Re-Establishing Lost Connections in Distance Learning

Graphic with the title of the blog post and a graphic of a young, masculine person attending class online.

I met Desmond this year when I taught 5th grade for a week. His parents had opted for distance learning for the year. Every day he went to the class SeeSaw page, opened the lesson, and then just hit submit. No work, no listening, just submit. When I stepped into the teacher’s place for a week, she said, “Just so you know, Desmond is going to pop on the live session and then leave after 2 minutes.” That made me wonder: why?

In the COVID-19 era, teaching has been flipped on its head

Simultaneously twisting our teaching from in-person to hybrid or online and keeping students engaged is no easy feat. Think about all the structures you have built up over the years for supporting students and connecting with them in person: greeting them at the door, giving them hugs, getting down on their level to be face to face with them, looking around the room as you teach and seeing who is connected and who is not, and many other ingrained habits of connection. Things we no longer gave any thought to as we moved throughout our day in person. The pandemic has flipped this around, and in the process, we have had to re-learn how to create connections with our students. All of our structures that were once as easy as breathing now had to be converted to the online space.

I work as a coach and consultant with teachers as well as a classroom substitute teacher. When the pandemic hit and everything moved to online, how I did my job was upended, and I found myself backward designing my methods. My structures, like observing students, supporting accommodations, maintaining culturally responsive teaching practices, and most of all, helping teachers change teaching practices, could no longer be done the same way.

Adapting student engagement strategies to the virtual classroom

Back to Desmond. On the first day, he joined us and stayed for about 5 minutes for the first session. Then he came back for the second session and stayed for about 10 minutes. The next day it was up to 20 minutes. By the third day, he not only joined but also had his camera on and was answering questions and talking with both the students and with me. Why? What was different? Was I just playing games and not teaching? Nope, I taught. Did I bribe him? Nope, no bribes. Am I this superstar teacher? Again sorry, no.

What I did was think about the structures that I used in the classroom to connect students with the learning process. When I thought through these structures, I found ways to bring that into the virtual setting. I embedded culturally responsive teaching strategies and brought in protocols for response and discussion designed to engage students who learn better through talking, collaborating, and movement. Learning cues drew them in and grabbed their interest, and then essential questions facilitated deeper, more critical thinking. I didn’t give them the information and tell them what they needed to know, but rather used the learning cue to have them explore and seek out resources to find the information. As they discussed and shared together, they found more questions and repeated the cycle again. We did math, science, reading, and writing that day around that one shared experience. It wove us and multiple subjects together.

So why did Desmond engage? I believe it was because he felt connected to the learning and the community. His own interests and identity were brought into the space. This allowed him to engage with other students, the content, and the technology in ways he had not been invited to do previously.

Amidst the uncertainty, focus on connection

We don’t know what tomorrow in education will bring. It may be we go back to in-person learning or we may do hybrid or distance learning. What we do know is that without connection, students will struggle to engage in the learning process. How are you going to bring in who your students are into the learning process? How are you going to activate their interest and engage them in exploring and naturally learning about things in ways that bring together your teachings and the students’ lived experiences?

Try using an image or activity that cues up their curiosity. Have them use common items in uncommon ways or ask a question that is out of this world like “do dragons fart?” Doing this helps us find out what they know about a topic and see how they interact with the content. This gives us insight into the ways in which they culturally engage with learning.

Want to learn more? Check out our Fierce and Fearless STEAM Teaching Facebook group for more ideas on how to re-establish that lost connection in your distance learning. Give us a follow on Instagram (@qi.learning), too for upcoming tips on learning cues!

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