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We had questions. So, so many questions.
None of them, incidentally, about how we would manage at-home learning for our soon-to-be kindergartner.
Our decision to do online-only learning for our 5-year-old in his very first semester in public school—fraught though it was with universally disappointing options—was, logistically at least, a no-brainer. Our family of three includes two parents who can work flexible schedules from home.
My questions were more about the actual thing of virtual kindergarten.
Having not attended kindergarten in four decades, his dad and I are relative "noobs," as my son says, to the entire process. We had no idea what time school started, how lunch works, or what classwork he'd do.
And now that he'd be doing this new thing online for the first nine weeks, we had questions on top of our first questions.
What would virtual learning look like? How does he get evaluated? Can he use a tablet (YES and I highly recommend it)? How much interaction would there be? How structured? How will they count attendance? How early does it start? How many assignments? What about P.E., music, art? Will my son figure out all the apps? How much screen time would he be getting each day?
(This last one admittedly, was slightly less scary given the amount of screen time he became, ahem, used to during the summer quarantine.)
I couldn't count on, thankfully, the horror stories I'd heard in the spring when school first went virtual because I knew in my gut that at least a few of the virtual-classroom kinks would be worked out by August.
Most students in Austin won't start online classes until Sept. 8 and may wind up doing an additional eight weeks after that. But we are in Pflugerville ISD, which means our son started his first day of kindergarten (milestone!) on Aug. 13.
Now that we've wrapped up our first official full week of online kindergarten, we have our answers. And we are relieved. They're not bad answers.
And I'm happy to show you my answers, if for no other benefit than to satisfy some level of your curiosity about what your own district might do.
This is how online kindergarten is playing out for us:
Our teacher called us on Friday, Aug. 6 to introduce herself, and by Monday night's virtual school and class orientations, we had email instructions with a schedule, Zoom codes and SeeSaw, the additional learning app we'd need ("right now," the teacher qualifies, hinting at more later).
The intro with his teacher and class was about a dozen kindergartners making faces into the camera, introducing themselves and giggling at each other. My son had a blast. By the first day of school on Thursday morning, we were set up with the apps and ready to learn. Easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy.
At the last minute, we decided to drop off our son at Grammy's house for a few days, so it fell to her to log him into the Zoom class and SeeSaw for the first two days of school. Grammy is smart and tough, but she still has a flip phone and can't make Facetime work. With us three hours away, Grammy got him logged in for every meeting and all his assignments done.
Now, after a week (and back home), my son can find Zoom and SeeSaw, turn in his assignments, use the art tools, drag and drop, play the videos, take pictures and record audio and video in SeeSaw, and manipulate Zoom like a pro. So for those worried about overly complicated technology, you got this. One thing that helped: The first week's assignments were designed mainly to help them practice the technology. Realize that the school will be forgiving with tech issues in the first few weeks. Don't panic.
An hour on Zoom and very loose deadlines on assignments each day. In a nod to parents who can't be committed every hour, the schedule is mostly fluid. My son watches a 3-minute recorded morning video from his teacher and does a little "morning work" before his day starts with a Zoom class at 8:30 a.m. His class meets again at 11:30 each morning. On Fridays, there's an extra 50 minutes on Zoom for PE/Music/Art at 1 p.m. and another extra 30 minutes at 2 p.m. for science and social studies.
Collectively, it's less than seven Zoom hours per week. One thing I can say: This technology is not going to go away, so if he gets good at communicating with people and increasing his attention span on this type of platform, he can only benefit. There is already a vast improvement in these skills just in the first week.
Make a picture out of the shapes (math)
Screenshot: Karen Brooks Harper
He has about six activities to turn in per day, with longer-term projects due each week. His activities are things like recording a show-and-tell video, or reading comprehension or making shapes on his iPad.
