Humanizing the Distance Learning Experience

“I just ordered my first box of those weird under eye gel patch thingies that everyone from Rachel Hollis to Oprah to Brene Brown seems to be sporting on social lately,” I laughed, leaning away from the screen. “I mean, if Brene uses them, they have to be good, right?”

“Do they sell them in extra-strength Covid-size?” my friend asked.

“There is no eye gel patch thingy made for this moment,” I admitted. “But buying them makes me feel hopeful.”

She nodded from a distance, muted her mic, and turned toward her son. Words were exchanged, vigorous head movements, and then, he threw his hands in the air and stomped out of the room.

“We are SO done with school,” she sighed after turning her mic on again.

Yeah, so anyway–I know I’m not alone when I say that weekly Zoom calls with my friends are everything right about now. I also know that I’m not the only one who feels it’s especially hard to humanize similar encounters when I’m showing up to teach across the distance.

Isn’t this interesting?

I’ve been thinking about the difference between my academic and non-academic video conferencing encounters all week. It’s palpable–that difference–isn’t it? When I met up with a few other writing teachers to talk shop last Sunday evening, this was one of the first things that came up between all of us, too.

“Meeting with my students this way is not very human,” someone said, and I agreed. It’s hard to build relationships online. Even with the big kids. Even with adults. It’s hard to make learning feel like anything more than a required transaction, too. Especially now, and for a thousand reasons (or more). I am feeling all of this in just so many ways. I know that many of you are, too.

And yet: These meetups I’m having with family friends are everything to me.

Why should one kind of gathering across the distance feel so much different than the other?

I have a few theories, and none of them are brilliant, but I’m eager for this conversation, and I’m grateful that a few of my friends have opened it this week. I plan to continue it again this Sunday night at 7 pm EST, if anyone is game. The invite will be included in my Sunday morning newsletter. If you haven’t subscribed yet, just click that link I left you there.

In the meantime, here’s what I’ve learned about all of this so far. I hope that some of it is of use.


How Teachers are Humanizing the Distance Learning Experience:

They’re checking in with students consistently and creatively.

Consistency matters so much right now. When students know when their teachers are planning to check in, they can count on it. Whether they’re calling the same families at the same times each week or gathering kids together on Zoom or Google Meet at the same time on specific days, teachers who are working to establish routines offer kids something stable to hold onto. They also help students realize that they are missed, that they matter, and that someone is showing up to listen and help.

Some teacher friends have told me that this consistency matters most during 1:1 meetups. The meetings are scheduled, and that schedule is consistently kept by teachers, even if students don’t show up. When that happens, they’re sending quick, kind notes that communicate affection rather than judgment.

“I missed you today,” one of my friends messaged. “I wanted to hear how things are going for you right now. I’ll be here again next week if you need me. I hope you’ll come say hi, even if you don’t. I’m a little lonely myself. It would be so good to see you.”

No academic pressure, just real relationship building.

Routine, consistency, and predictability don’t have to undermine creativity, either. We can inspire kids to connect with their classmates in entirely new ways while allowing themselves to be better seen as well.

These invitations might have an academic flair, even when their greater purpose is to take the emotional temperature of the kids in the room. Every minute counts online, and we don’t want to keep kids there too long. This kind of thoughtful integration is meaningful.

It also gives me pause, and it should. What if kids aren’t comfortable showing up this way? What if synchronous learning feels invasive? What if it leaves them feeling exposed? More on that in a minute, but I wanted to drop those questions here. I know that we need to ask them, and we need to shift our tools and approaches, in response to what we learn. This is humbling work, and I want to be clear: The ideas that follow are for those who know they’re truly welcome in students’ homes.

For example:

    • Middle and high school teachers might greet students by inviting them to pick a personal background that serves as a metaphor for their feelings or experiences that day. This is a powerful foray into small moment writing or journal writing.
    • Many are creating Bitmoji classrooms, welcoming students into them, adding one small academically relevant feature each day, and challenging students to search for it. Others are offering multi-item scavenger hunts. I might add the books I’m reading for pleasure to my Bitmoji’s desk or shelf. I might add certain plants to the window ledge. I might adopt a pet. I might link personal and content-specific questions and challenges to these items, too. I might tuck items of personal interest to just a few students into my classroom each day as well. We might have a cake for someone’s birthday. I might be snacking on one student’s favorite food. If someone does remarkable work, I might hang it on my fridge. Keep it light. Make it funny. Make them want to show up for this part of the day.
    • You could also begin with a daily fire starter that invites a bit of making relevant to your learning target. If you’ve been hanging around this space for some time, then you know exactly what I’m referring to. If you eager to learn even more, these examples might be useful to you. Invite students to share their creations. Some might take this very seriously. Others will go for laughter. We need lots of that right now. Roll with it. Let it wash over you.

They’re not just offering choice–they’re inspiring ownership.

