From Spring Break to Launch
First, colleges announced closures. Then, K–12 schools followed suit, including my own school. Initially, I felt calm. We were told that we would be teaching through distance learning for about two weeks, and to be honest, I wasn’t in a panic: Our teachers and students have been uploading and accessing materials from class websites throughout the year. Each student has a device. Nearly every student has reliable internet at home. Parents are engaged and supportive, and even if they are working from home as well, I figured they’d be likely to listen to advice and attempt to help as best as they could.
Then, I thought about what a school day looks like for me. I love being around students, feeding off their energy (or attempting to spark some, depending on the time of day), and responding to them in class, in the hallway, and at extracurricular events. I also love the small talk that happens before class, around campus, or when a former student drops by my classroom. As Brené Brown said, “We are hardwired for connection,” and connection is a cornerstone of my classroom instruction. I began to wonder if small talk conversations were as important to students as they are to me, and how I could continue these through the online learning platforms.
Teachers at my school had two days to prepare for distance learning before launching on a Wednesday. Students were surprisingly eager to participate. On the Tuesday before classes began, I invited students to test run the Zoom platform. I opened a room for an hour, and thought that students might sign on, see that it was an intuitive user interface, and log off. Instead, after a quick check-in with how students were feeling, I watched as they began chatting with each other.
When someone new entered the room, their faces would light up — even if it wasn’t a friendship pair I observed in the physical classroom. For a few minutes, I turned off my own video camera and let the students chat with each other while I did some cleaning up in my new home office space. Students stayed in the room for the whole hour, introducing pets and asking about trips and making silly faces in blanket forts.
Teaching online for the first three days was a lot like starting a new school year: setting expectations and norms (mute your microphone if you aren’t speaking, try to put your cell phone on Do Not Disturb or leave it elsewhere in your home); sharing how I anticipated teaching lessons and providing materials; making clear I’m available to answer questions at any time; and troubleshooting technology issues as best as I could. Overall, students were engaged and ready to work in class. They asked thoughtful questions online just as they did in the classroom. I noticed students helping each other with tech issues, and they were nearly all on time to class. I began opening the classroom a few minutes early so we could still have small talk before class was officially scheduled to begin. After just a few days, some of my anxiety about teaching online subsided; our relationships and connections translated to the online sphere, engagement was still high, and students seemed eager to get back into a routine during the day.
After three days of distance learning, I asked students to complete a simple survey. I was interested in how they were feeling, how distracted they felt during the day, how well their technology was working, and what I could do to support them. I asked if students would want to meet virtually during some unscheduled afternoon time, either to talk about choice reading books or just as an online hangout. At the end of my questionnaire, I left a space for lingering questions they had and what they wanted their teachers to know.
The survey results revealed a lot about how students are experiencing this change:
- To my surprise, 70% of students checked responded that they wanted to “hangout online with Ms. Huddleston (no agenda).” Only about 40% of students wanted to talk about choice reading.
- Nearly every single student checked the box “I miss my friends” when I asked how they were feeling. Many reported being worried about school.
- When comparing two different online platforms, I asked which they preferred and why. Nearly every one responded that Zoom was a favorite –some said the technology was easier/less glitchy/video quality clearer, but most relayed Zoom allows them to see each others’ faces in the classroom. Just as the teacher can see each student’s face in a 25-person class, every student can keep up with others’ facial responses, too, without needing to scroll through a list. It’s comforting to see faces. It’s familiar. As a teenager, it’s nice to know that if you’re confused or shocked or entertained, you can look and see if your classmates are experiencing the same emotions based on facial expressions. Teenagers still value knowing they aren’t alone; this might even be more important given the isolation some may be feeling right now.
For me, the responses signal that students are eager to remain connected to their lives pre-pandemic. Normalcy isn’t restricted to mimicking a school day schedule; it also involves remaining involved in the same social enrichment that adds levity to the school day. When so many parts of life remain unknown, we can and should still provide these opportunities for students and for ourselves as teachers.
When I think about teaching online for multiple weeks, I have more questions than answers. What I have realized is this: The content isn’t what matters the most right now. As Brené Brown said, connection “gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” Our students need connection with each other and with us as teachers just as we crave these contact points with our own friends, family, coworkers, and students. For me, this means I’ll stress less about providing beautiful PDFs to students and think more about how we can all work together to remain unified and resilient. I’ll keep my focus on the connections that will continue to endure long after this moment in time has passed.