The assignments are uploaded throughout the day and we can do them at any point (we often do social studies and reading right before bed). He has P.E., music and art projects due on Fridays (uploaded). P.E. assignments come out three times a week, and this week included animal-inspired exercises, warm-ups on Go Noodle and health classes.
Each day he is also required to read for 10 minutes, write or draw in his journal, get 60 minutes of physical activity (which means we do, too, which is harder than we care to admit) and count to 20. Most of the assignments only take a few minutes, and he does them without our help. Usually.
Feedback and interaction
His attendance is counted through his Zoom meetings and assignments in SeeSaw, but they're flexible under extenuating circumstances. On every assignment, the teachers record personal feedback using his name. He loves it. Way better than a generic "way to go!" that she could do for everyone, and we'd never know it. In the meetings, the teacher will engage them: "Who can tell me how they're feeling today?" They raise their hands and get called on, just like they would in class.
Surprisingly, the kindergartners understand the dynamic and by the end of the first week, this type of interaction seemed normal to our son, too. Shocking, considering he's worse at Facetime than Grammy.
Now that we've seen how hard they work to make it interesting, and how well (enough) it seems to be working for our son, we are far less worried about the next nine weeks.
Will he learn as much as he might have in person? Perhaps not. Are we lucky that we can be there to guide him through this? Absolutely, and probably luckier than most in that regard.
Will there be any permanent damage to his social skills and schooling? Nah. It's all temporary damage, I think.
There is enough structure to drive us through the day, yet not so much that it's stifling. It beats the heck out of the directionless days we dealt with over the summer. And something else helps my perspective on this disappointing year: We are getting a very rare inside look at what our son is doing at school every day. It's like we're sitting in the back of his class. And that may never happen again after this semester.
It's a gift, truly. A consolation prize, perhaps, more than a silver lining.
But we'll take it.
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After a long, long year without live music, Austin has waited patiently for a return that has finally come. Festivals are planning returns and even venues that adhered strictly to safety protocols during the pandemic are feeling safe enough to gather again in person.
Starting in just a few short days, you can finally enjoy what makes Austin, well, Austin again. Here are a few of the live shows to look forward to.
Stubb's Waller Creek, 801 Red River Street
For the first time since the pandemic shut the iconic venue down forcing canceled and rescheduled shows, Stubb's BBQ is reopening its amphitheater to the public for concerts starting with a series of five sold-out Black Pumas shows, each with different openers, from May 26-30. It may be too late to catch Black Pumas this time around but Stubb's already has a host of other shows scheduled up through December. You can catch Surfaces, a College Station-based jazz-pop-hip-hop and vocals heavy duo known best for their song "Sunday Best," on Stubb's Stage on June 25 while tickets go on sale this Friday.
Next at Stubb's is electronic duo Louis the Child on July 28 and 29 on their "Euphoria Tour," followed by Umphrey's McGee on Sept. 9.
Mohawk Austin, 912 Red River Street
Likewise, Mohawk Austin has remained closed for more than a year since the onset of COVID-19, even tweeting "Thanks bro but we ain't gonna do it till it's safe," in response to Gov. Greg Abbott lifting all safety restrictions back in March. Starting May 27, Mohawk is officially back with Heartless Bastards and opener The Tender Things.
From there, Mohawk has an exciting lineup—Jukebox the Ghost will play on Sept. 10, Bully and opener Lightning Bug on Sept. 17, Big Freedia and Too Many Zooz on Oct. 4 and Beach Bunny on Dec. 14, with several talented artists in-between. Keep checking back though, Mohawk will continue to add shows and is currently planning on operating at 50%.
Frank Erwin Center, 1701 Red River Street
Though it is making a later comeback than Stubb's or Mohawk, the Frank Erwin Center will make a huge return on Aug. 14 featuring Tame Impala. If you missed their highly popular set at Austin City Limits Festival in 2019 or you want to relive it, this is the chance to do so. Plus, you get the added benefit of being able to see the stage, though you will still be watching with around 16,000 other spectators. Michael Bublé will have you swooning when he comes to perform on Sept. 20 and Chris Stapleton is taking his "All American Road Show" live on Nov. 4.
