Falk Elementary Educators Describe the Value of Virtual Learning

Getting to know students and their families

First grade Falk Elementary teachers, Aila Bretl and Nikki Quevedo love learning the intricate  details about their student’s lives they’d never known before. 

Whether it’s a pet cat walking across the computer screen, a student proudly showing off a wiggly, loose tooth or a baby sibling cooing in the background, Aila and Nikki are connecting with their students in new and exciting ways because of virtual learning in MMSD. 

Nikki Quevedo has been an educator with MMSD for thirteen years, spending most of her career at Orchard Ridge Elementary and recently moving to Falk Elementary where her daughter currently participates in the the Dual Language Immersion (DLI) Program. 

“Getting to know students and their families over Zoom and SeeSaw has been the highlight of virtual learning,” said Nikki. “We get to meet the people they live with, see their pets, meet their grandmas and grandpas, and get a glimpse into their daily lives. This is something we might not get to do if we were teaching in person. It brings me joy and for this, I'm grateful.”

Aila Bretl began her educational journey with MMSD six years ago, starting out as a student teacher while studying at UW-Madison. She served as substitute teacher for the district for a semester before teaching full-time at Falk Elementary. 

“Virtual learning has definitely been an adventure with many opportunities to see our students whole selves,” said Aila. “There are certainly challenges involving equity and making sure all students have access to learning during the pandemic - but these challenges have pushed us to be creative and reflective in the lessons we teach our students.”

Classroom lessons that allow students to express themselves

Aila and Nikki are focusing on discussions about identity and community with their young scholars. They recently completed a project around why names are unique to an individual’s identity. Students were asked to interview someone in their family and find out who gave them their name, why it was chosen and what does it mean. 

Scarlett Xiong, a vibrant first grader at Falk eagerly shared with her class the origin of her name through the SeeSaw platform. “My name is Scarlett Chaoheung Xiong. My mom and dad liked the name Scarlett and my grandma gave me a middle name that is Hmong,” shared Scarlett. 

Nikki and Aila also interviewed their own parents and shared videos with their class revealing how their names were chosen. Students learned that Nicole’s dad wanted to name her Casiopoea, but her mom liked the name Nicole better.

Aila’s mom revealed that she wanted to give her a name honoring her Finnish heritage, so she chose Aila. She also shares the name Aila with a distant relative on her mom’s side of the family in Finland. 

In another community building activity, students were invited to interview a friend, parent or family member. The students asked their families about their favorite food, hobbies and more. “Just watching the joy that they brought to those interviews, it warmed my heart to be able to meet the people that care about our students and help them everyday in their learning,” said Nikki. 

In this adorable video, Amara Rodriguez, a Falk first grader, interviews her dad, José.

Virtual classroom challenges

One of the biggest challenges faced in virtual learning for younger learners according to Aila, is not being able to keep a pulse on her student’s emotional needs. 

“In the classroom you can put a hand on your student’s shoulder, you can call them over to your table and ask how they’re feeling and if they’re okay,” said Aila. “But on Zoom, the opportunity for discreet check-ins with students is difficult. It can be hard to achieve that personal connection with a student when not being in a physical classroom with them.”

For Nikki, her biggest challenge has been teaching students how to navigate technology remotely. In the classroom, she can pick up a marker and draw or write on the whiteboard, but in a virtual classroom she’s had to spend a lot of time working with each student to ensure they understand how to use the various virtual learning tools and technologies. 

Young learners are also surrounded by toys, gadgets, their favorite books and game consoles. Alia and Nikki have been able to minimize the environmental distractions by infusing lessons that encourage students to explore their culture, family background and identity. 

“Our students find joy in sharing their home lives with us, and in turn we’ve been able to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation for who they are. I feel like I know my students very, very well through virtual learning, and that brings me joy,” shared Nikki. 

 - Marlita Bevenue, MMSD Communications