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Two Virtual Grades, One Great Foundations Educator

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way educators run their classrooms, and Susan Leieritz, teacher at Foundations Academy, is no exception. She previously taught first grade at Foundations before transitioning over to teaching both kindergarten and first grade virtually. ​​​​​​​

She has taken this new challenge in stride and has made teaching both grades her own. “This in itself is no easy task,” said Jeremiah Whalen, lower elementary dean at Foundations. “As both grade levels of students are working to develop foundational skills in reading and math, we find most kindergarten and first-grade students at different places in their development.”

Though she had experience teaching both grades, nothing could have prepared her for the unseen events of the COVID-19 pandemic and for teaching kindergarten and first grade virtually in the same year.

“With all of its challenges, I've enjoyed teaching virtually because the format has made it necessary for me to teach phonics and math exclusively in small groups, anything larger really wouldn't work for such young kids. I feel more effective because I can really focus in on each and every child and what they are doing, what they are ‘getting,’ and where they are struggling,” said Ms. Leieritz. ​​​​​​​

Ms. Leieritz appreciates the opportunity to see the progression between kindergarten and first grade in terms of the curriculum, which she believes enables her to better understand how to support her students’ growth.

She has a solid understanding of both grades, so she’s able to see where kindergarteners are heading, what foundational skills first graders should already have, and how to support students who don’t have those skills.

“The best thing about Ms. Leieritz is her knowledge and understand of building foundational skills in students,” said Mr. Whalen. “She effectively assesses her students and places them into appropriate groups, so that she is able to target instruction to build upon their needs. This isn’t easy when you are focused on just one grade, but Ms. Leieritz is doing this for two different grade levels of students, and her students are excelling. In the building Ms. Leieritz was known for her classroom management and her ability to get the most out of kids. She has done an amazing job of converting those skills to the virtual space. In my observations, I have seen great virtual classroom management and wonderful engagement from very young students!”

The grades may only be a year apart but teaching them both in the same year has shown Ms. Leieritz some of the similarities and differences. She notes that both of her groups are focused on learning and are excited to learn.

“There's more silliness with kindergarteners than with first graders, but I encourage a bit of silliness from everybody because I believe that it makes learning come more naturally,” said Ms. Leieritz. “In both groups, the brightness in the room ratchets up just the same when somebody's proverbial lightbulb suddenly flashes on.”

Ms. Leieritz loves being on the ground level of teaching reading, including phonics and read alouds, and she believes that reading is the gateway to all other knowledge. She said that reading sets students down many different paths simply by opening a book, clicking a headline, or clicking links in a Wikipedia article that takes students down an entirely new line of questioning.

“I want to make sure that every single child has that ‘magic wand’ to open any door to either knowledge or imagination that they could possibly want to open,” said Ms. Leieritz. “The idea that a child might grow up unable to access any knowledge they choose because they can't read capably just saddens me.”

She remembers learning phonics as a child and even taught her own children to read using phonics prior to entering kindergarten.

“There are too many words in the English language to depend on memorizing every word that might cross the page,” said Ms. Leieritz. “You have to have the skills to attack an unfamiliar word, and phonics gives you that. Not only that, understanding phonics rules improves your ability to spell words as well. Spelling bee champions routinely study word origin because knowing where a word comes from helps them to figure out how to spell it. I think along the same lines for my students by deeply understanding phonics rules myself, and then teaching them the rules, so that they can figure out how to spell a word.”