Dr. Charisse Smith

Dr. Charisse Smith

The Trenton-based New Jersey Foundation for Aging (NJFA) typically focuses on advocating for public policies that allow older New Jerseyans to live independently.

But in the current circumstances, roles have shifted. Instead of being out and about, participating in their communities, older adults — and everyone else — is staying home. With schools closed, children are also among the homebound, and for grandparents whose adult children are working, educating their grandchildren can fall to them.

Grandparents-turned-teachers is the topic of the foundation’s July episode of its Aging Insights television program. “Learning Together” features Charisse Smith, an instructional coach in the Hamilton school district and the president of ETE — Excellence Through Education of Hamilton Township.

Smith, a Trenton resident, earned her bachelor’s in psychology at Rutgers and holds a PhD in education, specializing in professional studies, from Capella University. She serves on the boards of the NJFA and Notre Dame High School in Lawrenceville.

In a guest blog post on the NJFA website, blog.njfoundationforaging.org, Smith shared tips and resources for grandparents.

As a young child growing up in New Jersey, I recall spending countless summers in the sandy woods of Wall Township with my maternal grandmother, Carolyn Holland.

On her screened-in porch, we spent hours playing such card games as Pitty Pat, War, and Casino. This card shark, with less than an eighth-grade education, showed me no mercy, winning game after game! Through these card games, she fortuitously taught me how to quickly identify numbered groups (subitizing) and strategy (critical thinking).

My paternal grandfather, Robert E. West of Neptune, instructed me in the art of applying the correct tip for great service at the local Perkins Pancake House. Maternal aunt Doris Sergeant of Asbury Park cultivated my love of reading and storytelling through her reading aloud. Her fluctuating animated voice magically fit each and every character of the stories she read.

As I reminisce about these special moments as a wide-eyed, inquisitive youngster, I now appreciate them as authentic learning experiences. I truly cannot recall specific reading or math lessons or feeling that these moments were “school,” but as an educator, I recognize that the benefits of simple card games and stories read to me set me on the path toward academic success.

Although I assist teachers in applying curriculum and best-teaching practices to classrooms, the simple games, conversations, and nightly read-alouds with Carolyn, Robert, and Doris were invaluable.

COVID-19 and virtual teaching/learning. According to the New Jersey Department of Education, there are approximately 2,734,950 students in New Jersey’s public and charter schools who spent the final months of the school year participating in some form of virtual or remote learning due to the COVID-19 crisis. Many New Jersey schools pivoted from photocopied worksheets and packets to working exclusively online with students in virtual classrooms.

In a matter of a few weeks, New Jersey school districts found themselves quickly gathering their troops of learning experts, teachers, and educational technology departments to provide quality learning opportunities for all of their students. Families also found themselves banding together to navigate through digital learning platforms like Zoom, Google Classroom, Google Meets, Microsoft Teams, Class Dojo, Canvas, and Blackboard.

Older Americans are teaching/learning, too. Older Americans also fearlessly accepted the call to join the ranks of the virtual homeschooling faculty. Because many parents continue to work as essential workers, older adult family members have been designated as the at-home schoolteacher. These older family members are ensuring that children are logging on, participating, and completing school assignments.

One example is a 68-year-old grandmother in Mercer County’s Hamilton Township, Mrs. Jones. She joined the of ranks of homeschoolers this March. Mrs. Jones is not only caring for her ill husband, but by working in online learning platforms to assist her kindergarten-aged grandson, has expanded her technological skill set.

Through perseverance and a little bit of coaching, Mrs. Jones is now more comfortable helping her grandson with the daily requirements of cyber-learning such as logging on to online class meetings; monitoring reading, writing, and math assignments in Google Classroom; accessing books online; following up with emails; and communicating with teachers via the Class Dojo app.

Familiarizing oneself with multiple learning platforms can be overwhelming even for the most tech-savvy person. But older Americans, like Mrs. Jones, are courageously balancing the duties of being a caregiver for an ailing spouse, running a household, and homeschooling an active kindergartener.

I admire Mrs. Jones for her tenacity and grit during this challenging time. She admits that working with technology is frustrating, and she felt like giving up, but I encouraged her to take care of herself and to do her best. Her best is amazing!

Other ways older adults can share knowledge/expertise. I encourage all older adults who are caring for and/or homeschooling young family members to share their knowledge and expertise by:

• Having conversations

• Counting and grouping the number of tiles on the floor

• Finding a pattern in the carpet

• I mentioned subitizing before. Subitizing is a hot topic in math education circles. It means “instantly seeing how many.” Math educators have discovered that the ability to see numbers in patterns is the foundation of strong number sense. Visit mylearningspringboard.com/subitizing/

• Following a recipe using measuring spoons and cups

• Writing a song together and recording Tik-Tok videos of you singing

• Coloring in coloring books

• Listening to books on tape or online together

• This website features videos of actors reading children’s books, alongside creatively produced illustrations. Activity guides are available for each book. www.storylineonline.net.

• Teaching them how to play a card game

This site has card games supporting math skills dreme.stanford.edu/news/10-family-card-games-support-early-math-skills

Other resources to use

Read Alouds www.readingrockets.org/article/great-read-alouds-kids-babies-grade-3

Homeschooling during COVID-19 www.schoolchoiceweek.com/parent-resources-during-coronavirus/

This link leads to resources for teachers in any subject and grade. There are also worksheets and lesson resources for all areas of reading and language arts skills. www.jumpstart.com/jumpstartparents/

Visit this Guide to Google Hangouts Meet for Students and Parents 2020 youtu.be/QiLkyQcftXw

Check out Joining a Zoom Call for the First Time; Fun and Easy Online Connection youtu.be/9isp3qPeQ0E

Older adults have much to give and young people, much to receive! I would dare to guess that there are many Mrs. Joneses here in New Jersey. Are you one? You deserve our gratitude, respect and support.

As a New Jersey educator, I would like to thank all of the caring and brave older Americans in our state who are committed to sharing their knowledge, wisdom, love and expertise to help our students continue to grow and learn!

Reprinted with permission from Dr. Charisse Smith and New Jersey Foundation for Aging.

To view the full Aging Insights episode visit www.njfoundationforaging.org/aging-insights.