One of the many changes brought about by the pandemic, whether we are returning to school in-person or remotely, is the ability to gather together in close proximity to learn and write together. As a school coach-leader and staff developer, I have been thinking a lot about this: How might we as teachers replicate or create an emotionally safe and supportive space, normally held by a warm, close classroom, in a digital space?
Earlier this summer, I became fascinated by an idea presented in a blog post written by Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul. In the post, I remember Dr. Cherry-Paul suggesting an alternative to sending kids off to write independently after a lesson by signing off of a synchronous meet to go write on their own. Instead, the teacher holds the writing community together for independent writing time – right there on the Zoom or Google meet – conferring in real-time and remaining available for support.
Again, fascinated with this idea of keeping writers together virtually, I decided to try this out with a group of middle school teachers I was working with remotely this summer. Interested in trying the idea out in a few different ways, I wanted to see what possible benefits and downsides might emerge with this remote technique. Allow me to describe my experience:
Placing the teachers in the seats of the learners, I taught the teachers a minilesson that lasted around 8 minutes or so. I then invited each teacher to: (1) create a personal work plan (“Give me a thumbs-up when you’ve got your plan!” I said), and (2) begin working while remaining on the Zoom meeting.
On day one of teaching this way, everyone worked for a sustained period – as a whole group – while I conferred with individuals. Afterwards, we all debriefed together. “How was this for you?” I asked. Some teachers really liked remaining together and with me. One commented that it not only provided a community-like feel to the work time, but if she had a question or needed to touch base with me, I was right there. Others, however, found it difficult to concentrate while I was conferring with others. For those students, we discussed perhaps lowering the volume of devices to mitigate distraction, but we were not exactly sure how writers might be pulled back together for a final share? Maybe ask writers to use a timer? Perhaps a brightly colored sign or post-it waved in front of the teacher camera could work?
On day two, following the minilesson, instead of holding all teacher writers together on the same screen, I sent them off to write with a partner in a breakout room – a micro-community, if you will (breakout rooms are now also available in Google Meet with this extension). I then popped into various breakout rooms, conferring first with individuals (partner 1), then transitioning to a partner conference by offering the same tip to the other partner (partner 2). This is a way of conferring I had practiced often in physical classrooms and wanted to try in a digital space. While this way of working did not quite replicate a “whole-class-working-together feel“, teacher writers did find themselves reacting positively to both the writing time in the company of a partner, as well as a shared conference. At the end of independent writing time, I first broadcast a message that time was nearly up, then closed the breakout rooms so I could bring everyone back together for directions for the share.
While perhaps not for everyone, these two options do provide a framework for connection. Last spring it became widely understood that many kids do not feel at ease in the online classroom; but if these ways of working were to become routinized, perhaps an important goal of mitigating isolation might be accomplished.
Furthermore, these ways of working also place the teacher in the role of Communication Guide, teaching kids how to communicate and collaborate through a screen. This is distinct from the open format of online gaming or facetiming, and it aligns with experiences and skills kids are likely to both encounter and need in their future work lives. Many industries now use digital interfacing to meet and get work done, and this is likely to continue even after the effects of the current pandemic wane.
While extraordinarily challenging, this moment may be forcing many of us to educate in a format that has more direct application to kids’ futures than does the traditional format of a classroom. It may also be expanding our view of what we can and need to accomplish through our online instruction beyond delivering content-based lessons.
I am certain working synchronously this way will likely present other challenges (than the ones I have mentioned) for teachers as we work to navigate this uncertain time. But I want to continue thinking about ways we can forge, create, and maintain human connectedness across this divide placed before us. Because it is through connection that caring is possible. And when kids know we care, they grow more skilled, more confident, and more empathetic.