A look inside Richland County SC teacher’s online classroom

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Round Top Elementary School kindergarten teacher Meghan Sonatore interacts with her students on the first day of school.

Provided photo

It became one of the many unexpected stories of 2020: Remote working. Wake up, open laptop, commence video chatting.

Imagine when the faces looking back at you on the computer screen at 9 a.m. are those of 24 easily distracted 5-year-olds. This is the view that kindergarten teacher Meghan Sonatore has had for much of the last school semester.

“What am I supposed to be doing?” a student exclaimed from her unmuted microphone one morning before Ms. Sonatore had a chance to explain the lesson.

“You just have to laugh,” Sonatore said.

Sonatore and her students alike are navigating this year at Richland County’s Round Top Elementary School in a way they’d never expected — largely through computer screens.

As the coronavirus pandemic persists, the Richland 2 school district, like many others, shifted between virtual and in-person learning schedules through the fall in an attempt to stem the virus’ spread. When students and teachers return from winter break in January, they’ll do so fully online for at least two weeks.

Now in her second year as a teacher, Sonatore explained the chaos of virtual learning at Round Top Elementary but also said that the students have adapted pretty well, surviving what will perhaps be the most unusual year of schooling in their lifetimes.

The kids know how to mute and unmute their microphones and even use the chat feature for certain assignments. Though, because some have never been to school before, they are still learning classroom norms, such as needing pencil and paper every day for lessons.

While the kindergarteners are able to use the technology, they are not always able to stay focused.

“You have to be on 24/7, I mean in everything with kindergarten, you have to be singing, dancing, jumping to keep their attention. But it’s, like, even more so virtually,” Sonatore said.

Many of the students have been attending online school while in a day care setting, which further complicates the situation and makes getting their attention even harder.

While teaching kindergarten has become increasingly difficult, Sonatore continues to persevere because of her love for teaching.

Sonatore’s passion for teaching was inspired by her own kindergarten teacher, Ms. Goworek, in New Jersey. Goworek still stays in contact and also gave Sonatore advice when interviewing for the teaching position she has now.

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Meghan Sonatore, pictured at 5 years old, is now a kindergarten teacher at Round Top Elementary School in Richland County. Cathy Sonatore Provided photo

Sonatore started teaching at Round Top Elementary in 2019. She was assigned an assistant who happened to be someone she worked with closely during high school in a student teaching program.

“She comes every day with so much excitement and joy, which is evident in how she interacts with her students. Every lesson is engaging and fun,” said Linda Nelson, Sonatore’s teaching assistant.

Nelson is adjusting to the virtual setting as well.

“Of course, teaching virtually doesn’t have the same effect as in-person learning. The impact of being able to build one-on-one relationships with each student and to see them interact with each other is priceless” and harder to do online, Nelson said.

The duo’s biggest challenge when it comes to virtual learning is not having their “babies” in the classroom with them.

Nikki Collins is a parent to one of those “babies” and said she enjoys the charisma Sonatore brings to the virtual classroom. She said Sonatore creates incentives and goes out of her way to keep the class attentive and involved.

“She lets them earn points for good behavior toward pajama day, hat day, dance party day, etc. She also has the cutest songs to learn by,” Collins said. “My daughter absolutely adores Ms. Sonatore.”

Sonatore said she enjoys creating incentives for the kids because they get excited so easily.

“You would have thought I told them they won a million dollars or something,” Sonatore said. “Pajama day was lit, they were so excited.”

As Sonatore works to provide the best online experience for her students, she has been learning virtually as well.

Sonatore is working to earn her master’s degree in curriculum and instruction from American College of Education. One day she hopes to train and educate other teachers as a lead teacher for the district.

“She truly radiates joy each and every day,” said Aimee Hinks, a technology and learning coach from Pontiac Elementary who was Sonatore’s mentor during her last semester of college and has stayed in touch with her in the two years since then. “Her joy is contagious and definitely makes an impact on her students. I don’t think I have ever seen Meghan without a smile on her face.”

She said Sonatore’s work ethic and love for teaching is what allows her to succeed in a virtual classroom environment.

Hannah Cummings, Sonatore’s close friend and coworker, is also adjusting to the virtual classroom. Cummings teaches third grade at Round Top Elementary, and she looks to Sonatore as a role model.

“She puts others first, evident not only in her personal life, but also with her students,” Cummings said. “Just like she inspired me in dance and when we were younger, she continues to inspire me to be a better teacher and friend every day.”

Cathy Sonatore, Meghan’s mother, said that Meghan gained some of these qualities early on in her life.

“Meg was always, always, always happy, and always dancing,” said Cathy Sonatore. “It seemed like kids were always drawn to her, so I’m not surprised she ended up being a teacher.”

Cathy Sonatore said her daughter treats her students as her own kids and really cares for them. “She wants them to be happy, to learn, and just to enjoy school,” she said.

As much as that positive energy is helpful in keeping students engaged, Sonatore is still focused on the goals she has for their learning.

Right now, she is determined to teach all of her students to become writers by the end of the school year — a task made much harder through a computer screen.

“You have to teach them all this stuff that you don’t even think about,” Sonatore said. “Some of them we have to teach how to hold a pencil, so it’s a lot.”

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