2020 broadened my documentation practice (which had once just included written notes and Zoom meeting recordings for documenting virtual classes) to include capturing screen grabs and more intentional recordings from some of my multi-day classes (with consent of the caregivers, of course). Through the process of creating and sharing these documented artifacts I discovered subtle details of the children’s actions and new ways of offering children and families to engage in their learning. Lately I’m thinking more about how the experience of participating in Zoom classes is in itself an experience in making learning visible. Many of the children appear to be keenly aware of their likeness on the screen and experiment with making adjustments to it by changing things such as facial expressions and distance from the screen. Many appear to be familiar with how they are seen by the camera and others; for example when sharing items from home they appear to be making adjustments to the items placement based on what they are seeing in their video box and/or hearing from other participants.

I am deeply encouraged by the Reggio-inspired messages regarding teaching as a practice that is meant to be reciprocal and active. When I read Carolyn Edward’s description in The Hundred Languages of Children on the role of the teacher in Reggio Emilia as one that “is complex, multifaceted, and necessarily fluid, responsive to the changing times and needs of children, families, and society.” I feel empowered to continue to fine-tune my teaching practices for the virtual space and I hope to offer caregivers, namely those who do not carry a strong image of the child, with a dynamic perspective about children’s abilities in the virtual learning space and beyond.

Outschool + Reggio-inspired Education

Like thousands of educators and families, I became aware of Outschool during the global shift to distance learning. Prior to March 2020 I was not familiar with online education options and only through engaging in distance learning with my class of once in-person students did I come to understand the possibilities for connection & exploration in the virtual space. Over the course of just a few weeks in March/ April 2020 Outschool added 40,000 new students and more than 1,000 teachers. While it is not clear what the numbers are at present (some sources list engagement in the millions), it is my understanding that many people share my experience and have made similar shifts- by transitioning their teaching practice to 100% independent online teaching and/or enrolling their children in virtual learning experiences as part of a homeschool experience or to supplement their school’s offerings. To me, the fact that there are so many people either engaging or having engaged with a platform like Outschool speaks to the notion that many people are seeking an educational experience that is more aligned with their values and unique interests.

Outschool provides learners ages 3-18 with innovative learning opportunities outside of the regular classroom. The site functions as an AirBnB-style marketplace and virtual school, providing families with access to thousands of live online classes offered by independent teachers. These classes take place in small-groups over live video chat with assignments and/or feedback between the live sessions. Families primarily use Outschool’s classes to provide children with opportunities to pursue interests that are not typically offered in school. 

This interview with Amir Nathoo outlines his journey to founding Outschool. Amir holds a MEng in Electrical and Information Sciences, is a self-taught programmer and began working in the field of computer science in the early 2000’s. He describes his formative years as being a time that was balanced by academic focus and a myriad of self-selected extracurricular activities including aviation, rowing and ballroom dancing. In 2016 he launched Outschool with Nick Grandy (the first engineer at Airbnb and a product manager at another education startup) and Mikhail Seregine ( helped build Amazon Mechanical Turk and Google Consumer Surveys) guided by the beliefs that “Online learning is poised to play a much larger role in kids’ education. We see a future where in-person learning is enhanced by online learning to offer a breadth and depth of educational opportunities not possible today.”  and “Rather than just using software in the classroom as a teaching tool, we’re looking to use it to transform the nature of the education system itself. We’re doing that by offering a new format for learning with a marketplace-based approach.”

Outschool’s core principles spark connections between the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy and other Reggio-inspired schools. Outschool believes that “choice empowers learners” and this is demonstrated by the practice of families & learners choosing teachers and classes based on their needs and interests. Outschool promotes access and opportunity by providing learning opportunities beyond what is offered in a child’s local school or community; thus serving as a way to meet the interests of the child. Outschool is informed by the belief that social experiences enrich learning and encourages learners and teachers to participate/ design classes that are collaborative in nature.

Outschool and the schools in Reggio Emilia, Italy were born from times and in places experiencing notable social, political and cultural shifts. Both are rooted in innovation and demonstrate an ongoing commitment to reimagining traditional educational approaches in ways that evolve to meet the needs of children and families. Reggio and Reggio-inspired schools are  “based on an image of children as curious, competent, and capable of co-constructing knowledge” and this is evident in the physical environment, documentation materials and myriad of professional development opportunities nurtured by the schools. Outschool shares the Reggio-informed beliefs that children should be given choice in their educational experiences and that social connection & community are valuable parts of the learning experience. 

Online learning in general continues to be met with criticism by some, primarily those who are cautioning parents against enrolling young children in online learning that does not include social components. Outschool founder Amir Nathoo responds to this by stating “It’s not enough for kids to just read [class] content,” says Nathoo, whose parents were both teachers. “They need the shared accountability. They need the interaction and engagement that they get from their peers.” Critics also point out the lack of equitable access to online learning opportunities (I see this reality as well and plan to visit it in a later post). To address this, Outschool offers financial assistance and recently launched a grant program through their non-profit arm Outschool.org that is geared towards providing greater access to the platform for families, schools & nonprofits. This approach is guided by questions of how to provide equal opportunity for education and as stated by the Executive Director of Outschool.org Justin Dent, “How do we want our children to be educated? Do we really want to settle for a society where something as arbitrary as a zip code wields so much power?” 

