Rekindling Remote Learning Relationships After School Breaks
School Breaks: Welcome Respite or Culture Killer?
Even in a typical year, breaks from school present a challenge. And while a three-day weekend might not be too disruptive to your classroom culture, there is widespread concern and evidence that the traditional summer adjournment is detrimental to student learning. But what about other school breaks during the year, like winter break? Relationships are the bedrock of any classroom, especially when the class is meeting remotely. To ensure that students don't feel disconnected and alone during remote learning after winter break, you'll need to invest a significant amount of time in rekindling your remote learning relationships and reconstructing your robust virtual learning culture.
Put relationships on your schedule
Education in the time of COVID-19 hasn't been easy. Many districts have built up their hybrid education systems twice—once in triage mode and again at the beginning of the school year, the equivalent of a field-wide moon shot. While ultimately providing a level of flexibility for students that wasn't in place before the pandemic, blended learning schedules take a lot of effort and focus to pull off. Rigorous all-virtual schedules take just as much work, if not more. In these remote learning scenarios, executive tasks like attendance taking, lesson planning, and just remembering what day it is can overwhelm even the most experienced educators. As a result, relationships can easily get lost in the shuffle.
A potential solution? Schedule relationship-building directly into your lesson plans, especially in the days following a break. Be strengths-based: If you are a Type A person who loves to make checklists, create a to-do item for some type of relationship-building activity. Be purposeful in how you rebuild your remote learning culture after time off.
I worked with a teacher recently who delivered a rock-solid remote-learning lesson immediately following Thanksgiving break. Still, as she mentioned in our post-observation meeting, she felt that students weren't participating as much as they could or should have. As we explored the topic together, we realized that she had been so worried about the observation, technology issues, and making sure the attendance was correct that she had overlooked greeting each student as they logged into the live chat at the beginning of the class, which was standard practice in her virtual classes. We then talked extensively about how it's okay to set the "stuff" of teaching to the side (especially coming back from a school break) and home in on every classroom's primary mission and focus—the students.
Build relationships in both synchronous and asynchronous formats
The great thing about remote learning is the flexibility afforded to students when you combine your expert instruction with a sound learning management system (LMS). The challenge is to re-create the experience students have when they arrive at your physical classroom. You want them to see your smiling face and feel a welcoming presence at the classroom door. In remote learning, this can play out synchronously or asynchronously, so plan strategies for both scenarios.
If your school's remote learning plan includes synchronous remote instruction, greet individual students as they enter the videoconference. Ask them about their break, just like you would if school were taking place in-person. Keep your morning meetings and other synchronous activities going at the elementary level. Attendance can wait. Ease back into the routine of school by simply providing time to talk and connect.
Connections can be trickier in a remote, asynchronous environment, so you'll have to be even more purposeful in your approach. How will you structure your asynchronous discussion board topics to build relationships? If you're posting a daily or weekly video lesson, how can you tweak it to reconnect with students? Let's say you're teaching high school social studies asynchronously. After winter break, instead of diving right back into content, post what you need to post for the week and then ask students to reply with a discussion post or Flipgrid video that simply talks about a New Year's resolution or their hopes for the year ahead. Sometimes rekindling relationships needs to be prioritized over a return to content, no matter how large a state-mandated end-of-year summative assessment may loom.
Communication does not always have to be academic
There has never been a better time to start a regular newsletter or video communication with your students and their families. These communications don't need to focus solely on grades or pushing parents to have students complete work. Focus instead on interpersonal communication and social-emotional learning, especially after a school break. Or, as Dr. Kristin Van Gompel of turnitin.com advised: "Show your face and share your stories," as well as provide opportunities for students to share things about themselves. It's a chance for students to reconnect with you and each other, and your LMS makes it easier than ever to stay in touch with the whole class at once.
Be interesting and engaging—and funny!
In New York City, one elementary science teacher described his first experience with remote learning as falling "into a bit of a rut" at first. Then, he found his funny again. He amped up his video presentations and started using costumes, props, and other elements of his lessons that students were accustomed to. He noticed that engagement began to increase again. In the wake of a school break, don't be afraid to bring the energy—and the funny. Let your love of the content and the students shine through in your remote lessons, and you may be surprised at the level of energy you get in return.
Don't skimp on personal attention
Remote learning is hard for students and their families. I lived it recently when my district experienced a traditional snow day, but my kids (in a neighboring district) still had a full virtual school schedule. With three kids simultaneously logged into three different meetings via the school's LMS on three separate devices in three different rooms, I saw firsthand how stressful remote learning could be for families—on top of a pandemic and a contentious political climate! Add in a break from school in which many families feel trapped at home, and it becomes even more evident how much kids and their parents need you to provide them with personal, caring attention when they return to the full-time remote learning schedule.