As this unprecedented school year wraps up and we begin the uncomfortable wait to learn what the new school year holds, I have to pause a moment and reflect on what worked during COVID-19 Distance Learning and what didn’t. What I can take into a classroom if we get there in the fall and what I can use online if we need Distance Learning Part 2. Most of all, I find I am reflecting on what I learned about my students in the last 2 months of the school year and how I can use that knowledge to make any classroom experience infinitely better for students.
What I Learned:
Hard-to-reach students need a kind text home
I soon learned that in order to get in touch with students who were MIA, I needed to text a parent or guardian, not call or email. Why? Emails get deleted and unseen. Phone calls are like someone showing up at your home unannounced. No one wants to open that door. And phone calls from a school number seem ominous. They get deleted. So…I text.
When I send a text to a parent, I make sure to tell them that I am thinking about them and let them know that I welcome them contacting me to ensure their child is getting the help with school that they need. I don’t describe assignments or pressure parents. In this way, I reached many families whose students had been MIA for weeks.
I also got texts back from previously unreachable parents when I sent text messages in their home languages (with help from my friend, Google Translate).
In their replies, I learned that many parents did not have a computer in the home. Because of this, they had already given up on their student doing work. They did not know the school had been emailing them about picking up a computer on loan.
And finally, too many parents who texted back thought that the school had given up on their children because no one from the school had previously reached out via text. Those emails and phone calls really had been deleted or unseen.
The brain on trauma is a brain in overwhelm
Multi-step directions, multiple platforms, and in-your-face Zooms are too much when the smoke detector in your brain is declaring a state of emergency.
I ditched the Zooms as mandatory and made the few I did optional. If students wanted a Zoom to see classmates, they could request it.
I ditched any directions that were more than two steps.
I made assignments as visual as possible–a traumatized brain accesses visual best.
I created text boxes for student responses because overwhelmed brains need uncluttered graphic organizers.
I went to one platform. It is where students can find their work, their 2 step directions, and turn their work in.
I made weekly slide decks for student work. There weren’t other links to look at. Students simply opened the assignment slide deck at the beginning of the week and turned in the completed slide deck at the end of the week.
I started awarding credit for each week students turned in their slide decks to a B level or above. I didn’t punish students by failing them if they were only able to turn in that 1 week. It is an accomplishment to do work on your own during a pandemic. Students didn’t get a full 5 credits for 1 week–not even close–but they did not get an F.
I never used breakout rooms. I know how I feel with adults in breakout rooms when no one is speaking and no cameras are on. I wouldn’t do that to my students.
I never required cameras be on.
I also posted my phone number there for students to text me. I used Google Voice to create a phone number just for this purpose. I discovered that students who are overwhelmed needed to text their questions instead of emailing me.
Relationships calm overwhelmed brains
Students wouldn’t even try assignments at first because they were too overwhelmed. So I went back to best-practices for Trauma curriculum–Prompting students to share about themselves and responding to their shares.
And it was from these prompts I learned the most about my students:
I learned which students were depressed and needed me to acknowledge that depression and connect them to services.
I learned that a student had been suicidal in previous years and needed an outlet to talk about that time in their life. I referred that student to services.
I learned which students had support systems in their homes and who was feeling alone in the world.
I learned which students were in charge of their siblings all day while their parents still worked outside the home.
I learned about family histories and students who didn’t know their family histories and why that was.
I learned about a student’s experience as a small child watching the members of a drug cartel battling in the street outside his home.
I learned about funny childhood stories and sad childhood stories and horrific childhood stories. I had the chance to connect with students over these stories.
I learned who was hopeful, who was angry, and how every one of my students was wanting their lives to resume as normal. I told them I was hopeful and angry and wanted my life to resume to normal too.
I learned that snarky students need me to respond with kindness even more when they are Distance Learning. And that, often, the person who was feeling snarky was me and I needed to take a break.
I learned how much students felt calmed by being able to share and connect.
I learned that these connections with an adult from their one constant–their school–were what made students feel able to finally get started on the rest of their schoolwork.