Outschool promotes and cultivates a greater understanding of human and civil rights by connecting people from many backgrounds in real time. Nathoo states, “The most inspiring moments for us come when we see learners join a class from diverse locations like California, Georgia, Utah, Ohio, Canada, Russia and Australia. They learn with each other and explore a shared interest led by a passionate teacher. In the current political environment, connecting learners from different backgrounds, cultures and views seems more important than ever. Luckily for us, we see this everyday.”

I think Outschool’s roots in innovation, accessibility and community have it poised to continue to grow into a global learning space that will continue to attract educators and learners while making the world feel a bit closer. The platform changed the course of my career and I am incredibly grateful for all of the opportunities it offers.

my journey to virtual educator

When everything changed for so many in March 2020 I was fortunate enough to be working for a school that shifted everyone, including the preschool staff and students, to distance learning. In early March we were encouraged to “think about” what we would offer, in the “unlikely” event of a school shut down…. On March 13th Governor Edwards made the call to close Louisiana schools and restrict activities across the state in an attempt to slow the rapid spread of COVID-19. Thankfully, my co-teacher and I took the news (and numbers) to heart early on and made plans/preparations for how we’d move our classroom and teaching practices to the virtual realm. Her background as a theater actress, educator and OTA student, combined with mine as a video producer, artist and educator made for a wonderfully harmonious shift to this more “performative” delivery of what we’d been doing with our group of twelve 2 and 3 year-olds. ((Living my Mr. Rogers/ Peewee dreams!)) Our first week of distance learning featured three meetings a day, with supplemental activities for children and families who were also trying to figure out how to make the transition to being work-from-home parents. We spent March through May in a similar routine, save for one “Spring Break”. Although these were days filled with so much uncertainty and fear, they were full of joy and laughter. Our class stayed connected through Google meets (and eventually… after getting over the worry of “Zoom bombs”…Zoom) nature, art and the stories & songs we loved. We showcased shared virtual field trips around the city and with special guests who shared their gardens and plants. So much symbolic and actual growth happened during this Spring and this complete immersion method of moving my teaching online proved to be career (and life) altering.

Throughout the Spring, like so many around the world, I worried. I worried about the health of family & friends. I worried about the health of strangers. I worried about what my job would look like in the Fall. I acknowledge (and in no way mean to discount my privilege here) the fact that I even still had a job and the option to continue that job in the Fall is indicative of my (white) privilege and something that I know separates me from many. Regardless, this is my reality. During this period of March through May I continued to co-facilitate Reggio-inspired virtual meetings for preschoolers, and every day I fell more in love with the possibilities for taking my teaching practice online.

In April I began offering the children’s Yoga classes (that I’d taught in-person since 2015) online, meanwhile I was finishing my 200hr Yoga Teacher Training in the virtual realm. The combination of the incredible wealth of resources in this YTT program and my existing roster of “Yoga families” helped light the way for also becoming an online Yoga teacher.

The possibility of exposing my husband (who is at high risk for developing complications) to COVID-19 because of my work was (and remains) too high a price to pay for some semblance of job security. I love in-person teaching, but cannot rectify the risk with any of the rewards. In May 2020 I asked about options for continuing to teach virtually in the Fall for my school, and since there were none I decided to move on and attempt to make a go of teaching/working completely online on my own. I formed Bluebird LLC in June 2020, with a vision to somehow move all of my teaching / work online, although at that time I wasn’t entirely sure what that would look like. Thanks to the SBA pandemic relief fund I was able to secure a deferred payment low-interest loan that helped recover some of the income I’d lost from the cancellation of my in-person Yoga classes in the Spring (these classes ran through a school, and they were unable to accommodate moving “after school enrichments” online).

Making the shift to independent 100% online teaching over the summer was a logical (albeit tedious, at times) transition. I enjoyed some wonderful private lessons with families from my in-person teaching during this time, but knew I had to do the work to “spread my wings” since most of these children would be returning to in-person instruction in the Fall. After a few months of teaching Yoga online to families of local once in-person students, enrollments dwindled due to families returning to work/ children returning to summer camps. This inspired me to sharpen my focus on casting a wider net….

Enter Outschool, VIPKid and more Zoom classes.

While engrossed in the work of teaching/ applying & getting accepted to teach on Outschool, & VIPkid/ applying & getting accepted to Graduate school (more on this to come) / creating classes & content/ learning VIPKId content (more on this later…yipes)/ connecting with families online/ getting TEFOL certified/creating & sharing PD content for ECEs/ etc. I also applied for an average of three jobs a week at as many online opportunities as I could find (like so many others…)… thankfully, I was eligible for Unemployment assistance due to my husband’s health needs & the pandemic. In the three months that I took UI I was also working to build my business and my online classes (doing all the tasks listed above + sterile/necessary things like accounting); with the help of this much-needed support (along with stimulus payments) I made the transition to being completely sustained by my classes on Outschool…eventually surpassing what I was earning as an in-person teacher at a private school.

I have a lot to share about my ongoing experiences with Outschool and embracing the role of virtual educator, and will offer more in another post. If anyone is looking to make a go at independent virtual teaching I’m happy to connect!

New Year Traditions

2021


Every other New Year I re-start my blog…so in the spirit of tradition and trying again here we go! In this iteration I plan to share about my Master’s degree explorations in Innovative Early Childhood Education, my journey from in-person to virtual educator, Yoga, art-making and motherhood.