When secondary educators plunged into emergency online teaching in March 2020, we faced a slew of challenges. Among those challenges was the lack of student engagement after the novelty of logging in from home in pajamas wore off.
What started as a two week attempt at keeping things as normal as possible “just until after Spring Break,” became more than a year of uncertainty combined with lack of knowledge and resources to maintain high levels of engagement and content delivery. This is not for lack of trying, most definitely on the part of educators everywhere, and we’ve now reached a point where teaching blog posts like “Is Anyone In Teaching Actually Happy?” fill my teacher-gram.
The exhaustion, unhappiness, and stress-related languish and depression are widely reported and seen, but teachers are not giving up. Those who remain in the uncertain state of “What will this year hold?” as the pandemic continues might benefit from some of the ideas offered here, even if it is just to know that they are not alone in still attempting to engage with students despite the challenges of the educational landscape.
We know the best classrooms build a sense of community, offer opportunities for growth, provide varying entry points for students to engage, and place an emphasis on interactive, collaborative, and student-centered learning.
How to do this in a virtual space requires proactive relationship building, creative energy to pre-plan, and a sense of humor especially when the technology fails.
- The social science of restorative practices claims that connections among individuals and the trust, mutual understanding, shared values and behaviors bind us together and make cooperative action possible. Because so much of traditional education relies on compliance, management, and standards-based or formal assessment, the emergency of Covid-19 offers us an opportunity to learn new ways to engage with and care for our students’ well-being, particularly in a virtual classroom. A proactive or responsive circle could benefit your classroom community. The beauty of a circle is that it offers varying entry points for participants based on their comfort level; over time, a circle becomes a safe space where everyone feels that they are heard and that they belong, but it starts as simply as asking each and every student to unmute one at a time to share a word or phrase to share a recent small moment of gratitude. The consistency of such an opening extends then to incorporate content, disturbing or confusing headlines, tackle social justice topics, or resolve conflict in an equitable way any time in class; there is simply space made available for participatory learning.
- By proactively building relationships and a sense of community, joyful learning emerges as students feel included and needed in their school space and will flourish in an online environment. The emergency move to online education forced the consideration of what works in a traditional education system and what needs attention and transformation–most notably, the teacher-centered classroom space. Learning platforms like Class and online educational tools like PearDeck, FlipGrid, Jamboard, Parlay (to name a few of my favorites) place active and collaborative learning at the forefront, naturally creating a space where students are offered an alternative to the natural school hierarchy of teachers holding the knowledge. Using any platform is not quite as simple as inviting students to walk around the classroom with a marker and some large paper hung on the walks for a Chalk Talk, but using JamBoard similarly can work effectively, especially “on the fly.” Students collaborating in breakouts, especially in the enhanced breakouts in Class, can be made visible through use of Google Slides and setting your own screen to view as a grid. Observing students’ thinking in real-time and entering the breakout or listening in to ask a question if you see their slide needing redirection allows students to build autonomy. An added bonus: you can mute and breathe for a moment to collect yourself. Those few minutes might be able to power you through until the next eye break.
- When we feel negative affects like distress, fear, and shame, it’s harder to demonstrate joy and feel excitement, let alone have those feelings observed by the equally fearful or apathetic 25-30+ students staring vaguely back at you. It’s counterintuitive, but those low moments MOST require a sense of humor. As Priya Parker recently said about acknowledging the mess Covid has created, “when we don’t actually pause and, first, just kind of throw our hands up in exasperation, and also belly laugh,” we are pretending for ourselves and those around us that it’s not a mess. She goes on to say that “rather than pretending … [we can say] what a mess, and welcome to this mess, and I want to be in this mess with you.” There is no better way to connect with tweens and teens than making a joke at your own expense in a playful way and letting them know it’s ok to laugh with you, not at you, when you’ve accidentally muted yourself, screen shared something you didn’t want to share, or didn’t set the Google Doc settings so they can edit. It’s all a mess! So, welcome them into it with you, laugh at yourself, and appoint a few students who love to correct you to be your “assistant.” They will feel valued and needed, and you can rest assured that whatever you give them can be checked off your list! Some well-placed memes or gifs can allow you dip your toe in t(w)een language without too much learning on your part and shared laughter or bemoaning a shared experience goes a long way.
If all else fails, turn to The New York Times Learning Network. With hundreds of relevant articles, graphs, photographs, and inquiry questions at your fingertips, there is always something to discover. Your quietest or most disinterested student might have deep thoughts about their family weighing in on their dating life. Sit back and listen to the reason you might have become a teacher in the first place: the gift that is a t(w)een learner finding their own voice.
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