A lot of us are back to teaching – but teaching now in a whole new way. It’s a big learning curve, one that I also am experiencing. Although I am currently teaching undergraduate students in a university faculty of education, I find myself grappling with many questions that draw on my own experiences teaching children and youth. And I am hearing from teachers of children and teenagers many of the same questions. For example:
- How can I help my students to feel connected to me and each other online?
- What do rituals of togetherness look like in an online class format?
- How can I thoughtfully create space, not just for academic content, but for emotional release so that they have room inside of themselves for the learning to land?!
- And what about the wiggles? How can I help my students who are getting restless in this sedentary learning format to release some of that agitated energy during an online class?
Whew. How to begin?
Well, I’d like to start off right away by saying that educators are awesome. AWESOME. These past few weeks I’ve been hearing such heartwarming stories of all the ways that educators are trying to keep relationship alive during this challenging time of physical distance from their students. They are having to shift how they teach, while also often caring for their own children at home and also being filled with their own emotions during this challenging time (because, yes, teachers are human too! Even though they sometimes seem super-human!)
So, here we go. I am going to offer some simple ideas about the questions that I have been grappling with, and ways that I think teachers everywhere can support their students while teaching them in a remote format. Many of you might be grappling with these challenges too, so I hope these ideas help!
How can I help my students to feel connected to me and each other online?
Firstly, remember to collect your students! Collecting them might feel obvious and natural when you are together physically, but it might not come so naturally online. When you are together in person, you might automatically mention a child’s new backpack, notice and compliment their new pink hair, and finds ways to greet them as they walk into class, without even thinking about it.
It can be harder to remember to do this when we aren’t actually face-to-face – but we can still do this!
Let’s start with the basics. First, as we see each student’s name pop up, or their faces, let’s make sure to greet each person by name. I make sure to say hello to each of my students, even though only about half of them choose to turn on their video. As I see them enter the ‘room’ I make sure to say, “Hello Jamal, so happy you are here.” And, if I can actually see them, I try to speak to something I see: “What a sweet cat you have Emma!”
Saying their names out loud and making a conscious effort to greet our students and talk with them in ways that show we are still paying attention to each of them, can help them to feel connected to us and like we are “together” – which we are, just in a different way!
What do rituals of togetherness look like in an online class format?
Rituals of togetherness can look like so many different things, depending on the age you teach or who you are as an educator. The following are some ideas for us to experience togetherness, even in an online format:
- Establish a funny hat day or a pajama day! Each student (and you) arrive in class in a silly hat or your pjs. This can be a fun way to build a sense of togetherness.
- Read a book (or a chapter a week) aloud to your students.
Those of us teaching younger children might find this to be especially helpful, although some of my fondest memories of school are of my grade 7 teacher reading to us. I still remember the comfort of his voice and this special time together.
In Western culture, we often stop reading to children as soon as they are able to read for themselves. But there is something different about being read to than reading for oneself. It’s not that reading by yourself is a bad thing—it is a wonderful gift, both emotionally and academically, to be able to enjoy reading and immerse yourself in other worlds and people. However, being read to is a different experience and therefore has different gifts to offer. One of these gifts is that it offers students the ability to completely fall into the experience of the story without any effort. They can rest in the care of the adult reading to them and allow this adult to bring them on a journey. Children of all ages need this bit of emotional rest right now.
Additionally, unlike reading alone, being read to allows everyone to have the same experience, as the whole class is listening. Yet within these collective experiences, each child has their own individual experience. This means that the whole class may be empathizing with a character, or feeling sad or happy; parallel to that, each child will have their own ideas and imagined scenarios. And this can be a beautiful thing.
How can I thoughtfully create space, not just for academic content, but for emotional release so that they have room inside of themselves for the learning to land?!
As we look to create a new rhythm of online learning for our students, we should also be aware that our students might need us to help them find ways to release and express emotion while they are at home, riding out the pandemic with the rest of us. As many children will be more alarmed right now than usual, we can make it easy for them to engage in simple activities that can provide them release without them feeling self-conscious about it. (These activities can feel like a big, giant out breath!)
This is not the time to cram in as much content as possible. We need to balance content with ‘out breaths’ for our students so that they have more emotional room for learning. So, to support other educators at this time, I am providing weekly activities for emotional release. These activities will vary and be geared to students of different ages, and can be taught online. These past few weeks I have posted a movement activity for younger children to pretend to be mashed potatoes (being ploppy and sloshy is a great release!) and a frustration monster drawing activity. And there will be many more activities to come!
We will each introduce and facilitate these activities in the ways that work for us individually as educators. The most important thing is to remember to provide time for emotional release as part of our student’s regular schedule. By doing so, we will contribute to our student’s emotional well-being – and therefore, their learning.
And what about the wiggles? How can I help my students who are getting restless in this sedentary learning format to release some of that agitated energy during their online class?
Ah yes, the wiggles. We all get these, especially if we are sitting for a long time! We weren’t meant to learn in the online format, so we need to expect the wiggles and plan for when they come.
- One thing that can really help is to invite doodling! Ask kids to paper their whole desk or work area. (I’ve papered my whole dining room table now and we have a lot of doodling happening in my household!) You can send an email to families of younger children (or suggest to your older students) to wrap their work area in paper so that they can doodle quietly while you are speaking to them. It may sound counterintuitive to parents at first, but if you explain to them that many kids focus more effectively when they can channel that restless energy, parents are likely to support this (rather than scolding their children if they see them doodling while their teacher is talking). And if wrapping the whole desk feels like too grand of a task, then they can simply have paper and a pen out on the desk, ready for when the doodling urge strikes!
- Provide movement breaks! Whether this is more formal (e.g. playing a fun song and having everyone jump around to it or asking everyone to hop on one leg and then the other for 5 minutes), we need to remember to insert movement time into the day. This is important to help relieve restlessness, so our students’ bodies and minds can once again take in new information.
I’d like to end by thanking educators everywhere for how much work you are putting into shifting how you teach and providing so much care for children during this difficult time. THANK YOU! Our students need you now more than ever!
I’d love to hear your ideas for how to best support children’s emotional well-being while teaching remotely. Please share your ideas so we can all support one another! Bring back the village!
PS: Are your students or children playing games like “Coronavirus Tag”? My last blog post addresses many of our concerns: Kids are playing “coronavirus tag.” Should we be worried?
PPS: My book Reclaiming Our Students: Why Children Are More Anxious, Aggressive, and Shut Down Than Ever — And What We Can Do About It is now available!