Distance Learning
10 Things To Do in the First Weeks of School to Connect with Learners in Distance Learning
Katie Martin
Attending to the emotional needs of our learners (and colleagues) has to be more than a program or an additional thing we do, it has to be embedded in how we connect, learn, and grow.
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In the last month, I have been helping districts with their “reopening plans” and I want to acknowledge the enormity of what school leaders and teachers are being asked to do. They are carrying the weight of their communities on their shoulders.  Thankfully there has been an increased focus on social-emotional learning, which is crucial as we know that the disrupted routines, family stress impacted by COVID-19, and the isolation and trauma that many young people are experiencing at various levels based on their own individual and family context. Due to this reality, attending to the social and emotional needs of our learners (and colleagues) has to be more than a program or an additional thing we do, it has to be embedded in how we connect, learn, and grow.

Because we have been physically apart since March and many schools will continue to begin in distance learning or hybrid models, this connection to one another and the community is more important than ever. Although many are anxious to dive into the curriculum, conduct benchmark tests and “see where kids are” academically we have to remember that our students have had to deal with a lot.

Instead of staring with the syllabus or curriculum, I wanted to share a list of 10 things that are crucial for connecting with learners in distance learning to intentionally get to know them, understand how to best serve them, and help them feel connected to the learning community.

Family Meetings

In the spring a group of teachers I was working with decided to check in on students at their homes and bring them some resources. They shared that it was the best thing for building relationships and better understanding their students and they wished that they had done it sooner. My husband usually does home visits to get to know his new students each year and although it is an extra effort, it makes a huge impact (for middle or high school, this might only be reasonable for your advisory group but still important). Although home visits are not likely possible in many contexts, you can schedule a virtual call to check in with families or set up a safe space at school to meet up, connect and provide resources and materials that students will need with a personal touch that will set you and the students up for success.

One on One or Small Group Check-Ins

Empathy interviews are a great way to just listen and understand your students and their families. You can do this in person (socially distanced) or virtually but spending at least 30 minutes with your new students and you could also use these questions if you meet with families. Building empathy for your families and students will help you develop stronger relationships so you can better guide and support students in their academic and social-emotional goals.  Here are a few questions to ask:

  • Tell me about yourself?
  • What do you like about school?
  • What do you not like?
  • What was distance learning like for you/ the family in the spring?
  • What have you been learning?
  • What are you curious about?
  • When have you felt the happiest? What do you enjoy doing?
  • What can I do to support you this year?

Learner Profile

Creating a culture that recognizes and values learners for who they are and what they bring to the classroom or community is one of the most important aspects of setting up the year. For me, it is crucial to take the time for learners to develop an understanding and appreciation for who they are as unique individuals and to identify their strengths, interests, and values. Focusing on strengths can also allow you to identify challenges and goals and create plans to work on them. Here is an example of my daughter’s from 5th grade.

Co-create Community Guidelines

From day 1, it was important students felt that the classroom was ours, not mine.  The process of co-creating the community guidelines was modeled in my teacher education program and so it was only natural to do the same for my students.  I asked them to think about how they wanted to be treated and how they wanted to treat others in our community.  First, students independently reflected, then they shared in small groups, and finally, we put the big ideas into a list of 4-6 community guidelines.  Each class made a poster and they varied across the 5 classes, just like the kids, but ultimately helped establish the culture for each group. We all signed the poster that each class made and hung it up on the wall to remind us of our agreements with one another. You can easily do this virtually in a shared doc and share it with families too.

Establish Classroom Jobs

As a teacher, I loved having classroom jobs. I created a lost and students applied for the ones they were interested in.  I tried to match the kids and the jobs and they typically got one of their top 3 choices. This created a sense of ownership for the students and they were empowered to take on responsibilities that helped make the classroom learning community function.  Students had jobs like classroom photographer, greeter (for guests), birthday celebrator, historian.. among many others. In a remote setting, having helpers get class started with a connector, take attendance, or manage the chat, or check in on friends. There are so many ways that students can help!

Create and Practice Routines

My calendar runs my life but this was an entirely new way of operating for my kids when distance learning started in the spring. We missed some class meetings and directions because the routines were not in place to put events in the calendar, set up notifications, and practice the habit of checking email of the daily communication from teachers. Just like you practice walking into class and getting material, class norms, or talking to partners or small group work, it is important to create routines and a predictable schedule to support learners to engage in the learning and activities you design in the classroom or virtually.  

Morning Meetings  

Not all kids will be able to make it and flexibility is key but many teachers have scheduled weekly or even daily class meetings. It has been fun to see my kids get so excited and for their class meetings. You can do a quick check in to set goals for the day, show and tell, do a book talk, share something that you have learned or created or just check in to say hi. If you can’t do it synchronously, sending out a quick video with a morning message is also a great way for students to feel connected.

Message/ Discussion Boards

Creating a place for students to chat and share what they are learning and doing in an asynchronous can be a great way to connect kids without having a set meeting time. Just like many teachers have places in their classrooms for kids to share ideas, class challenges, or share pictures. A virtual space for this can make kids feel connected to you and the community.

Learning Circles

One way that I love to connect learners is through learning circles or collaborative groups. It can be a text that they read, a common challenge they are working on, or anything but they meet regularly to check-in and learn together based on your goals and objectives, or theirs. This can be done virtually in small breakout groups that you manage or kids can set up on their own.

The teacher plays a pivotal role in connecting with individual students and their families, while also creating the community where students develop relationships with one another. The first few weeks are crucial as we get to connect with students and as a teacher, and remember that as the role of the educator evolves, human connection and guidance will become increasingly more- not less- important.

Have questions about your school or district’s specific needs for shifting to a distance or hybrid leanring model? Get in touch with the team at Altitude Learning!