Many Hands, One Space: Tackling the Challenges of Remote Learning

September 23, 2020

The other day I went into my building and sat in my classroom. I looked at the light on the posters, the movement of shadows across my floor. The stacked desks and chairs that presently hold dust instead of the whole of a student. These desks in my classroom will not be rearranged anytime soon into tables facing inward towards a common space; a place where voices mingle over challenging questions. You see, like so many other schools around the country, my students start school in a few short days virtually. 

I sit and think about the intersection of those desks, the inward enclave, the hallowed space of togetherness. I realize that at each table the voices and hands of my students built community. That is where learning happens. That is where, to paraphrase Professor Steven Thurston Oliver, students find a place “that allows students to make sense of what they’re hearing,” to sit in the discomfort of hard dialogues, to be in community. That will require the work of many hands to redevelop virtual spaces into places of brave discussions of vulnerability, of curiosity, and of mutual value. 

I am sorting through how to create a roughed-in structure that will allow many hands to find home in this conversation. I first thought of my role in the community. I build the blueprint of our community. 

Here is how: 

  • First impressions matter. I intentionally connect with my students in a way that emphasizes humanity first. I start by introducing myself in a video that goes out to all of my students before class starts. I really want this video to address my identity. So I am telling the story of my name. Matthew R. Kay is a hero of mine, and in his book Not Light But Fire, he introduced me to the spoken word of Hiwot Adilow on the power of one’s own name. I am inspired to know the power of my students’ names in their most sacred of identities, so I also asked them to share their name story via Flipgrid before we even begin class. Additionally, I plan on interviewing each student one-on-one during office hours. These short 5-10 minute interviews allow students to choose three questions to answer from a list and ask me a question. Here are some questions they might choose from:
    • What is the story behind your name?
    • Did you create something over the summer/quarantine? What was it?
    • Describe your favorite toy or game when you were five years old.
    • Write about one of your most useful talents.
    • Write about a trait you inherited or picked up from a parent.
    • Take one random object from a desk drawer in your home, and describe what it is and why it’s important.
    • When you’re feeling sad or down, describe one way to make yourself feel better?
    • Did you acquire a new skill over the past several months?
    • Briefly talk about a small thing you accomplished this week.
    • Briefly talk about something you did in the past year that made you proud.
    • What are you looking forward to about the school year?
    • Were you supposed to travel this summer, but couldn’t? Where couldn’t you go?
    • Share something in your room. Explain why you chose it. 
    • One interesting thing about you is…
    • What makes you happy?
  • Construct a virtual portal that emphasizes simplicity. Virtual learning is stressful. As a former virtual student and a veteran online teacher, I am aware that the more complicated I make class resources accessible, the less likely students will be able to relax in my place of learning. Zaretta Hammond emphasizes these points in Culturally Responsive Thinking and the Brain. Predictable and clear communication is critical because inconsistent communication causes stress. Stress elicits a fight or flight response associated with anxiety, and anxiety is the antagonist of learning. I focus on three modes of communication: 
    • A Course Hub: Google Sites allows me to have a course hub where I can post all materials...assignments, videos, articles, polls, formative and summative assessments...in essence, everything. My course will go all over the web, but there is only one place my students need to go in order to engage. 
    • A single two-way assessment platform: I use Google Classroom to assign, collect, and return feedback on any assessment of learning. I label all assignments consistently (ex: summative or formative assessment, study guide, etc.) I use clear, week at a glance overviews of what we will do that includes all necessary resources and the following information: 
      • Assignment Title on Classroom and in Gradebook
      • Assignment Weighting
      • Group or Solo assignment
      • Due Date
      • Point Value
  • An informal communication back channel: I use reminders to update students when things get crazy. I prefer this because students most frequently use “Remind” as an SMS/MMS application (text), and therefore they are more likely to respond to a text than to email. 
  • All communications emphasize concise, clear, and accurate content. My goal is to make sure students have space to make sense of their learning. If I am anything but concise, clear, and accurate, my miscommunication obstructs their ability to make sense easily and to avoid anxiety.

Once I have built a foundation for learning, it is time to invite each and every individual student into the community. This means to surface their identities in class as each student is comfortable and to tackle the intersectionality of their identities with course content. This takes a community founded on trust, and it is the work of many hands. Here are some ways to build trust and community.

