Alejandra Mendoza

2021 Amazing Educators - Columbia County Spotlight

School: Grant Watts Elementary
Why she is amazing: Mendoza keeps young students engaged and excited, even through Zoom sessions.

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SINGING AND DANCING THROUGH ZOOM KINDERGARTEN

Each morning, Alejandra Mendoza presents the question of the day to her class of kindergarteners at Scappoose’s Grant Watts Elementary School.

One by one, students unmute their Zoom microphone to answer the question. On a recent morning, the question of the day was “do you like to fish?”

Thirteen students said “yes,” nine students said “no.” Most of the 5- and 6-year-olds also shared facts about themselves; one student said that he was so quiet once that he managed to catch a fish, but then the fish escaped, taking the bait with it. Another student shared that she had a cool new shirt — but their pants are a hand-me-down from her sister, not part of a matching set.

Mendoza is in her third year of teaching at Grant Watts, meaning that she’s has just one full year of in-person instruction.

While a student at Washington State University, Mendoza saw a flyer for elementary education and quickly realized that might be something she would be good at and enjoy.

“That’s how I stumbled upon this career and absolutely fell in love with it,” Mendoza said. She was placed into first grade classrooms for student teaching and then worked as a substitute teacher for a year after graduating. After two years teaching kindergarten in Washington, Mendoza relocated to Oregon and started working at Grant Watts.

Remote learning presents challenges for any age group, she said, but particularly for younger kids who have less experience using technology and can be difficult to keep on task in any environment. “You kind of have to be like an actor to get their attention for that long,” Mendoza said.

Mendoza said that her students mastered the basics of the conference calls early on, learning how to mute or unmute themselves, turn video on and off, press links and more.

“I was very surprised how quickly the kids were able to catch on,” she said.

Still, online communication can be slow, with pauses when someone has tech issues, or when someone’s internet connection slows, leaving them unable to hear or speak.

 

Each week, Mendoza prepares a packet that students pick up and then complete at home while in the virtual classroom.

Those packets include activities to help kids develop their fine motor skills. Online, Mendoza uses songs and dances to relay information in a way that keeps kids engaged.

When remote learning started last March, teachers had the first part of the school year to develop relationships with each student. But with school entirely online this year, teachers have often had no in-person interactions with students.

Parents come to pick up the weekly packets from Mendoza, sometimes bringing along their children, which can provide at least a few helpful seconds of in-person interaction. Mendoza said that building connections with students over class video chats has been hard compared to the all-day classroom experience.

“But during my ‘question of the day’ in the morning, I’m starting to get to know the kids more by asking them certain questions. And then they can make those connections with their classmates,” Mendoza said. Sometimes the question of the day is silly, such “would you rather jump in a bowl full of Jell-O or chocolate pudding?” Other times, they’re more educational, like “do you have the letter ‘N’ in your name?”

Each kind of question helps Mendoza see how well students have grasped the lessons. Mendoza said she incorporates whole brain teaching in the virtual classroom. The whole brain model calls for a high-energy teaching routine that involves games, students repeating words and gestures back to the teacher, and having students teach each other.

“I do a lot of body movements with singing our letters, singing our sight words, learning how to add and subtract,” Mendoza said. “It’s a lot of that to keep them engaged and up and out of their seat.” Mendoza also incorporates Spanish into her class, though she said that’s been limited this year because she has less time with students. 

Learning multiple languages is good for your brain, she tells her students. That fact “gives the kids that are bilingual something to be proud of, that they’re able to speak both languages. And other kids that don’t have that opportunity, (it gets) them excited to learn a new language.”