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Connection or Curriculum: Do teachers have to choose just one during distance learning?

It's been said that five years ago, no one accurately answered the question, "Where do you see yourself in five years?" While some of us may have predicted that we'd be teaching, no one could have predicted that we'd be teaching five days a week from behind a computer screen, partially in person wearing a mask full-time, or all day long with a group of socially distant students who enter the building only after having their temperature checked and who constantly sanitize and wash their hands. Yet, here we are! Our classrooms this year may look different, but can our focus remain the same?

Connection or Curriculum

Educators, regardless of the circumstances, tend to focus on two Cs: connection and curriculum. In a traditional setting, where students are present each day, it seems easy to blend the two. Even when feeling rushed due to the scope and sequence or the need to meet standards for state testing, teachers usually find time for connection as they make their way through the curriculum. Now, with the 2020-2021 school year and the shifts in instructional strategy, it may feel impossible to have both. But what if you didn't have to choose? What if you could create a meaningful connection with your students while still covering the content? Here are some quick tips that may help you do just that.

Cover Content with Choices

One of the perks of distance or hybrid learning is the extra time students have at home to work on projects. If you want to foster connection while covering content, consider providing your students with some element of choice. Student choice leads to greater engagement and also provides opportunities for authentic assessment. You can provide choices in a variety of ways:

#1 - Same Assignment, Different Topic

When tasking your students with an assignment, is it possible for them to use a topic that interests them rather than a pre-assigned one? For example, if your goal is to have your students write a research paper, why not allow them to select the topic to research? If they need to study life cycles, can they select which animal's life cycle to explore? Allowing our students to choose their topic will greatly increase their desire to complete the work!

#2 - Same Topic, Different Method

When presenting a certain topic, offer a choice in methods. If you're currently focusing on multiplication, can you provide a choice as to how students practice their facts each day? Some may prefer homemade flashcards, while others would rather practice math skills online.

#3 - Same Assignment, Different Product

Now that most students have access to digital devices, this is a wonderful opportunity to allow students the chance and choice to shine. Rather than having an entire class complete traditional book reports or end-of-unit tests, encourage your students to create videos, slideshows, or podcasts to demonstrate mastery.

#4 - Offer Choice Boards

You can also offer choice boards for regular learning activities. Choice boards help increase student buy-in. Based on the content or standards that need to be covered, why not create learning options and allow the students to use Tic-Tac-Toe boards, learning menus, or roadmaps to select their preferred activities?

#5 - Teamwork makes the Dreamwork

Students may be feeling extremely isolated during this season. Even the most introverted children in your class were still used to daily interaction with peers and navigating the real world with people other than those they live with. In an effort to combat this and foster connection, you may want to consider creating assignments that promote collaboration. As students work on projects together, whether in video conferencing breakout rooms, through the sharing of documents in real time, or via video chat sessions later in the week, several things happen.

Students Learn Communication Skills

Students today lack conversational competence. They are used to communicating with friends using emojis, silly videos, or abbreviated expressions. Why type "I'm on my way!" when they can simply text "omw"? Knowing how to properly and competently communicate with others is critical for their future success. When you create group work assignments, especially in a distance learning environment, students not only learn to connect, but they also learn to communicate.

Do you want to give your students an opportunity to foster connections and communicate with those around the world? Now may be a perfect time to develop a pen pal partnership! While a traditional pen pal program may not work if students aren't on campus to receive mail, a digital version may be just what you are looking for! PenpalSchools, an organization created by teachers to help connect students around the world and foster project-based learning. They match classrooms around the globe by grade level and interests. Students then work together and collaborate on projects!

Students Learn Collaboration Skills

Let's be honest; have you thoroughly enjoyed everyone you've ever worked with? What about every boss you've ever had? Yet, chances are, you learned to get along with those people well enough to be successful and complete the tasks at hand. Creating group work assignments not only fosters connection in your classroom, but perhaps more importantly, it gives your students a much-needed opportunity to work with people who are different. Everyone has different strengths and personalities. If we can provide our students with an opportunity to learn how to work well with others now, we can help them develop the stamina necessary to work well with others later in the "real world."

Connection Beyond the Curriculum

While the above strategies will help foster a sense of engagement and encourage students to be more invested in class and with one another by using content, there are several other simple strategies you can try to create an inclusive, welcoming, and connected classroom online.

Try a Soft Start

Remember that the first few moments of a class period set the tone for the entire day. You may not have a bell to signal that class is in session, but you can have a routine. Consider posting bullet journal ideas, reflection questions, or trivia games. You could allow students to visit in the waiting room before allowing them into class. Rather than empty silence or unregulated, chaotic background noise, consider using a strategy that will support students' social and emotional needs during this hectic time. Routines make students feel safe, and safe students are likely to feel more connected.

Greet Students by Name

Don't allow online or hybrid learning make our students invisible. Try greeting your students by name each day. This simple thing reminds them that they are seen and that their presence in your class matters.

Creative Check-Ins

Create a space where students can share their feelings. This may be sharing a daily "hype and gripe" or a "high and low" where different students talk about things that are going well and things that are bothering them. You may also want to consider creating a weekly poll where students can share feedback about what's working well in class and where they still need support.

There's no doubt about it-teachers are trying to keep a million plates spinning in the air all at one time this year. Let's be honest; a few of those plates feel like they are on fire! As we strive to support our students during the 2020-2021 school year, it is crucial that we focus on both content and connection. Students don't care what we know until they know that we care. Once they feel cared for and connected, the sky's the limit! As you continue to navigate through this school year, be confident that you can cover the content needed and foster crucial connections. We're all in this together, and together is a great place to be.