Village Elementary teacher Crystal Garner is the Kato Family “Innovation in Education” Award winner for November. A fifteen-year veteran of the Coronado Unified School District, she explains that the year 2020 has necessitated tremendous shifts in educational instruction and required adaptability in the classroom. “I absolutely love fifth graders,” Crystal exuberantly notes about the grade she teaches, commenting on how seamlessly her students have pivoted to the current cohort classroom model in place at Village Elementary.
Overseeing a classroom of 31 students, she explains that starting the school year remotely was admittedly a challenge. “It took a lot longer to get to know the kids,” Crystal confides, stressing that establishing personal connections with students is critical to creating a classroom environment where students are inspired to learn. “You don’t get that in a virtual environment,” she clarifies, unless you are adaptive and fully utilize the educational and technological tools at hand.
Crystal realized this last spring, when schools were first forced to close, so she immediately began researching technological resources she could employ. “I started researching various platforms and options,” she explains, “plus I reached out to experienced teachers from around the world to learn more from them.” She contacted educators as far away as Singapore and Hong Kong, joined Facebook forums and online groups, and enrolled in tutorials and trainings to understand the nuances as well as difficulties of remote learning. She also partnered with her colleagues at Village Elementary, reciprocally sharing insights about what they had learned.
“Prior to last spring, I’d never used Zoom before,” Crystal notes. But by the time her students returned in the fall, Crystal had spent countless hours taking webinars, researching methodologies, and testing the functionality of this virtual platform. “I found that break-out rooms are a blessing,” Crystal explains, noting that early in the year she would purposefully ask students to meet with her in smaller groups, just to establish that sense of oneness. “I try to make them feel safe,” she stresses, noting that it takes individualized attention to build trust and rapport.
Now that students have returned to the classroom, convening in much smaller groups during morning and afternoon cohorts, her greatest challenge is trying to create a sense of normality. “Kids are craving normalcy,” she notes, “and creating that in a time that is far from normal isn’t easy.” Students sit behind plexiglass shields at individual desks, while wearing masks and maintaining social distance. That’s why she prioritizes classroom discussion while ensuring that every child’s voice is heard. Students use Flip Grids to showcase their work online, but dialogue frequently during their time together in class.
“Coming back to school has been fabulous,” Crystal exclaims, noting that the transition has gone very smoothly. “From the time my students walk in the door, they want to be doing something. They come into the room asking me, ‘What do we get to do today?’ They are truly eager to learn.”
One innovation that she has utilized for several years is a classroom blog to encourage not only in person, but also online communication. “The blog has proved to be an invaluable tool of communication during this time,” she explains. “I am so glad to have it!”
Perhaps her favorite classroom activity is “Picture Prompts” where the class is given an image and caption and each student is asked to write a story about it. “This helps make the writing process fun, and the students are anxious to share their work with others.” What is particularly notable is that the students truly relish using pencil and paper to write, enjoying the break from their keyboard and screen.
When asked what advice she would give parents during this most unusual academic year, Crystal is quick to state, “Be patient with them.” She also stresses that it is okay to let children make mistakes, explaining that it is through the trial and error process that a child’s brain develops. Likewise, encourage independence with your child, and allow them to take ownership and responsibility. Finally, keep the lines of communication open between parents and teachers, while maintaining positivity in all conversations about school.
In reflecting on her goals for this particular year, Crystal confides, “I want the kids to come out of this and say WOW, that was a really great year. Even thought it was different, I want it to be great, especially since fifth grade is such a pivotal time in a child’s life … their last year of elementary school!”
Crystal is married to retired Navy Captain Randy Garner. Their children are both graduates of Coronado High School, Lindsay (CHS ’13) and Robert (CHS ’17). Crystal received her undergraduate degree in economics from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She went on to earn both her teaching credential and a Master’s Degree in Education from National University.