Classroom Strategies

Distance Learning with Intention and Purpose

Ideas for engaging and connecting students during distance learning.

Why do students need school right now?

As the working mother of four children ages 19 to 3, I have found distance learning to be a struggle. While I anticipated the frustrations my teenagers would have, I was surprised that my three-year-old would have the hardest time adjusting to the shutdown and close of her daycare.

One week into the Stay at Home orders, my three-year-old daughter, Kaiya, was able to connect with her Karate instructor on Zoom and the transformation in her attitude was apparent right away. She lit up when Master Booe showed up on the screen. The next thing I saw was her frantically searching for a pillow and a stuffed animal to use as props and materials while she practiced her ninja skills and karate moves. Master Booe took a moment to see every kid on screen; he gave them feedback on their kicks and punches and congratulated each toddler individually on a job well done. For those thirty minutes, my seemingly clingy and dependent toddler transformed into an independent young girl who controlled her learning and her space.

A few weeks later, I had an opportunity to gain insight from a student’s perspective. Avery, a high school senior at one of our local schools, shared her thoughts on this new format of school. When asked what has been a positive aspect of online learning during Covid-19, Avery shared she liked the chance to see and talk to her teachers and classmates. One of her teachers had even built in time for connecting informally at the end of the online session, which had almost felt like being socially close during a time of social distancing.

Covid-19 has uncertainty shrouding the next days, weeks, and months. The challenges faced with teaching students were not birthed from this pandemic; they have just been exacerbated. School systems are now forced to see that what did not work for students in classrooms has also not been conducive to online learning. How can educators take this opportunity to reexamine the purpose of school for students and provide a safe space to continue to thrive as learners?

A Virtual View of Classroom Culture

Our high school and middle school students no longer get those hallway moments between classes to nod to and check in with their classmates while beating the bell to class. Elementary-aged children aren’t gathering on the carpet to have morning meetings with their teachers and share their funny stories or hear how their teacher’s day was. School is a space for social connection and relationships.

Unfortunately, in many classrooms and schools, these aspects of socialization were not seen as important elements to foster school culture, leaving more possibilities of gaps and missed learning for all students.

Personal connections and the presence of collective communities cultivate conditions that invite students to learn. It’s imperative to begin with intentionally creating classroom culture online because our students’ mental and emotional well-being is tied to relationships and having a safe space for growth as a learner. Avery’s comment highlights this necessity for attending to these elements of the online classroom culture. What resonated was the feeling the interactions left for her. As educators, we have to begin with building those spaces for our students.

As an instructional specialist in the Equity Initiatives Unit for Montgomery County Public Schools,  I have coached school leaders to examine existing practices using Zaretta Hammond’s book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain: Promoting Authentic Engagement and Rigor Among Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Students (2015) . Hammond makes clear connections between social emotional well-being and developing independent learners. She outlines a framework for culturally responsive teaching titled The Ready for Rigor Framework. The framework consists of four practice areas of learning that work in tandem to create culturally responsive learning environments, 1) Awareness, 2) Learning Partnerships, 3) Information Processing, and 4) Community of Learners & Learning Environment. These practice areas leverage the experiences and existing background knowledge students possess as assets and lead educators to utilize them in order to build intellectual capacity and facilitate growth. Through this process, students are led to become independent and critically conscious thinkers.

Each of the practice areas is imperative to creating effective learning environments allowing students to enter and engage as their authentic selves. As we focus on engaging students in online learning, the attention to the last two practice areas (information processing and community of learners & learning environment) need to be approached with intention and purpose. Let’s look at the last one first.

Hammond’s fourth practice area focuses on the community of learners and learning environment. The space students enter, whether physically or virtually, can have a tremendous impact on their willingness to engage and opportunity to learn. Incorporating intentional elements that invite socialization and relationship building to the online classroom creates a space for students to be present, feel seen, heard, and affirmed. A community of learners and learning environment is the safe space built consciously to allow students to take risks for the purpose of growth and building their knowledge.

Fostering Online Classroom Culture

Some ways you can intentionally foster community in online learning environments:

  • Incorporate community building activities at the start of every lesson.
    • What’s a moment that was positive (“rose”) and one that was a challenge (“thorn”)?
    • Assign a scavenger hunt of items in their homes they can share with their classmates at the start of a lesson.
  • Provide some questions for students to share aspects of themselves:
    • How did you move today?
    • How were you creative today?
    • How did you care for yourself today?

The Power of Student Agency

Once we have a community of learners and learning environment, we have to engage students with purpose. Hammond’s third practice area (information processing) hones in on the necessity for providing tools and scaffolds that lead students to independence.

When I reflect on Kaiya’s karate class, Master Booe’s intentional teaching moves were empowering. For a three-year-old whose world had changed in an instant, the autonomy that karate class provided reengaged her with a  learning community while allowing her to demonstrate what she knew in her own way. The power of agency, even for a toddler, can lead to impactful learning.

