A Day With St. Ephrem’s Pre-K 4 Class: ‘The Hardest We’ve Ever Worked’

Students in Giovanna Marchese's Pre-K 4 class show the different ways you can make the number three, which was one of the lessons they learned on Oct. 8, 2020. (Photo: Erin DeGregorio)

St. Ephrem Catholic Academy's Pre-K 4 class learns how to dial 911 on a keypad during Fire Safety Month. (Photo: Erin DeGregorio)

Pre-K 4 teacher Giovanna Marchese says practice and reiteration are key to reinforcing each day's lesson. (Photo: Erin DeGregorio)

"Around the tree, around the tree, that’s the way to make a three" is the rhyme Giovanna Marchese repeated to her Pre-K 4 students, so they could learn how to properly draw the number three. (Photo: Erin DeGregorio)

DYKER HEIGHTS — With a month of school officially done, there’s a sense of routine and structure when you walk into St. Ephrem Catholic Academy.

Students line up outside on the designated stickers, get their temperatures checked through thermal imaging, and go up the stairs and down the hallways in one-way fashions. By the time they take off their jackets and unpack their backpacks, they’re ready to start the day with prayers and the Pledge of Allegiance.

Multi-Tasking and Teaching the Foundations

Giovanna Marchese and Anna Accetta are the teacher and aide, respectively, of St. Ephrem’s Pre-K 4 class. Since they have 17 students learning in person, the class is split into two — with eight kids in one classroom and seven in another across the hallway. One remote student also virtually attends daily, and a hybrid student comes into school two days a week. When home, the students have worksheets and can view what their in-person classmates are seeing through screen sharing on Google Meet.

Marchese — also called “Miss Giovanna” by her students — splits her time to teach both classes the same lessons. That’s accomplished by walking a short distance every half hour or hour with a giant, rolling dry erase board behind her.

Mornings begin with the students socially distancing on the carpet and singing upbeat songs that reinforce previously learned lessons, including the days of the week set to the tune of “The Addams Family” theme song.

Before the clock strikes 9 a.m., the kids in Group One — known as the Mickey group due to Marchese’s love for Disney — are already starting their first lesson. On Oct. 8, when The Tablet visited for the day, Marchese read aloud a giant teacher’s copy of Scholastic Magazine titled, “Do You Want to Be a Firefighter?” She explained a firefighter’s role in easy terms, helped them understand fire safety rules, and taught them how to dial 911 in case of an emergency.

When the lesson was complete, Marchese went across the hallway, switching with Accetta to teach the same lesson to Group Two — known as the Pluto group. Simultaneously, the Mickey group had snack time and playtime, allowing the kids to safely interact with one another and work on their socialization skills.

Once the Pluto group learned the important fire safety lessons, Marchese walked across the hall again to teach the Mickey group about the number three. “Around the tree, around the tree, that’s the way to make a three,” Marchese repeated to the students as she helped them practice writing the number on individual dry erase boards.

They later put their skills to the test by writing the number multiple times on paper with a pencil. Again, Marchese and Accetta swapped places so that the Pluto Group could learn and practice those same writing and math skills.

“The biggest challenges are giving each group equal time, staying on course, and staying on schedule when teaching the two classes,” Marchese said. “But when you’re teaching the same lessons twice, it sometimes gets redundant, so I’ve been making it fun, so it’s not boring. Compared to just a month ago, the scheduling flows much better.”

Following lunch and naptime, the classes returned to their fire safety lessons, painting a fire on a worksheet, and learning how to mix the two colors that make orange. The message on the bottom of the worksheet reiterated and emphasized what was taught hours before: “Never play with fire. If there is a fire, call 911.”

“The lessons have become more integrated, and we’re doing more STEM-based activities,” Marchese noted. “Today alone, we combined art with science through the colors, and teaching social studies and literature by highlighting community helpers like firefighters.”

After the day concluded with computer class, the students were excited to go to their hallway cubbies and pack for their 2:40 p.m. dismissal.

A Sigh of Relief, But Wariness Still Lingers

Following the jam-packed schedule, Marchese and Accetta breathed a sigh of relief in the school’s gymnasium. They briefly went over the day’s happenings and outlined the next day’s agenda.

“It’s emotionally exhausting, but the kids are retaining the information and lessons we’re teaching each and every day,” Marchese said of the daily routines that include multi-tasking and moving between classrooms. “It’s worth it and rewarding.”

On Oct. 7, St. Ephrem’s was deemed in the yellow zone of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s newly announced color-coded coronavirus map. Schools in that zone can physically stay open and will have mandatory weekly testing beginning the week of Oct. 12.

“This is the hardest we’ve ever worked, from my point of view in my 15 years of teaching. My colleagues and I would all rather be teaching in person,” Marchese said of the situation. “I hope we don’t have to go to remote learning. If we had to transition to remote learning, I know we would all miss our students because we’ve built bonds and relationships.

“To have that cut off would be sad, and to go through that again would be devastating.”