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Teach Plus Texas Fellows Navigate the New Normal: Connect, Create, and Collaborate

By Miriam Rodgers

Three weeks ago, I was reminding my students that prom dresses and spring break plans weren’t “on-task” topics. This week, as we’ve all found ourselves under a “stay at home” order, we started distance learning. Suddenly, teachers like me have become online content creators, parents have become teachers, and our kids have lost access to the activities that structured their lives. My student Jorge is in a two-bedroom apartment with five siblings, trying to share devices. My student Amy’s parents are stuck in South America under martial law. And it doesn’t look like Sammy’s family will be able to fly in from Guatemala to celebrate his high school graduation (the first in the family). It is a whole new world for all of us, and we all need to take care of each other.

The Teach Plus Texas Fellows are keeping three key ideas in mind as we navigate our new normal: Connect, create, and collaborate.

Strong interpersonal connections reduce anxiety and feelings of helplessness, and our students are missing that connection. Show your students your face! They want to see you! Ask them how they are doing — and then listen. It is impossible to overstate the impact this has on students.

Consider making fun videos with breathing exercises or workouts for your students. For example: I’ll be leading an amateur lunch hour yoga session on Zoom for interested students and teachers. In Houston, Sarah Tredway filmed simple breathing exercises with a Hoberman sphere for her kindergarten students. In San Antonio, Nakita Murray is teaching her 5th graders how to make sensory bottles with household materials.

Teachers can also empower connections among students by giving them time to socialize. My colleague Wendy Riley started in-person classes with “tell me something good” and she’s continuing these on Zoom. I’ll be having regular Zoom discussions about timely issues where students have a chance to be heard — and to hear each other. In Austin, Mark Rogers created and shared a video with his families featuring pictures of each child to maintain the human connection between the students in his class. You can help your students remember that they’re not alone in this.

Finally, if you know students need extra support — or if you see they’re not engaging online — reach out to them by phone. Remind them you care about them. And as you begin making parent phone calls from home, Christy Mier from El Paso suggests protecting your privacy by using Google Voice or Remind.

Our role as providers of academic content is still critical. But it is not our only role. We are teaching our students how to be successful humans, whatever life throws at them. And we have no idea what our students might be dealing with. Rikii Gipson in San Antonio has heard from 10 of her 16 students. The ones she has not heard from do not have a phone — much less internet access. Even students lucky enough to have internet access may have connectivity issues. It is time for us to be creative! Look for ways to have the curriculum connect with students in ways that make a difference for their lives now.

Less is more: maximize the quality of the content while minimizing the stress and uncertainty for our students and their caregivers. Cristina Correa from the Rio Grande Valley reminds us that if students are assigned 15-minute videos for eight classes, they’ll need to download or access two hours of videos each day. This is a substantial burden for families who are sharing devices and/or lack access to a reliable internet connection. And don’t forget that you know your students best. Teachers know what supplies and materials students have available to them, and that is an opportunity for creativity and fun. Cristina will lead students through projects making beautiful art using Kool-Aid, makeup, and even Hot Cheeto dust.

Finally, give yourself — and your students, and their caregivers, and school administration — some grace. Virtual and distance learning are new, and we will need to adapt continuously. No one has to do this on their own. Look for resources from other teachers, both in your school and online. There are some great ideas from educators on Twitter. I’d also recommend collaborating with your students to shape online learning. My classes kicked off the week with an online discussion using Parlay to create our Zoom-room norms and expectations together.

I don’t know if Sammy will get to walk at graduation with his family cheering him on, or when Amy will reunite with her parents, or how Jorge’s family will make things work at home. But I do know that this is an opportunity to reach out, connect with others, get creative, and give our students a powerful sense of agency as we step into this new world of distance learning together.

Miriam Rodgers teaches US Government, Economics, and IB Theory of Knowledge to 11th and 12th graders at Meridian World School in Round Rock, Texas. She is a 2019–20 Teach Plus Texas Policy Fellow.

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