2020 Graduates: URI student-teacher Nina Casacalenda learns along with her students in virtual classroom

Coventry resident to earn URI degree May 17

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 6, 2020 — As a child, Nina Casacalenda had a pretend classroom in her house to “teach” family members. Today, she has an actual at-home classroom, complete with portable whiteboard, virtual books and lesson plans, to instruct her -first grade students at Hopkins Hill elementary school in Coventry through distance learning.

Casacalenda, who graduates May 17 with a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a certification in teaching English as a second language (ESL), is student teaching remotely until the end of the academic year.

The COVID-19 global pandemic forced all educators and students to transition to virtual classroom instruction since March 2020.

The greatest challenge of virtual teaching, the Coventry resident said, is engaging with the students.

“Everything is paperless, which is especially difficult for my first-graders who have limited access to technology,” she said.

Casacalenda said that she prepares lessons in conjunction with her cooperating teacher, using the Common Core state standards and objectives, as well as other educational websites. They communicate through email, text, and phone rather than in-person.

Methods to reward students for good work are also different, she said, where she would have been able to give them small prizes in the classroom, she instead has to give a virtual thumbs-up or high-five.

She was recently certified in Google Education to better support students in a virtual learning environment and make the lessons mimic the classroom experiences as much as possible.

“I have posted videos of a musician singing to baby beluga whales at Mystic Aquarium and Disney World fireworks on Google classroom to put smiles on their faces,’ she said.

Her biggest regret in the virtual classroom, she said was, “not being able to say a proper goodbye,” before suddenly switching to distance teaching and learning almost overnight.

“Remote teaching showed me how you have to adapt to certain circumstances,” she said. “As a teacher, you step up, take the challenge, and make it work.”

With her virtual student teaching assignment nearly over, Casacalenda intends to pursue a position teaching first grade, with the goal of making all of her students succeed in a safe learning environment, whether it is in a classroom or virtually.