When Crystal Garner, a 15-year veteran of the Coronado Unified School District, learned that she had been selected as the second Kato Family “Innovation in Education” Award winner, she was overjoyed. “I absolutely love fifth graders,” Garner admits, noting that pivoting to the current cohort classroom model has gone remarkably well.
With 31 students enrolled in her classroom, starting the school year remotely was admittedly a challenge. “It took a lot longer to get to know the kids,” Garner explains, stressing that establishing personal connections with students is a priority for her. “You don’t get that in a virtual environment,” she clarifies, “unless you are adaptive and fully utilize the educational and technological tools at hand.”
Garner realized this early on, when schools were forced to shutter their doors last spring, and immediately began researching educational options. “Prior to last spring, I’d never used zoom before,” Garner notes. “So, I started reading up on that technology, and reached out to experienced teachers from around the world to learn more from them.” She contacted educators as far away as Singapore and Hong Kong, joined Facebook forums and online platforms, and enrolled in tutorials and trainings to understand the intricacies of remote learning. She also partnered with her colleagues at Village Elementary, reciprocally sharing insights about what they had learned.
“I found that break-out rooms are a blessing,” Garner remarks, explaining how, early in the year when school was completely remote, she would purposefully ask students to meet with her in smaller groups, just to establish that sense of oneness. “I try to make them feel safe,” she stresses, noting that it takes individualized attention to build that type of trust.
Now that students have returned to the classroom, convening in much smaller groups during morning and afternoon cohorts, her greatest challenge is trying to create a sense of normality. “Kids are craving normalcy,” she notes, “and creating that in a time that is far from normal isn’t easy.”
Students sit behind plexiglass shields at individual desks, while wearing masks and maintaining social distance. That’s why she prioritizes classroom discussion while ensuring that every child’s voice is heard. Students use Flip Grids to showcase their work, and dialogue frequently during their time together in class.
“Coming back to school has been fabulous,” Garner exclaims, noting that the transition has gone very smoothly. “From the time my students walk in the door, they want to be doing something. They come into the room asking me, ‘What do we get to do today?’ They are truly eager to learn.”
One innovation that she has utilized for several years is a classroom blog to encourage not only in person, but also online communication. “The blog has proved to be an invaluable tool of communication during this time,” she explains. “I am so glad to have it!”
Perhaps her favorite classroom activity is “Picture Prompts” where the class is given an image and caption and each student is asked to write a story about it. “This helps make the writing process fun, and the students are anxious to share their work with others.” What is particularly notable is that the student truly relish using pencil and paper to write, enjoying the break from their keyboard and screen.
When asked what advice she would give parents during this most unusual academic year, Garner is quick to state, “Be patient with them.” She also stresses that it is okay to let children make mistakes, explaining that it is through the trial and error process that a child’s brain develops. Likewise, encourage independence with your child, and allow them to take ownership and responsibility. Finally, keep the lines of communication open between parents and teachers, while maintaining positivity in all conversations about school.
In reflecting on her goals for this particular year, Garner confides, “I want the kids to come out of this and say WOW, that was a really great year. Even thought it was different, I want it to be great, especially since fifth grade is such a pivotal time in a child’s life … their last year of elementary school!”
Garner is married to retired Navy Captain Randy Garner. Their children are both graduates of Coronado High School, Lindsay (CHS ’13) and Robert (CHS ’17). Garner received her undergraduate degree in Economics from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She went on to earn both her teaching credential and a Masters degree in Education from National University.
Shielded by masks and plexiglass screens, students in Garner’s fifth grade classroom at Village Elementary continue to benefit from one-on-one personalized attention as well as robust classroom discussions during their school day.