How to Teach Online So All Students Feel Like They Belong

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Educators can foster belonging and inclusion for all students, even online.

COVID-19 has forced students out of their usual classrooms and into unexpected and prolonged isolation. It has made their lives unstable and challenged their sense of identity.

It is their identity that they conceive themselves to be that shapes their ideas of self-value, and that ultimately guides them to make decisions and behave in certain ways. They both affect their social lives and academic performance. School was a constant message that had fed into their self-image, both positive and negative Suddenly, that source is now limited to time-limited, 2D phone and online interactions.

We’ve studied what happens when classrooms don’t feel “safe” for students. A safe classroom is one where teachers strive to ensure that students’ sense of self is an advantage rather than a barrier to their academic success. The Stanford Integrated Schools project was a year-long investigation into 84 classrooms. We observed the classroom interactions between teachers and students, and used them to determine what types of teaching methods and resources were most effective for learning. Students who attended identity-safe classrooms reported feeling a greater sense of belonging and were better able to achieve academically than students attending traditional classrooms.

What does an identity-safe learning environment look like when schools are closed and students are learning from home?

The principles are the sam in both in-person or online environments: Rather than focusing on color blindness and ignoring individual differences in gender, language, race, and personal experience, we cultivate diversity as a resource for learning and understanding. Students who attend school together with a challenging curriculum often feel accepted and supported as valuable members of the learning community Social and emotional safety comes from supporting students in exploring, defining, and discovering their identities; rejecting negative stereotypes; and giving students a voice within the classroom community. It’s hard enough to teach students who are sitting right next to us, but the principles of identity safety can help teachers to serve students from all backgrounds, even when it’s not clear how to do that yet.

Here are some ideas we can use to live up to the identity safety standards now, during COVID 19.

Creating a caring online classroom

Teachers can no longer stand outside a classroom door and greet their students by giving them high fives, responding readily to a student who is confused over a learning concept or gauging group comprehension with a visual sweep across the room.

However, promoting trust, inclusion, and a sense of community remain three important pillars for building a caring environment, online and offline. Trusting and encouraging relationships allow students to gain confidence and flourish emotionally and academically. An online learning environment is more challenging and requires more effort at first, but the level of safety can be achieved through direct contact between students and instructors and by setting up warm, caring group interactions.

To keep track of each student’s progress, educators can check in periodically by phone or video conferenc­ing to ask them about their moods and their lives, and give feedback on their schoolwork. For self-contained classes, they can set a timetable for contacting each student. Middle and high school teachers can work with their colleagues to assign students to manageable groups for check-in.

All students deserve equal value and treatment, but due to inequities in technology access, some students are falling off the map and not attending online courses or completing assignments. Many schools are trying to provide students with access to computers and hotspots, but they aren’t doing enough. One district resolved this problem by setting up a system for students to get help, even if it meant doing home visits, leaving care packs and paper packets while practicing strict social distancing, and building a database to track interactions between teachers and students. We hope that other districts will also follow suit.

For group sessions, teachers can create protocols for structured collaborative activities. Community agreements help ensure respectful online communication. SEL skills can be taught through a series of questions: What does empathy mean to you; What does integrity mean to you; What is respect for others? How do you want students to feel when they’re in an online group? Students can practice reflective listening skills such as paraphrasing, asking clarifying questions, and summarizing. Students can practice reflective listening skills, such as paraphrasing and asking clarifying questions. Teachers can assign roles for students to help them cooperate (e.g., facili­tator, note-taker). These strategies help students develop a strong sense of belonging and build a solid foundation for trust.

Zoom has a feature known as breakout rooms, which can be used for structuring group activities. Small groups can discuss various issues or research projects, play jigsaws, study various aspects of larger topics, and then report back to the entire group. Teachers can “drop in” to the individual classrooms to support learning, and ensure respectful interactions and full participa­tion. The teacher can ask students to reflect on how well their groups worked together before sharing their individual ideas with the entire class. The whole class can discuss ways to improve their collaborative efforts.

Including and belonging can be fosted in academic lessons for all grades. One second-grade class taught students to find geometric shapes around their homes to share at their class meetings. A kindergarten teacher uses Seesaw Class to engage her students in a video journaling activity where they can see each other’s progress when she turns on the “See Each Other” feature.

Supporting student identity through diversity

Identity-safe classrooms value diversity among students and celebrate differences rather than ignore them.

Students’ social identities are constantly changing. They include everything that makes them different from one another, including their ethnicity, race, talents and abilities, culture, gender, etc. Educators can help students examine and explore different aspects of their social identity and discover their unique voice, which is an important part of identity safety. They’ll develop confidence and a voice by believing that who they are matters and that what they think and say matters. Drawing from diversity as an educational resource supports students in developing self-esteem while accepting and valuing them­selves and others.

During the uncertain times of the coronavirus pandemic, students need support and encouragement in strengthening, redefining and reaffirming their diverse identities. Teens, especially may worry about falling behind, lose contact with friends, and feel anxious about their future. Educators can use support and constructive feedback to develop their resilience and their ability to reach high expectations, which contributes to an increase in their vitality.

Writing down your thoughts and feelings is an excellent way for you to track your feelings and promote self-confidence in your expressions. The U.K. -based Linking Network offers educational activities for elementary-level students to explore their own identities. Facing History and Our Selves provides activities for teens to do so as well. Students can also share their own diverse literature, read stories focused on acceptance, and discover narratives that empower and give agency for marginalized communities. Family history research, designing family history posters for relatives, writing personal narratives to share stories from family history, or making videos that show special family items are examples of projects that recognize diversity and create a sense of pride.

Identity-safe teaching is an effective way to teach students who live far away from the classroom. It’s a flexible approach rather than one with a fixed set of rules. First and foremost, relationships and connection are important. They lead all other identity-related features. Creating a sense of safety for each child involves recognizing their unique characteristics, strengths, challenges, and needs. We foster identity safety by valuing the power that diversity brings to our classrooms and supporting the ways students adapt to these new circumstances and overcome the obstacles they’re facing. We hope that this experience will make our students even stronger as we continue moving forward and return to in person teaching. Identity-safe practices during this time can help ease the transition into the uncertain times ahead by cultivating confidence, resilience, and hopefulness.

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