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Ocean week, rhymes and video chats: College of Education grad makes student teaching count

Digital Demons: Rising Up Remotely

Nora Gaul
Nora Gaul student taught first graders and preschoolers remotely during the spring of 2020 and graduated from DePaul's College of Education with a degree in early childhood education. She says it taught her how to be flexible and that she grew as a teacher. (Image courtesy of Nora Gaul)

When Nora Gaul told her grandmother, a retired teacher, about finishing her student teaching remotely due to the pandemic, she wasn't so sure. “She told me 'that's not going to count.' And I told her, 'Grandma, I think it's going to count!'"

As it turned out, Gaul's student teaching counted more than ever. 

For Gaul's first grade and preschool students at Hayt Elementary School in Chicago, she was a caring, creative presence tuning in to their lives during a stressful time. Through math lessons, songs and alphabet games, Gaul encouraged her young students to finish out the school year strong. This fall, she's landed her first job teaching first grade at a Catholic school in Chicago.

“I took the situation I was given and made the most out of it, trying to grow as much as possible as a teacher," Gaul says.

This was not her first time in the classroom. Since her first quarter at DePaul, Gaul has been working with students, starting in a toddler classroom in Lincoln Park.

“I think it helps you grow as a teacher when you are able to apply what you learn in your classes in-person with a group of kids. That's really special about DePaul and something I don't think a lot of programs offer their teachers," she says.

Long before the school buildings closed, Gaul had already established a close working relationship with her cooperating teachers and students.

“When the pandemic hit, and we considered how it would affect our student teachers' experiences, I knew Nora would thrive despite it all," says Marie Donovan, associate professor and director of early childhood teacher education in DePaul's College of Education. “For Nora, shifting to remote teaching and learning simply meant changing how she continued to build those relationships, and how she continued to teach the knowledge and skills she knew her students were ready to learn.".

Adapting and connecting with children

Gaul was in the classroom teaching first graders at Hayt in March when the pandemic sent students home. Quickly pivoting, she planned lessons to engage with her students online. She taught math using recorded PowerPoint presentations with her voice dubbed, making it easier for students to follow along independently at their own pace.

Nora Gaul and student
Nora Gaul and a student on the first day of classes at St. Hilary School in Chicago. (DePaul University/Maria Hench)

To finish her early childhood education requirements, Gaul worked with preschoolers at Hayt. Each week she chose a theme, offered interactive activities and connected with four or five preschoolers at a time.

“One week I highlighted oceans. We read a book about the ocean, watched a video and drew sea animals," Gaul says. She helped her cooperating teacher troubleshoot technology issues.

“In many ways, it was great preparation for teaching and for building compassion for students and families. We just had to be flexible and understanding of families' day-to-day schedules," Gaul says. “Parents might be working, on the front lines or an essential worker."

Many of the students were also English Language Learners, or ELL, so Gaul made sure to use pictures and visuals to keep them engaged.

When Donna Kiel, an instructional assistant professor at DePaul, reached out about co-teaching a lesson to preschoolers in China, Gaul felt comfortable enough with remote learning to say yes. They connected with the classroom via Zoom, and did lessons on the human body and transportation.

“Nora was engaging and animated, and knew how to mirror activities for the kids," Kiel says. “They were riveted."

A classroom of her own

In the spring, Gaul and her family celebrated her graduation during the university's virtual ceremony. The College of Education held a Zoom watch party as well.

“That was really cool to participate in and to see some of my professors," she says. A few days later, Gaul wasn't expecting it when her mom surprised her with a socially distant backyard party at her grandparents' house. She put on her cap and gown took some family photos. “They read my name and I walked across the patio," Gaul ​says.

By then, her grandma knew that all that hard work really did count.

Now Gaul is getting her first grade classroom at St. Hilary School in Chicago ready for her students. She is grateful for the opportunities she had at DePaul, and for the formative experience she had learning to teach remotely in the spring.

“We don't know what's going to happen and unfortunately we are still living in a pandemic," she says. “I think as much remote teaching experience as you can get is really important, especially right now."