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In-person literacy program morphs into a unique summer tutoring camp for Buffalo students


A unique lesson in community and learning emerged last summer when the pandemic stretched on after the semester ended and GSE began supporting the virtual summer camps set up by Buffalo’s Say Yes to Education Program to keep students engaged while school was out.

Connecting to a community and being flexible strengthens learning.

After Christiana Kfouri, PhD ’21, trained 10 GSE students to coach elementary school students in tutoring intervention at virtual camp sites throughout the city, they discovered a broader focus on community that made them better prepared to lead. As they worked, they found ways to keep students engaged and coming back to the optional, virtual sessions.

The summer program taught GSE educators and counselors in training an important lesson about the power of community in teaching: Feeling connected strengthens learning for young pupils and graduate students.

Image of Matthew Jackson.

Matthew Jackson

“Being with one another is really conducive to learning and being able to learn,” said Matthew Jackson, who is in his first year of study for a master’s degree in school psychology.  

Jackson facilitated a memorable reading session about travel and ocean life for third graders and was impressed by how easily the children connected with each other in a virtual setting. They noticed and asked about toys they could see on screen in Zoom. It was illuminating. The summer camp wasn’t mandatory, but because students were making friends with each other, they kept coming back.

During a lesson about the Great Barrier Reef, the campers came together even as they lost interest. One little girl held up a Barbie doll and another student chimed in happily, “Oh, Barbie’s coming?” Soon all the children were holding their dolls up to their screens.

Jackson and the other staff at the arts nonprofit Community Canvases decided to give the campers a break. They played music from Disney’s “Beauty and the Beast” as dolls floated back and forth on the screens.

“We had a big dance,” said Jackson. He and the staff realized the stakes were low. It was OK to focus on 15 minutes of spontaneous kid fun. This led to a key insight: Remaining flexible enhances learning.

Just seeing that they were able to form a sense of community and successfully learn through the summer was really important at a time when that seemed like that could be really difficult,” Jackson said.

By summer’s end, Jackson had widened his career interest beyond high school, which had been his original focus. “I do love the little kids a lot more than I thought I ever would,” he said.

Making connections from afar

Image of Julianna Casella.

Julianna Casella

Julianna Casella, a first-year PhD student in the counseling psychology and school psychology program, was living at home in Long Island as she worked at the same camp program as Jackson. For her, the experience led to a skill-building opportunity to lead the entire camp in a lesson about space.

She showed campers a virtual planetarium that could switch between views of stars and drawings that revealed the constellation shapes. She talked about how Orion was named for a hunter in Greek mythology. Students were soon writing in the Zoom chat that they could see the scorpion and bear in the stars.

During the lesson, a lot of the kids were really engaged. It gave me a lot of confidence in myself. It was just really gratifying that I could be teaching them and that they actually wanted to learn.”

She was also surprised by how seamlessly teachers shared ideas and resources on Google Docs. Even though she was at the other end of the state, it was as if she was in Buffalo with everyone else.

“It was really cool to see the connection that faculty at a school can still have from far away,” Casella said. “I think it definitely helps with effective learning and teaching. You were able to have a bunch of brains thinking about something instead of just one.”

There was another, unexpected bonus. She and Jackson became friends, a feat that has been more challenging during the pandemic when her GSE courses were virtual. It made for a much better first year of graduate school. “I felt much more at ease and comfortable in the classroom because I knew I had a friend,” Casella said.

A summer shift

Image of Christiana Kfouri.

Christiana Kfouri

The Say Yes virtual camp program wasn’t what Kfouri expected. In the end, that didn’t matter. The important thing was GSE educators in training got to try their skills in a dynamic situation and build rapport with students while supporting literacy skill development.

The virtual experiences  that have become so common during the pandemic have been a great opportunity. Home life on the other side of the Zoom screens, with dolls, toys and pets, help everyone get to know each other.

Insights, like these, about community, flexibility and adaptation have great promise to strengthen education when students return to classrooms, said Kfouri.

“Once you build that rapport, they’re going to open up. This is a great opportunity to get to know your students,” she said. “We’re so focused on this tunnel vision that we have to meet the needs of the curriculum We have to find a way to really know our students and really be able to meet those needs within the classroom setting.”

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