With distance learning, students are in both their learning and home environments at the same time. This opens up a world of ways to engage students and expand ways of thinking while also allowing them to share aspects of themselves in authentic ways.

Building their agency and allowing them to have some autonomy is one method to ignite their curiosity and elicit their critical thinking skills. Building agency provides options and relevancy for learners. The presence of both these elements move students toward independence and creates opportunities for autonomy.

Opportunities for Agency to Increase Engagement

 Some ways educators can build students’ agency:

  • Provide time for students to create their own understanding of new learning through modeling, practice, and application.
  • Design opportunities for students to create, construct, and design in order to apply the new learning in a concrete way.
  • Offer options for students to experience what works best for them as learners:
    • Give choices for materials used to engage in the learning (podcasts, videos, and texts).
    • Allow students to demonstrate and present their learning to their peers in formats of their choice.
  • Create relevant learning by critically examining challenges in their own experiences and the world around them and then develop ways to address them.

What Does Getting Back to “Normal” Look Like?

Covid-19 has taught us about the power of humanity and perseverance. It’s also transformed how we see school and learning. We are putting relationships first and moving from knowing curriculum to building knowledge. When we return to the classrooms and reenter the school buildings, these same aspects of learning are necessary to foster equitable and culturally responsive learning environments.

Districts and leaders will walk back into uncertainty on many aspects of school, but one thing has been highlighted: the methods for approaching learning have not led to all students thriving. We have seen the lack of access to resources create inequities. We understand that social emotional well-being has to be a priority for students to learn. School leaders now have an opportunity to reexamine the practices in place.

What Can Districts, Leaders, and Coaches Do When School Resumes?

  • Recognize Inequities Exist
    • Ensure the access of computers and wifi to all students to eliminate the digital divide.
    • Provide support systems and point people to ensure all students and families can navigate online instruction courses and tools.
    • Elicit the perspectives of families to what is effective and ineffective in efforts to communicate and provide access to resources.
  • Make Space for Grief and Trauma
    • Recognize that behavior can be impacted by stress.
    • Remember that behavior is communication.
    • Proactively plan for counseling services for students, families, and educators?
    •  Incorporate space and time to allow students to exhale and process this experience.
    • Put relationships and social emotional well-being first for students and teachers.
  • There Will Be Gaps in Learning
    • Plan instruction that is tailored individually to each student’s needs.
    • Emphasize strategies and thinking routines to process new content.
    • Model and foster critical thinking and problem solving skills.

We are living through unprecedented times that will leave a residual impact on students, families, and educators. Now we need to examine how we use this opportunity to create community, build knowledge, and prioritize well-being and success at school for our most marginalized students and families.

7 thoughts on “Distance Learning with Intention and Purpose

  1. While this article is nearly a year old, it is timeless. I encourage every educator to apply Marya’s excellent guidance as key to educational equity. Virtual learning is here to stay in some form or another. Consider the importance of language interaction along with social and cognitive interactions, that are also key to building identity, multilingualism, and agency. Excellent article, Marya!

  2. I have been teaching virtually since March of 2020. The one great takeaway for me from this experience is that space is needed in our school day to address the social/emotional lives of our students. The ideas relating to this issue and the need to provide for more student voice in learning will provide the foundation for my teaching in the coming years. This article highlights these essential building blocks beautifully.

  3. This article gave me an opportunity to reflect and replay the past school. I can able to see some of my own gaps or thorns. At the same time, I was able to think about some of the things I did well (rose).

  4. I have been teaching virtually since March of 2020. Social Emotional Learning and Morning Meetings have been so valuable to our Bruns Scholars. Also… Relationship Building has been key always!

  5. This article resonated with me because relationships, social engagement, and learning all work together. As educators, whether we are online or in-person, we must take time to build relationships with students. The relationship building is vital because the social and learning aspects build from that. If students don’t feel comfortable with their teacher, it is difficult for true learning to take place.

  6. This article made me think about virtual learning through different lenses. I agree that building effective relationships is the most impactful way to keep scholars engaged and motivated.

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About the Author: Marya Hay is an Instructional Specialist for the Equity Initiatives Unit in Montgomery County Public Schools. She has had more than 17 years of experience as a teacher. She has taught in both elementary and middle school classrooms. Marya supports school leaders, staff and various departments to shift practices and beliefs that are harming the success of all students. Her work focuses on coaching adults to examine their bias and reflect on actions that impacted students. Her experiences include collaboration with curriculum departments in English Language Arts and Math on the elementary and secondary levels for teacher- leader's to examine beliefs and classroom practices. These include the design of the course Digital Literacy for 8th graders on Social Justice and leading training for math leaders in elementary schools. She has also been an adjunct professor through the Equity and Excellence in Education program at McDaniel College for 6 years teaching the graduate course Foundations of Social Justice Teaching. Through the course, Marya has developed and facilitated learning for professionals in MCPS on topics of equity and recognizing the experiences of students in many marginalized groups throughout the county.