Using Ed Tech to Connect

What Not To Do

About five years ago, I discover Google Classroom and some generous colleagues offered to help set it up in my school. That same year, my principal sprung for half a class-set of Chromebooks. The stage was set for a technology storm and that is exactly what happened.

Before I knew it my class was buzzing with digital assignments. My students glued were glued to their screen for hours per day. Harnessing the digital power to make my students accountable, increased their work-load and, for some unknown reason, loved to tinker around with assignment due dates that caused them additional stress.

And then one day during a one-on-one student conference the reality of what I was doing dawned on me. One of the brightest girls in my class mentioned that she had been working until 2:00 a.m. on one of my assignments. She said that it was because she was procrastinating on homework. I had never known her to procrastinate on anything. I asked more questions. Later, I took a class survey was shocked to learn that many other students were feeling pressured and stressed-out by my endless experiments with different technology tools.

In my enthusiasm to learn about technology and try some innovative strategies, my instruction had become unbalanced and the results were harmful to my students. I needed to refocus and remind myself of what was most important.

Like many other schools and districts in North America, the majority of teachers in British Columbia will be teaching from home this week. The majority will be forced into a distance education model for the duration of COVID-19 pandemic.

With the plethora of free online tools and resources coming at teachers, its easy to get caught in the same type of Google Classroom frenzy that I did several years ago. To escape this manic madness, consider reminding yourself about what is important. Here are some suggestions

Be Present

One part of Jon Spencer’s recent blog post called, 7 Big Ideas as You Shift Toward Online Learning, that really appreciated was his section on being present. Spencer makes the point that teaching at a distance doesn’t mean that you have to be distant.

Long lessons on a video conferencing tools like Zoom, Microsoft Teams or Google Hangouts, may not be the best way forward. Don’t get me wrong, these tools allow students to see your smiling face and hear your voice while share different kinds of files. That alone, will be satisfying for many of them but there are other ways of being present.

Here are some of Spencer’s ideas for being present online:

Video announcement: This starts with he first week, where you do an on boarding video of the course and explain how it will work. But after that, you can create a weekly or even daily short video with a preview of what students will do. Although pre-recorded, these short, unstructured videos create a sense of presence for you as a teacher.

Small group check-ins: Here, you can schedule small group meeting and use video conferencing to meet with groups and look at their progress.

Email check-ups: There are a few options here. First, you can send out a whole class email with expectations, deadlines, etc. But the second option is just a short email to each student asking how they’re doing. If you have 180 students in a class, rotate with 18 per day and make sure each student gets an individual email every other week. You can create an email template and personalize it.

Short text check-ins: With this option, you can ask students to use the chat function to send questions or comments as you go.

Surveys: Ask students to fill out a course survey each day where they share what their experiences have been in an online course.

Scheduled conferences: …With a whole day of working from home, you can easily schedule these conferences with students and let them know you are there for them.

Jon Spencer

Shasta Hensley’s tweet reminded me that a simple phone call can also communicate presence, care and support for students.

Start with SEL in the Classroom and Office

In one of the online groups I’m apart of one of the teachers was asking a great question about how to keep students accountable while working at a distance. This question, raised a red flag for me in an indirect sort of way.

A quickly changing pandemic environment, can cause educators to panic and turn to a coverage approach to teaching. Coverage approaches to education are characterized by a focus on content over connection. They can yield a very mechanical classroom where the exchange of “work” is the primary interaction. What is missing in this approach is care for students and responsive teaching that fits their needs.

Listening to a recent DIESOL podcast, with Denise Maduli-Williams, I was reminded that one of the reasons that students come to my ELL class every day is not only to connect with me but also to connect with each other.

In fact, I think it actually drives the attendance patterns of some of my students. I often wonder why they attend my class while constantly skipping other classes. One guess is personal connections with the teacher and their classmates.

SEL Strategies for Students

Class Instagram accounts

As we transition to an online learning environment, let’s not forget about the importance of these connections. One great idea that Madui-Williams had encourage social interactions was to create a class Instagram account. Personally, I’ve never done this before but I’m going to give it a try. During this time while students are isolated, I want to make sure that I’m making efforts to encourage healthy social interactions.

Another reason why this makes sense to me is because Instagram very accessible and compatible with phones. A phone is often the only online device that my ELL students have and I want to be sure that the online platforms I’m using are phone-friendly.

Morning Check-Ins with the 4Cs

One of teachers who replied to Josh Stumpenhorst’s tweet, about checking in on the social and emotional well-being of students, said she has a morning routine of 4 Cs. Concerns, celebrations, comments, and compliments. This is a simple but effective way to check-in with students about their social and emotional life.

With ELL students you might even simplify this check-in to share one highlight and low-light of their Spring Break (or day/week) and give them a few sentence stems to help them communicate.

Check out Josh’s thread below for more great ideas on how care for your students during this time.

SEL Strategies for Staff

The “start with SEL” principle applies equally to our relationships with colleagues and staff at our school. Just stop and think of how many small interactions you have with other teachers or staff members throughout the day–greeting other teachers in the halls, asking someone about their weekend, listening to someone unload the frustrations of their day. These small interactions are the glue that holds school communities together.

In online environments, lacks the shared space of an office where you may, quite literally, bump into your colleagues. These watercooler moments need to be intentionally created online. In her blog post called, Quick, work remote!, Erin Casali has several great suggestions about how to maintain relationships with colleagues when working remotely.

Allow socialization to happen in chat channels. Chats are the best for it because messages get old quickly, and if a work discussion starts it’s easy enough to interrupt the social side.

Create special channels for purely socialization. Maybe you have existing socialization channels, like a team whatsapp group or telegram, maybe not. Anyhow, when work becomes remote, trying to recreate a “socializing virtual room” is very important, as much as it’s crucial to make sure it remains a place “for fun”. Having a #watercooler channel for example is a good one, but also having themed ones, like #cats (memes of cats), #emojis (where people can only talk via emojis), or #photography (let’s talk about our shared passions). 

Bring some fun in calls. When you have a video call, consider also that it’s one of the few situations where you interact live with someone, thus try to consider also the social aspect of them. While there’s no need to do ice-breakers and explicit social activities every time, five minutes of light chat might work. Experiment and see what’s effective for your team.

Erin Casali

A New “Classroom” and Starting Point

In the coming weeks, I’m going to get more practical about Education Technology tools that will be beneficial–especially to ELL teachers. But for now, I don’t want to allow my enthusiasm for trying new things cause me to forget the basics. I need to check in on the emotional well-being of my students and ask them questions about what their new circumstances look like, feel like so that our new classroom and curriculum with start where they are. I encourage you to do the same.

Header photo by NordWood Themes on Unsplash

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