ALUMNI IN ACTION
For Maria Cedolini Thompson, ‘Anything is Popsicle’
By Julia Halprin Jackson
“The year 2020 is one we will always remember.
We all had to stay at home and not be together.
It’s not what we imagined or could ever predict.
It was the safest option so we didn’t get sick.”
— Excerpt of “Our 20/20 Journey Back to School”
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to close in 2020, first-grade teacher Maria Cedolini Thompson, ’90 Child Development, ’92 Teaching Credential, wondered how to best prepare her students for an uncertain future. A fourth-generation educator, Thompson had taught elementary school for 16 years in Northern California when she had to transition online.
For months, she channeled her energy into delivering lessons via Google documents, slideshows, virtual scavenger hunts, weekly read-aloud audio recordings and daily math lesson videos. Her students adapted to new technologies while sharing space with working parents, siblings and extended family.
Inspired by the work of her father, child psychologist and author Anthony Cedolini, ’65 BA, ’68 MA, Psychology, she set out to create a resource that could benefit kids and adults alike.
“Lying in bed at night, all I could think about was how these kids were going to feel when they had to come back to school to a totally different situation,” she says. “So I got up and started writing.
Front cover of “Our 20/20 Journey Back to School.” Courtesy of Maria Cedolini Thompson.
Daria Shamolina’s illustrations captured students adjusting to shifting COVID-19 protocols in school. Courtesy of Maria Cedolini Thompson.
“I wanted to have a voice — to explain the pandemic to kids, to tell them that we are going to persevere through this.”
Thompson could sense that when they returned to a physical campus, the rules would be different — and children and families would need to feel prepared. She brainstormed ways to encourage interaction in a space where students couldn’t share art supplies, trade lunches or ask for hugs when they were feeling sad.
How could she reassure her students that, despite COVID-19, they were still capable of learning? And despite months of social isolation, they were not alone?
Maria Cedolini Thompson visits with first-graders in her classroom. Photo: David Schmitz.
The answer came in the form of a book: In October 2021, Thompson published “Our 20/20 Journey Back to School,” which follows an elementary class as they attend online school and navigate a contactless world. The book doubles as a time capsule — a meaningful way for parents and educators to contextualize the pandemic for children.
“Maria's book expresses the true sentiment of how our teachers and students felt as they navigated the various phases of the pandemic,” says Marie Morgan, superintendent of the Walnut Creek School District, where Thompson teaches. Morgan bought five copies of the book for each of the district’s school libraries.
“Her story was the perfect resource for many of our teachers as they supported students who were returning to school,” she adds. “Maria is a magical first-grade teacher who is highly valued by students, families and her colleagues, a true gift to our district.”
“I was brought up to believe that I could do anything. My dad would say, ‘If you think you can, then you can. If you think you can’t, you won’t.’ I instill these same words to my students.”
— Maria Cedolini Thompson
Hindsight for this educator is 20/20, as her title suggests. The pandemic reaffirmed her belief that teachers are irreplaceable and challenged her to reflect on the skills she wanted to impart to her students.
“I was brought up to believe that I could do anything,” she remembers. “My dad would say, ‘If you think you can, then you can. If you think you can’t, you won’t.’ I instill these same words to my students.”
These words carry special meaning during the pandemic, when students have often felt limited by health restrictions and ever-changing rules. Thompson encourages parents and educators alike to reinforce that children can continue to learn, socialize and even enjoy school, regardless of what it might look like.
Thompson adds that life is unpredictable and uncertain, and that “flexibility, a positive attitude and perseverance are key to success. As we say in first grade, ‘Anything is popsicle.’”
Top photo: David Schmitz