Teacher-centered experiences offer students choice. Learner-centered experiences inspire ownership. It’s my opinion that there is no better time to loosen the reigns than right now. Right now, most teachers aren’t being evaluated. Right now, most are being encouraged to simply do their best. Try. And right now, there are fewer tests and grades getting in anyone’s way. There’s nothing stopping us from inviting writers to write and make the stuff they really want to write and make.

It was my absolute pleasure to facilitate a research and information writing unit for a team of talented fifth grade teachers over the last several weeks. I spend quite a bit of time leading lesson studies in schools, and this worked in much the same way–across the distance. During the debrief, several teachers shared that they were surprised by my decision to offer writers such great choice. We agreed on the form: All writers committed to research and information writing. They had full ownership over their topics, the resources they chose, and even–to a large degree–how they moved through the asynchronous lessons. During our last debrief, teachers were more than willing to invite students to experiment with a bunch of great tools as well. We curated ideas right here.

“If a kid wants to learn how to create a stop motion video, and she has the tools to teach herself how, let her try,” I suggested, and they embraced this shift readily. “Even if she doesn’t create a perfect final product, she’ll gain so much knowledge and sharpen so many skills just tinkering and trying and struggling a bit, too.”

Here’s the thing: There are so many things happening in students’ lives right now that are worthy of investigation, and creating and making is such good medicine right now. Teach the form, but let them own it. That’s what many teachers are doing, and it’s making a big difference–at least for some kids.

If you’d like to use this same unit with your own students, it’s right here, and it’s free. 

They’re creating delightful and unexpected invitations, too.

Some of the writers that I serve are building fun parks and writing stories about them. Others are making forts. I’ve left our plans right here. I started a fairy garden in my front yard, where a large tree meets our sidewalk. Neighborhood children started leaving painted rocks there. I added a few gnomes, and my visitors named them. I left a few poems. Now, my visitors are writing them. All of this was completely unexpected, and I’m telling you IT IS LIFE RIGHT NOW.

Other friends have created scavenger hunts in the woods behind their schools. There are walking field trips to be taken and photo stories to tell. Kids are making memes and dancing on TikTok, and while I’m not promoting the use of tools that are currently under investigation for compromising children’s data, I am all about asking what’s making people laugh really hard right now. That’s the content kids need to be creating. For those people. For the real, live, actual humans who would give anything to laugh really hard.

I’m wondering what kids are doing when they’re not showing up to their home schools. I’m wondering how that stuff might inspire what they do in home school, too.

 

They’re revealing more about themselves and making space for kids to do the same.

I remember the first time I ran into one of my students outside of school. I’d just wrapped my first year teaching seniors, I was 23 years old, and I was combing the aisles of a local grocery store with my boyfriend (now husband) looking for cold and flu medication because we had one or both of those things, and we looked the part. Entirely.

My student bumped into us by accident, took one long look at me, and then said, “I always thought teachers slept in coffins all summer.” Clearly, my aesthetic was proof.

Such a comedian. I know. I said as much, too. And then, we all had a great laugh. He asked what I was suffering with, commented on my concert t-shirt, and shook John’s hand. I stood shorter than I typically did when we were together at school. Flip flops cut two inches from the heels I often wore. Somehow, the difference really seemed to make a difference. I think of that exchange so often lately.

I’ve heard many heartwarming stories about the ways that teachers are humanizing distance learning over the last few weeks, but none of them compare to the stories where teachers reveal their vulnerabilities. Share what you don’t know. Share your mess. Share your dog who barks too much, the cat who just barfed on your keyboard, the fact that you don’t know how to share your screen, and your detailed procedure for disinfecting mail. Share it all, and invite them to do the same. This is how you’ll build a new home across the distance–together. It’s how you’ll fill that home with love, too.


Subscribe to My Newsletter for More Resources and Tools

Even if you missed last Sunday’s 7 pm EST meetup on Zoom, you’re welcome to join us this week. Look for the invitation in my Sunday morning newsletter. I’m giving away a great book and a coupon code for my brand new digital course there, too. I’ll also share all of the resources and tools that I’ve sprinkled all over social this week and my four part, single-page remote learning framework. It’s simple on the surface, and I plan to teach into it deeply here and there and just about everywhere I learn and work over the next few weeks. If you’re interested in all of these things, put yourself on my email list. 


All Images: Copyright Laura Stockman, 2020

2 Comments

  1. Patty Z says:

    I have tried my best to keep the focus on the kids and their social/emotional well-being. I teach kindergarten and they NEED fun, hands-on, social experiences! Each class meeting I greet and ask each individual how s/he is doing. Yesterday I saw grumpies and sadness, so my goal is to turn their frowns upside down by the end. We were focusing on the letter Uu, so what better tie for a 5/6 year old than underwear?!! My juvenile humor asked if they’d like to have a CLEAN underwear parade (wearing them on their heads!) at the end of our meeting. They overwhelmingly agreed. I made sure they knew they didn’t HAVE to. They ran to their rooms and were delighted with giggles to sport their favorite undies. One wore her stars like a mask, and another touted his “Fruit of the Looms”! I think I needed the laugh just as much as they did…

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