Nutty Brown Amphitheatre, 12225 US-290
Holding some socially distanced concerts earlier this year, the Nutty Brown Amphitheatre isn't stopping there with rap artist Ginger Billy playing two sets on May 7. Nutty Brown has a star-studded lineup ahead: Austin-based Bob Schneider on May 8 and other Austin favorite Shinyribs will grace the stage May 29. A little further down the line, Joan Jett & The Blackhearts will take over on Aug. 21 followed by Styx on Oct. 23.
Texas Performing Arts Center, 2350 Robert Dedman Drive
If you prefer a little bit more visual appeal to go with your music, the Texas Performing Arts Center is reopening in-person after consistent online events. First up is Cody Ko and Noel Miller, a multi-hyphenated YouTuber-podcaster-comedian duo, who will perform their "Tiny Meat Gang – Global Domination," on July 31. Of course you can't miss The Beach Boys, coming to the theater on Oct. 24, or a two-week long production of Hamilton from Dec. 7-19. For all the young ones that have missed going out in-person, "Disney Princess—The Concert" is coming to the Texas Performing Arts Center on Feb. 6, 2022, performing timeless gems like "Be Our Guest" from Beauty and the Beast and featuring all their other favorite princesses. Tickets go on sale this Friday.
Remember to jump on those tickets–Austinites have been missing their live music!
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For Marco Silvestrini, gelato takes him back to his childhood when he and neighborhood kids in a small Italian town would end their day at the local gelato shop. It was part of what made some of the best memories for him.
He's since been offering that same experience for the past seven years with his artisanal gelato shop, Dolce Neve, in Austin, alongside his sister and her husband.
Leo Ferrarese, Marco and Franscesa Silvestrini run Dolce Neve. (Dolce Neve)
While gelato always played a big role in Silvestrini's life, it wasn't in his plans to take on a business with his favorite treat. After a few years in New York working as a management consultant, he felt he was missing out on something. "I decided to take a step back and started thinking, what could... I do to make society better and happier, even just for a moment," Silvestrini said.
He thought back to his childhood and the role gelato played in it and wanted to offer the same experience to Americans.
Once he had the product idea down, it came down to location. Growing up among farmers in a small community in Central Italy, Silvestrini knew he wanted a slower pace of living than New York, so he asked around. The answer he got: "Austin." The only thing he knew about what would become his future home was it had a Formula 1 track.
But after visiting once, he felt a great sense of community he didn't feel in The Empire State. "I felt it was not just a good place for a concept like mine, but also a good place to live because at the end of the day, you cannot just think about your business," he said.
"Dolce Neve" translates to "sweet snow." The shops offers 12-18 flavors at a time. (Dolce Neve)
Similarly, his sister Francesca Silvestrini was experiencing the same feelings while studying for her Ph.D. in Ohio before teaming up with Silvestrini. She went back to Italy to be properly trained in making gelato while Silvestrini focused on the business plan. They brought Leo Ferrarese, her husband, onboard and opened their first shop on South First Street in January 2014. The rest is history.
On the menu, you'll find various traditional and innovative flavors that rotate out. Some of the staples include chocolate, 100% vanilla from Madagascar and salted caramel. Other rotating or seasonal flavors include whiskey and pecan, organic cantaloupe sorbet, goat cheese and pecan, almond custard and tiramisu. They've created over 300 flavors together in the span of the business.
So what's next for the shop? Lately, Silvestrini has been thinking a lot about that. With two locations in Austin, one in Houston—he's just not sure if expanding more is the right move. Maintaining a quality product and good service is of utmost importance that he's not willing to sacrifice.
"In order to be happy, it's not about making money, it's about being an integral part of the community," Silvestrini said. "There have been so many cases in which I think what I did today really made a difference in somebody's life."