First-grade teacher Alyssa Baumgarten ’21 hasn’t quite gone viral, but with over 1,200 views on her fledgling YouTube channel, she has gotten more attention for her multilingual educational videos than she ever expected.
With the coronavirus forcing the closure of the Argenizano School where she teaches, Baumgarten wanted to find a way to engage with her students and to practice the lessons they’ve worked on all year.
“I do not consider myself a tech-savvy person at all,” says the Somerville teacher, who is also earning her master’s in education at Lesley. “I wanted to give them some physical videos of me, and a way to do a quick morning meeting check in and a little bit of review of the content we’ve done this year.”
She admits that making the videos was awkward at first, but singing the “Letter Song,” doing a full-body counting exercise and reading “Are You My Mother” by P.D. Eastman are normal activities she would do with her 6- and 7-year-old students in person.
Baumgarten also gives her 14 students challenges to work on at home, such as writing a word that begins with each letter of the alphabet, though none of the work is mandatory.
“Any kind of participation is great," she says. “I know it can be really challenging for families – they might be trying to work.... There are also literacy and language barriers.”
Lifelong language learner
Baumgarten’s students and their families speak Spanish, Portuguese, Chinese and Hebrew, and many recently immigrated to the United States. So, when possible, Baumgarten records the videos in two and sometimes three languages — English, Spanish and Portuguese.
Baumgarten herself began learning Spanish in elementary school.
“I grew up in a very monocultural area, but I had this extracurricular Spanish program in second grade. I remember being so excited to learn the vocabulary and had my own dictionary at home,” she says.
The program ended and the eager language learner wasn’t able to pick up Spanish again until high school. Her passion for it was still there. In college, she majored in early childhood education, followed by a two-year stint as a bilingual teacher in Honduras. Returning to the United States, she earned her English as a Second Language (ESL) license and taught in a bilingual preschool class before coming to the Argenziano School.
This year, Baumgarten began teaching herself Portuguese, after seeing an increase in Brazilian families in the area.
Baumgarten's aptitude for languages has made it easier to communicate with families. In addition to her YouTube videos, she contacts her students and their families via phone calls, email and WhatsApp, a free text messaging app, to make sure they are healthy and have the resources they need during a time of increased food and financial insecurity. Baumgarten also volunteers with the school district to help distribute diapers and food to families in need.
“It’s been really overwhelming,” said Baumgarten, who had imagined she might not have much to do with classes canceled.
Instead, she has become an example of how to engage students during the COVID-19 outbreak. Her videos have been shared across her district, among her teacher friends and beyond, with many of them garnering more views than she has students.
“I didn’t have any plans of being a YouTube star,” says Baumgarten, “but if it’s helpful to people during this time, then that’s great.”