  • Empower students to create their own norms. This exercise is built upon identifying what students need from their peers and from me as their teacher. We will publish the norms. We will reflect on the norms. We will use norms to hold each other accountable. I also teach students how to discuss their emotional reaction to the classroom. Social Emotional Learning is critical here; students need to be able to identify how they feel, reflect upon why they feel that way, and determine if they wish to stay in the intersection of learning and emotion. I love the Ruler Method from Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence as a foundation of common language. Additionally, video and audio on mindfulness from the Calm App can help direct meditation to improve focus and decrease stress. 
  • Emphasize student-to-student discussion that connects the individual to the learning. I highly recommend several resources to re-focus the virtual space towards student learning. 
    • Use rituals emphasizing active listening, house talk, and affirmations to booster student investment. Students need to be seen as a part of the community. Matthew Kay gives great advice on how to reorient the class around the whole person through daily activities like five minute informal conversations he calls “house talk” about students' lives at the top of the class or taking time to complement each other as humans. This is important as it allows students to bring their culture and identity into the classroom in ways that do not trigger learning-killing anxiety. It also allows me to model my own humanity and to be vulnerable. 
    • Ensure direct instruction is premeditated. I consider how long I will provide direct instruction. Students’ ability to focus on direct instruction is dependent upon so many things beyond my control. In order to create a space that adapts to students’ needs, I  record in advance and upload videos to youtube so students can adjust the playback speed, volume, and closed captions. I try to keep my videos succinct. Students struggle with monologues longer than 10 minutes in length. Then, I give students what Kay calls “chew time,” to reflect on learning quietly. Then students talk in small groups before I return to large group conversation. 
    • Provide a variety of engagement over large group discussion to enrich learning. Traditional large group instruction where I teach and then ask students to respond on my schedule can cause anxiety for some students. This may also cause more vocal students to feel like their ability to engage quickly is penalized. I try a variety of activities including small group discussion, station rotations, student choice in learning environments, dialogic teaching, PBAs from C3 teachers or Generation Citizen, game play via iCivics and visible thinking routines from places like Project Zero or Agency by Design to boost student engagement and build community. When I am stuck, I may turn to resources like The Discussion Book or They Say, I Say to help with stalled conversations. 
    • Consider how routine practices may be punitive. We can agree that attendance and engagement are important to success. However, sometimes the way we incentivize these student behaviors can be punitive. For instance, asking students to turn on cameras is a lot harder than it looks. I find myself distracted or self-conscious, the same is true of students. I think of ways to encourage behaviors with penalizing. Like asking students to share their pets, make a self-portrait out of materials in their room, allow for passing time informal chat, or ice breakers from games like Chat Pack. I give kids grace periods for making up synchronous and asynchronous assessments of learning. Students want to be successful, but once they feel like they cannot be successful, any desire to be a part of the community is squandered. 
  • Read the room. Teachers are great at reading the room. Behaviors usually tell us something is wrong, like when a student is not engaged, is stiff during discussion, is not turning in work, or is not attending class. I seek them out personally to ask if they are okay, if there is anything I can do to help them be successful, and to be a “warm demander.” I have earned the students’ trust, and I continue to tell them I believe in them. I show them what they need to get back on track, and promise to help the student. I embrace failure as a learning opportunity; and challenge a student to grow. Sometimes we need to initiate that conversation because a student does not feel comfortable confiding in anyone. Some key behaviors I look out for: 
    • I use emojis to gauge students. When students consistently do not use them, I may back chat them (seek them out on a private chat to ask if everything is okay) 
    • I move through the various breakout rooms. While cameras are not mandatory, I do look to see that they are engaging.
    • I ask students to give me feedback. There are intentional moments to ask questions, I give three times more wait time. 
    • I ask students “What are your questions” instead of “do you have any questions.” Students always have questions, it’s a matter of finding them. They may be more comfortable writing them in the back chat instead of outing. 

Learning in a virtual environment still allows us to construct intentional spaces of deep learning and vulnerable growth. I swap out desk tables for breakout rooms and wait time, but still the important work of building community is done via the work of many hands. I know that now more than ever, my students need spaces of refuge to unpack what they have learned, to find their voice, and to acquire knowledge and skills to engage the community outside of school. I know they need to talk more than ever, and I can provide space to listen and be heard as the individual and the many. Instead of chairs and desks we shall use bytes.

 If you’re looking for more support in teaching online and best practices. I encourage you to explore the free professional learning videos that iCivics created in partnership with Makematic, Adobe, Participate, and ClickView. The videos offer best practices for pedagogy, designing curriculum online, and building community!

Written By Jenifer Hitchcock
Jenifer teaches 12th grade AP Government at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. She has been a member of the iCivics Educator Network since 2017. Follow Jenifer on Twitter @lovgov.