Rohnert Park’s ‘Mr. Rogers’ welcomes kindergarten students to his distance-learning neighborhood
Ask Ryan Kurada and he’ll tell you that teaching was always an obvious path for him to follow, and you’d get no argument from the many people he has come across in his young career, even if lately he’s had to pursue an altered method of delivery in these days of remote learning.
Kurada, 29, a kindergarten teacher at University Elementary School at La Fiesta in Rohnert Park, can still remember playing the role of instructor as far back as his own kindergarten year, using the teacher’s pointer, leading games and reviewing the alphabet for peers. And when it came time for parent-teacher night, Kurada eagerly guided his parents through the building to meet his new classroom lead each year.
“School was always an emphasis in my upbringing. I always loved school,” he said. “Kids are such curious beings, and it’s the perfect niche for me. It combines creativity with learning through your hands and your senses. I found all of that such a key element in the early years, and I … learned it’s where all of those skills come together naturally.”
Now into his fifth year of teaching at the Cotati-Rohnert Park Unified School District’s elementary built around project-based learning, Kurada is hailed as a leader in his field. He even took home the prestigious Sonoma County teacher of the month award in 2017.
But the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home order have upended traditional education and classroom instruction as we know it. In short order, teachers and students across the county’s 40 public school districts had to familiarize themselves with socially distanced, remote learning.
Undeterred, Kurada quickly developed a private group for his class on Facebook, an online platform that the parents of his 25 students were familiar with. Ever the overachiever, he also started producing ornamented YouTube videos, often wearing costumes such as a bear outfit, green crayon getup and astronaut suit related to the week’s lesson plan, to continue sharing his passion while keeping his young students engaged.
The weekly videos, which tend to include storytelling and a writing or project-based prompt, have been a hit. They’ve also begun to gain traction across the education landscape.
“He’s wonderful. He’s just a really passionate man putting himself out there and doing what he believes is best for children,” said Charlotte Straub, principal of University Elementary. “And now that he’s making all these videos, I keep having a vision of him on TV teaching kids. He just pulls you in and everybody feels really comfortable. In my mind, he’s another little Mr. Rogers.”
What had initially seemed daunting to parents, who were suddenly faced with navigating how to work from home as well as ensure their children kept up with their studies, became a daily routine they also look forward to.
“The only way I’ve been able to get through this is the amount of help he’s been giving out. That’s been invaluable,” said Amanda Bandalin, whose 5-year-old daughter Sierra is in Kurada’s class. “He gives off this great feeling of being really interested in everything that the kids put out. He points out what he loves about it, and really makes it tailored right to that child so that they can feel the connection with him.”