SCHOOLS

Teacher of year stays close to students at a distance

By LAURA WEICK
Posted 6/11/20

By LAURA WEICK Each year before she reads the children's book "e;Jubal's Wish"e; by Audrey Wood to her students, Tara Castro asks students what they would wish for. But this year's wishes were a bit different as classes moved online. "e;So many students

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SCHOOLS

Teacher of year stays close to students at a distance

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Each year before she reads the children’s book “Jubal’s Wish” by Audrey Wood to her students, Tara Castro asks students what they would wish for. But this year’s wishes were a bit different as classes moved online.

“So many students wished for the virus to go away,” Castro, a library multimedia specialist said. “And it made my heart break.”

In the age of COVID-19, Castro was named 2020’s Warwick Teacher of the Year due to her empathy, resilience and knowledge of online learning; all needed as classes moved remote due to the pandemic.

“I feel a little funny to be singled out,” Castro said. “I’m very appreciative and I feel fortunate to be part of really great groups of people, so I kind of want to shine the light back on them. I’m not going to lie, I’m a little overwhelmed. It’s nice to feel appreciated.”

Castro has worked at different schools in the Warwick for 25 years and is currently the library multimedia specialist at E.T. Wyman Elementary School. She also teaches at Park and Scott Schools one day a week. Previously, Castro taught at Norwood Elementary School and the now defunct Randall Holden Elementary School. Castro lives close to Wyman and her children went there for elementary school, so when the previous library specialist retired, Castro applied for the position. 

As a library multimedia specialist, Castro teaches 436 students traditional library skills such as book reports and information literacy, as well as modern subjects like Internet safety, search engines and online databases.

“What is happening on social media today shows us how important it is to teach kids these topics, and I already thought it was important,” Castro said.

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit, schools turned to distance learning. Castro is a pioneer in distance learning: she has a Master’s degree in education focused on technology integration, and has previously had students do assignments virtually at home. As a fellow at the Highlander Institute in Providence, Castro had already honed her skills in teaching using technology, and also learned how to teach these skills to others. 

Working with other library multimedia specialists in the district, Castro helped teachers and parents prepare for the transition to remote learning.

“[Librarians] are uniquely set up for [distance learning], where we already have that background,” Castro said. “Most librarians, especially those in our district, are those who are trying to be helpful and asking how they can make lives easier.”

Using resources such as Google Classrooms, students have migrated from using technology in a classroom setting and at home to asynchronous lessons for Castro’s class.

“Some children took to [the transition to online learning] very well,” Castro explained. “In fact, some of them that are shyer, it’s become easier for them because they have time to think. These kids who like to work at their own pace. The kids who had trouble said they had a lot of distractions at home, or sometimes there would be sharing computers between siblings, but thankfully the district helped iron that out. And people missed seeing friends and teachers in person, of course.”

She tries to interact with all of them multiple times a week, and makes one-on-one appointments with students over Google Meets. She also enjoys joining in on students’ fun, and has been known to prank them over video calls. For example, Castro used a greenscreen background while wearing a green shirt to make it appear on students’ screens as if she only had a head and hands with no body.

“I really like working with children,” Castro said. “They make me laugh on a daily basis. They’re just funny. We’re both working at home right now, and they tell me jokes, they’re fun. One of them said ‘what did one plate say to the other plate? Dinner’s on me!’ That made me crack up.”

Castro is also renowned for teaching her peers as well as students. For the past four years, Castro has held “Tuesdays with Tara” at Wyman, in which Castro taught faculty and staff about technologies they can use in the classroom. Since then, Castro said that these Tuesdays have become less her lecturing others about new technologies and more of an ongoing, collaborative conversation.

“Teaching is not a solitary practice,” Castro said. “I know that I learn best when there are more minds together, so I learn just as much from them as they learn from me. They ask questions that make me think.”

In her undergraduate college career, Castro enjoyed subjects like arts and literature, but was not sure how to make a living. However, her passions helped her discover her career trajectory.

“Being a library multimedia specialist was a good fit,” Castro said. “You have to be well-rounded. I’ve always loved to read, learning new things and I love working with children.”

E.T. Wyman Elementary School Principal Ronald Celio nominated Castro for the award. He said Castro is beloved by students and parents alike for her teaching style and kindness.

“Tara goes above and beyond in a lot of ways,” Celio said. “When people think of a librarian they think of someone who helps kids sort books, but Tara is the full embodiment of multimedia. She teaches kids about different blended learning strategies, book critiques, safely navigating the internet, analysis and presentations.

Celio also said that Castro serves as an example of compassion and respect for students. 

“Tara plays a critical role in our social and emotional learning,” Celio added. “We have a monthly theme in our responsive classroom program, like how to establish friendships, caring and sharing, and how to have responsibility. Each grade level creates videos on this for each month’s theme.”

The Warwick School Committee recognized Castro’s achievement Tuesday night. The meeting was held remotely due to COVID-19 restrictions.

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