Plum preschool teacher starts Facebook storytime page to reach students
Wednesday, March 25, 2020 | 6:41 PM
Editor’s note: Adapting to Coronavirus is a regular series spotlighting the ways a global pandemic is changing the everyday lives of people in Western Pennsylvania.
Staying in touch with students and offering a sense of normalcy can be difficult for educators during statewide school closures due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Many high schools, colleges and universities have gone to online instruction through Google Classroom and other means, but what about the youngest of learners?
What’s being done to reach out to preschoolers who may not understand why they cannot go to class, sing and read with their teacher and peers?
Tracey Donnelly of St. John the Baptist in Plum has taken to Facebook to do something about it.
The longtime educator launched “Storytime with Mrs. Donnelly,” a private group for current preschoolers and former students to listen to stories as well as go over shapes, colors and hear craft ideas.
Most of her students are between 3 and 5 years old. Their last day of class was March 13, and the school was closed the following Monday.
“Really all that we knew (at the time) was the St. Patrick’s Day parade was canceled, and (officials) were starting to talk about things seriously,” Donnelly said. “So we never got to talk with the kids, didn’t know the plan or what the following week (was) going to be. We didn’t really have a lot of closure. My kids are very little, and I was trying to find a way to reach out to them.”
Donnelly was inspired by actor Josh Gad, who does the voice of Olaf from “Frozen,” who started an online storytime for children stuck at home during the coronavirus outbreak.
“I thought if he can do it, then I can,” Donnelly said. “Preschoolers love anything to do with ‘Frozen.’”
Her daughter, Allyson Donnelly, who was home from Indiana University of Pennsylvania due to the state closure and classes going online, assisted in setting up the Facebook page.
Storytimes first started a little more than a week ago at 8 p.m. with “The Giving Tree” by Shel Silverstein.
“It’s just a very powerful message about giving and taking care of each other,” Donnelly said.
She’s also pulled from the “Pinkalicious” series by Victoria Kann and “Pete the Cat: Play Ball!” by James Dean.
“I’ve been trying to throw some funny ones in there,” said Donnelly, a 1987 Penn Hills High School graduate.
Storytime was pushed back to 7:30 p.m. due to parental requests. Donnelly pledged to keep doing it every day at that time until classes resume.
The half-hour session ends with a prayer and a goodbye song students would sing at the end of the day.
Donnelly said that part really gives the feel of being together in the classroom.
Her reading selection was limited due to the closure. Donnelly’s been unable to get back into the school to get more materials.
She said a parent donated several books to read during her storytime. The parent wiped off the books, put them in a bag and left it outside Donnelly’s door to minimize contact.
Another family went on Amazon and bought books to be sent to the teacher’s house.
“They’ve been very supportive,” said Donnelly. “It’s overwhelmingly wonderful. I enjoy doing it as much as they enjoy hearing the stories.”
Parent Mike Devine, Plum school board president, said his oldest daughter was in Donnelly’s class a few years ago at Holiday Park United Methodist. The family’s happy to reconnect with the teacher.
“My girls love it,” Devine said. “They ask (about her) all the time. They love watching her read. You can take a minute to breathe as a parent while she has their attention.”
Donnelly said she loves hearing from families of past students and appreciates everyone who watches.
“Even though some of them aren’t currently in my class right now, we have a really tight connection with the families,” she said. “I love what I do. I was born to be a teacher.”
Parent Kraig Riley, a producer at The Fan at 93.7 FM, said his daughter, Josie, 4, is in Donnelly’s class.
“Our experiences with Mrs. Donnelly have been incredible,” Riley said. “She is very involved in her students’ lives under normal circumstances, but (she) has taken it to another level with these stories. The storytime she has been doing at night has been great because it’s giving our daughter a sense of normalcy since she still gets to see her teacher and have that interaction.”
Riley said Josie’s favorite story from Donnelly is “On The Day That You Were Born” by Debra Frasier.