Embracing innovation

Through ‘learning kits’ and virtual internships, students and educators adapt to pandemic’s challenges


Lindsey Bratter, a senior at Cranston High School West, has a clear vision for her professional life.

She plans to become a child psychologist, with particular interest in working with young children and those with special needs. She intends to head to the Boston area this fall to study psychology – hopefully at Boston College, her top choice.

Lindsey’s education in her chosen field, however, has already begun.

Since her sophomore year, she has been part of the Educational Pathways Program at the Cranston Area Career & Technical Center, which is housed on the West campus. Her experience has included an internship last year at Meeting Street School in Providence – during which she worked with a teacher aide and a student with cerebral palsy – and time working one-on-one with students in the preschool at West.

For participants in the Educational Pathways Program, Lindsey said, senior year is an exciting time – a chance for the students to take more direct control over their studies through internships they research and pick for themselves.

“This year, which is like the big senior year thing that everybody gets excited for, you get to choose your own internship,” she said.

But Lindsey’s senior year has proven far from typical due to the pandemic. With social distancing protocols in place and most students taking part in virtual lessons for at least part of the week, the typical opportunities for in-person immersion in an internship have not been possible.

That’s where Charlene Barbieri, Sarah Webster and Bethany Correia come in.

The new director of the Cranston Public Schools Early Childhood Center, or ECC, Charlene spent the previous 18 years as a teacher in the Educational Pathways program. Heading into this year, she saw the challenges this year’s circumstances would pose for educators, senior interns and the district’s youngest learners – and she had some “innovative ideas” to do something about it.

First came a collaboration between the Educational Pathways students and ECC to create “learning kits” for the young learners in the two preschool classrooms at Cranston West and other pre-K classrooms across the district. Charlene said those kits – which include books, materials and learning activities – are designed to help children and their families adjust to virtual lessons whenever full distance learning is needed, as was the case from mid-December through early January.

As Charlene put it, the kits are meant to “make virtual learning creative and give the students the supplies that they would need.” Sarah Webster, the educational coordinator for the Early Childhood Center, played a key role in developing the kits, organizing their contents and distributing them throughout the district.

Preschoolers are among the students who have typically done five-day in-person instruction under the district’s hybrid approach to school reopening, although Charlene noted: “We have students here in preschool that are both doing distance learning and in-person learning, just like the rest of the district.”

Bethany Correia, an educator in the Educational Pathways program, said her students also played a role in planning the contents of each kit. Among the items included were “file folder games” – materials that are laminated for easy cleaning – and lesson plans for the virtual sessions. Scores of kits were created for distribution to all of the district’s preschool students.

Then came then next step in the collaboration fostered by Charlene – new virtual internship opportunities for eight Educational Pathways program students, including Lindsey.

“These students were looking to help the community, they were looking to get experience themselves, because that’s why they’re in the program,” Charlene said. “So [Sarah, Bethany and I] developed some virtual internships.”

As part of her internship, Lindsey is working with a teacher in a special needs classroom. She receives assignments from the teacher, helping to plan lessons and activities for the students.

It’s a different kind of experience than what she’s done through the program in the past. During her junior year, for example, she led student activities, performed student observations and even took part in parent-teacher conferences.

Her senior year internship involves weekly virtual sessions with the teacher, followed by self-directed work carrying out the various assignments. While there are clear limitations to the arrangement, she said the experience has been valuable.

It’s also one she has had a direct hand in shaping. As she put it: “I wanted something that was out of my comfort zone but something that would be very beneficial to me.”

“It’s still giving me exposure to the field,” Lindsey said. “Even though it’s not one-on-one interactions with the kids like I would have gotten … it still is a really great experience.”

She added: “I just love more exposure to the field and really seeing what a teacher does, because it’s so much more behind the scenes than what you see in the classroom. And I feel like that’s so important … There’s really so much effort and thought that goes into it.”

Bethany reflected on the unique process that went into planning the virtual internships. There were a number of questions, and some concerns. Would the internships truly be valuable for the students? Would they be valuable for the professionals who took the interns on?

As part of the typical research process the students go through in choosing their internship, Bethany said she urged the students to think about the ways in which they have been well positioned to adapt to the challenges of virtual learning.

Professional email writing is typically part of the training for senior students in the Educational Pathways program, she said, and this year they used those messages to prospective mentors to highlight “how they have grown up utilizing virtual platforms for school work and their everyday life.”

“[Sarah, Charlene and I were] thrilled that we were able to find enough professionals that could think outside the box and take them on,” Bethany said. “It’s always a job to take on an intern, but if you can do it in a way that’s effective, it’s a benefit to you because you can get some extra help, and then it’s a huge advantage to these kids because they’re getting real-life experience.”

Bethany said any concerns over how valuable the experience would be for this year’s internships were quickly eased. In fact, the response has been even more positive than expected.

“I was concerned about how [the students] would feel about it, because they wait all this time to get to senior year, to be able to pick their internship. And I was really worried about the impact that would have on them,” she said. “But they’ve been doing their reflections, and they are just … I can’t even tell you how much they’re getting out of it – how much they’re connecting with the children and the professionals, how valuable they feel the experience is.”

She added: “As always, they’re proving that they can handle just about any circumstance and make the best of it.”

Bethany said almost all of the Educational Pathways students go on to four-year colleges and universities. The internship experience, she said, “gives them an advantage” as they prepare to make a major investment in their education – allowing them to gain a true sense of whether they are “heading in the right direction.”

To Lindsey, the benefits of her internship go even deeper than validating a career path or providing a leg up educationally.

“I know that I have gained so many intangible skills,” she said. “It’s more than learning what a teacher does and being in a classroom. I’ve learned communication and time management and the important of teamwork … These are skills that I have improved so much since starting any internship, but especially this one. And I know that will help me for my whole life, whether it be in school, or at a job, or anywhere.”


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