Forge emotional connections with students before pursuing lessons online

Credit: Elizabeth MeeElizabeth Mee’s classroom at Alliance College Ready school in Los Angeles sits empty after the coronavirus school closures. Credit: Elizabeth MeeElizabeth Mee’s classroom at Alliance College Ready school in Los Angeles sits empty after the coronavirus school closures. Elizabeth MeeMay 8, 2020As Californians adjust to a restricted and socially distant life amid the coronavirus pandemic, each of us is forced to refocus on what is most important in our lives.
It is no different for Los Angeles educators, who are learning to navigate a new, virtual classroom in the second largest public school district in the United States. While the first inclination may be to return to “business as usual” (except conducted virtually through distance learning), we educators instead must consider the social-emotional needs of our students.
The most basic human needs — the feelings of love and belonging — must be met before a student can get back to the business of meaningful academic learning.
I worried about the emotional well-being of my students from the moment closures were announced at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a network of nonprofit public charter schools in Los Angeles. Our schools serve diverse, low-income communities across the county, and 85% of our students are the first in their family to attend college. Many of my students view their Alliance school as their second home — a nurturing environment with meals, safety, routine, mental health resources and caring adults.
I wanted to provide a space for me and my 106 students to continue to connect with one another, albeit virtually, so I created a shared Google Doc called “Class Journal.” The challenge for students was simple: document and share what was happening in their daily lives during this life-altering, generation-defining worldwide event. As an English teacher, I know firsthand that pushing students to write can be difficult, so I included some prompts to motivate them, such as sharing baby pictures or participating in a 30-day music challenge where they would answer a daily question about pop music.
Soon, the posts from students began flowing. Our document now consists of more than 40 pages of a collaborative space, where we can share how we are feeling and coping while isolated at home. Here are some excerpts:
“So yesterday I’ve come to the realization that I will not come (back) to school sane. I love my family but I’m not used to being at the house for so long with these same people constantly.” – Sofia Z., March 16
“I’m scared. That’s the top thing. I live with my grandparents who are both over 70, and it (the coronavirus) mainly affects them. … I’m so scared to go out, and that I’ll catch it. … I don’t want to bring anything to harm my family. I recently read that here in LA we have 61 deaths. It’s crazy to think that the little corner I live in, and thought was safe, isn’t.” – Cheyenne G., March 16
“…I honestly feel like bad staying home alllll day and doing really nothing, but im bonding more w my mom again, we’re srsly like besties. I started cleaning for fun since i love to clean and I think I’m going crazy because I’m starting to talk to myself. Anyways, I’m going to do homework. I miss school.” – Ashley A., March 18
Seeing students support each other by sharing playlists, writing uplifting comments or directing each other to stores that still have eggs or milk, reinforced for me what was most important now in our radically changed classroom: To allow students to grapple with their emotions before tackling the English Language Arts curriculum.
I am further inspired by the innovative efforts of my colleagues across the Alliance network to connect with our students in ways that transcend the classroom. My school’s principal spends hours playing the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons, with students online, one of whom uses that time as an escape from her anxiety about a loved one diagnosed with COVID-19.
Schools are participating in virtual spirit weeks, push-up challenges, positive video messages and college acceptance celebrations through social media. Many are using Zoom to continue enrichment programming and club activities such as art, music, PE, cooking and the Gay Straight Alliance. A group of teachers has pooled money typically used for potluck lunches on campus to create and deliver to families in need “love baskets” filled with disinfectant supplies, food and other essentials.
Our efforts to maintain a strong school culture have contributed to the network’s average daily attendance rate of 92% during distance learning. Attendance is measured through a survey completed by each student, which not only accounts for their presence in school but gauges their mental and physical well-being. Teachers reach out directly to students who fail to complete the survey, assess their situation and provide personalized support — including Wi-Fi hotspots and devices — as needed.
Instruction, of course, is key to achieving our ultimate goal of college completion, so developing quality digital teaching should be our priority.
Our need for connection in these isolating times, however, calls for a concentrated push to emphasize our shared humanity, if only through a screen.
I have no doubt that the love and connection my students have experienced from our “Class Journal” and through the efforts of my Alliance colleagues will be the foundation for academics as we continue with distance learning for the foreseeable future.
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Elizabeth Mee teaches 11th grade English and Advanced Placement English Language and Composition in Glassell Park at Alliance Leichtman Levine Family Foundation Environmental Science High School, a charter school in Los Angeles.
The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource is interested in hearing from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning and rising to the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.
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