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Loving Our Students From a Distance

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When our governor announced in early April that school would remain closed until the end of the year, the teachers I know experienced a combination of relief and devastation. Relief because this virus is real and deadly, and we don’t want anyone we know and love to die. Devastation because we knew we would desperately miss that daily contact with students who have become our second family.

During a typical school year, teachers experience many of the same emotions that moms and dads experience with their own children: the joy of their constant company, the frustration with their forgetfulness, and stunned amazement at just how incredibly loud they can sometimes be.

These small daily experiences with our students forge a deep bond. We laugh with them. We hug them when they’re sad. We lose our tempers, make mistakes, and make amends.

We yearn for quiet time alone, which is a scarce commodity in the confines of a classroom. There’s exhaustion. Renewal. The well-laid plans that go horribly, comically awry. Spontaneous moments of delight that we never could have planned.

These moments accumulate, until being there for our students becomes as deeply ingrained in our days as a cup of coffee in the morning or watching Netflix at night. When our students are worried about a lost toy, a sick family member, or a frightening story they’ve seen on the news, we’re there to reassure them that they will be OK.

Now, during this hard and scary time when they need us most, suddenly we can’t be there for them in person. We’re figuring out how to be there in other ways.

Here are three things I have begun doing for my 2nd graders during this past month of teaching and learning from home. Teachers out there, I would love to hear yours.

1. Hold reading conferences by video or phone

So little has felt normal about this new version of school, but to my surprise and delight, one-on-one reading conferences feel almost exactly the same. I schedule one conference a week with each child in my class via Zoom, FaceTime, or an old-school phone call. They choose a book they have at home and read me a few pages. I give them a compliment and something to work on and I ask them some comprehension questions about what they have just read.

The conferences restore a little normalcy to the students’ week—and mine. They’re a chance for me to praise students who have been diligently reading at home for their progress. They also provide a way to do a little teaching tailored to each individual child—reminding them to look for little words inside hard big words, or to remember that the author’s lesson is usually something more widely applicable than the specific plot of the book.

There’s plenty of laughter, like when Alex grabbed a chapter book for his conference and his brother Javier, thinking he was going to read me the entire thing, whispered, “Alex, what are you thinking? That will take an age to read!”

The conferences provide a time for each child in my class to tell me how they’re doing, what’s on their mind, and what they’ve been up to during the odd days of this new reality we’re all living from home. Here’s a foundational truth of teaching: One-on-one time with a student deepens your relationship with that child. The pandemic hasn’t changed that truth.

2. Provide resources.

Many of us, particularly those who teach in high-poverty schools, worry that this time out of school could have a devastating impact on our students’ learning this year.

The first week after schools were shut down, Cecilia sent me this poignant video from her mom’s iPhone. She held up page after page of notebook paper scrawled with blue ink to show me how hard she had been working. Cecilia didn’t have a computer at home, so her only access to tools like class Zoom sessions and digital libraries happened through her mom’s phone.

I bought Cecilia a refurbished Chromebook through Amazon, after making sure her mom was open to the gift and that she’d be able to connect to wireless from home. Since then, she has made it to every reading conference and class Zoom session we have held.

I have also sent my students letters, chess sets, and books from Mo Willems’ Elephant & Piggie series. When I talk with kids and parents, I ask, “How’s everything going? Does your family have enough food?” Sometimes the answer is no. For parents struggling with food insecurity or having trouble paying rent and utilities, I’ve connected them with support from our school or community nonprofits.

In some ways, this time of teaching from home feels oddly, sadly familiar. Teachers are well acquainted with the reality that we can’t meet all of our students’ many needs. We have learned to fill as many of those needs as we can with the time and resources at hand, making our peace with the gap between everything they need and what is actually in our power to provide.

3. Create a library of digital read-alouds.

It’s not possible to read a child too many books. There are plenty of great websites like Epic! that read the text to kids. Still, part of the magic of read-alouds is the bond you have with the person reading to you.

Our school librarian created a pantheon of read-alouds by teachers at our school.

I also started our own class library of read-alouds on our Flipgrid page. Every few days, I read the kids another picture book I have at home, stopping throughout the book to ask questions or model think-alouds. They record their own read-alouds on the class page, too.

—Photo courtesy of author

When I asked my students during our reading conferences last week what they miss most about school, two said “recess” and the rest said “my friends.” That might explain why the most popular read-alouds on our Flipgrid page by far are the ones the kids have recorded themselves.

The other students love seeing their classmates’ faces and hearing their voices whenever a new student-created read-aloud video pops up. Parents can also contribute read-alouds, like the video Nastassja’s grandmother recorded of The Very Hungry Caterpillar (La Oruga Muy Hambriente) by Eric Carle.

We will emerge from this crisis as stronger teachers.

To be a teacher is to be at the heart of so many families’ daily lives, year after year. The ways we’re connecting with students right now—to help make sure they’re learning at home and know they are loved—will be important in future years, too.

Most of us are becoming more adept with digital tools and using them in new ways. We’re gaining windows into our children’s physical homes and home lives in ways we haven’t before. We will all come out on the other side of this crisis as more caring, more connected teachers as a result.

Whether we build stronger partnerships with families, use Zoom to connect with kids who have been out sick for multiple days, or just remember to take nothing for granted, what we are learning during this pandemic will help us better serve kids throughout the rest of our careers. That will be true whether we’re loving our students from a few feet away or from a distance.

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