Creating Belonging for Students in a Virtual World

How do I create a meaningful experience when teaching in Brady Bunch boxes?

I taught middle school for 15 years, and on the days when I felt my lessons were the most engaging and impactful, I would come home exhausted. As an introvert in a very extroverted career, I had to work extra hard at being energetic and entertaining in order to keep the attention span of the adolescents in my classroom. I’d make sure I was all over the room, teaching from different places to keep my students alert. I’d draw and write on the whiteboards, project things that came up in our discussions, and pull out props or my animal puppets to help me teach a lesson. It wasn’t unheard of to see me regularly moving furniture to accommodate for different types of learning. All of this thinking on my feet, movement, and focus on student engagement would wear me out, but in a good way. Even though I went home tired, I knew I had done my best to create an experience that engaged as many learners as I could, and it was worth it. 

Now, while I don’t teach middle schoolers these days, I have been involved in leading Anti-Bias Education trainings for the last year, and since mid-March, they’ve all been virtual. I fully realize that training adults is not the same as teaching children, but I do think we share some of the same struggles with this whole virtual training/teaching thing. At the end of the day, I’m still exhausted, but it feels different. There is definitely something fatiguing about virtual teaching that leaves me more unsure of my impact than the type of exhaustion I felt when teaching in person. It’s more difficult to feel like I’ve fully engaged my audience in meaningful ways.  I worry about whether or not they took away anything new or inspiring. I wonder if they got everything they needed from me, or who was bored and preoccupied by something else (perhaps even another screen). I question the effectiveness of my presentation in a way I didn’t when things were in-person. I’m left wondering how much my participants felt belonging – that they were seen, heard, and valued. If you are a teacher doing any kind of distance teaching using video conferencing, you probably feel the same way. Teaching to little boxes on my screen and remembering recently-learned tech skills takes a different kind of brainpower, and I’m always nervous about the internet going out or my computer freezing up. This takes some important focus away from what should be the true focus – the belonging and learning of my audience.

AMAZEworks’s Director of Education and Outreach, Robin Starch, and I were talking about how to create belonging during distance or hybrid learning, so teachers and students can feel successful. There are many great resources available for teachers right now with the first weeks of school activities and lessons for building classroom community, as there should be. Teachers will need a variety of these for their toolboxes, as the start to this school year will be unlike any other we’ve experienced before. 

Additionally, we talked about considerations beyond which activities/lessons teachers will use as they teach from a distance to tiny boxes on their screen. These important considerations will help build a classroom community of belonging and help you feel successful during this strange and difficult time. 

  • Take care of you and them. Use mindfulness or relaxation tools like positive self-talk, slow breathing and meditation. Make time and space for personal reflection of your own identity, differences, and biases. What works for you will work for them. Be responsive to your students, and if stress creates a lack of focus, encourage them to do what you do to decrease stress. Don’t forget to breathe! 

  • Recognize and model vulnerability. Being on video with classmates can put students in a vulnerable position. Take time to establish positive relationships with each other that are respectful. The emotions that exist if Identity Safety is not created in the learning environment are fear, anger, sadness, and shame. Negative feelings slow down processing time in the brain. Reach before you teach with activities that support student efforts to positively connect with each other and you. Create the space to discover your students’ complex identities and honor them.

  • Online learning takes a different kind of focus. The attention span (in minutes) of children is generally their age plus five, and it’s shorter when you’re not in person. Practicing patience to increase attention span from students has always been a focus for teachers. Kids are used to online entertainment, and online learning is different.

  • Focus on strengths. Students need support in building a school-success identity. Children start the year at very developmentally different places. The main needs of a student are to feel connected, to feel competent, to have self-determination, and to see themselves as a successful learner. Our job as teachers is to provide opportunities to discover and fulfill these needs. 

  • Incorporate movement into learning. Kinesthetic activities are essential during morning meeting/circle/listening times. Oxygen is essential for brain function, and enhanced blood flow increases the blood flow to the brain. The same part of the brain that processes movement is the same part of the brain that processes learning.

  • Group conversations on video are different.  They take more intentional planning, and it’s difficult to know how it’s really going when we can’t be physically present with our students. Differentiation is key when it comes to engaging students in conversations, particularly over video. Plan for a variety of ways for students to respond to discussion topics, and provide time and a variety of methods to process questions before and after coming together with the whole group. 

Teachers, as you begin this very different school year, we are here to support you, and we are constantly in awe at the ways teachers have been responsive to their students’ needs as they learned to quickly adapt to this new landscape. We hope you can give yourself the grace you deserve because we know that as Anti-Bias Educators, your students will find belonging, and your hard work will make a difference. 

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