When COVID-19 hit our society, a wave of teachers was thrown into distance learning with little preparation. Many educators whose districts had the infrastructure to support e-learning jumped right in, navigating the abundance of free resources that peppered the internet overnight. I, too, sought out tasks online, excited for my students to drive their own learning.
But one critical piece was missing: the personal connection with me, their teacher. For the students in our class to whom their teacher is everything, even the most engaging worksheets, videos, projects and animated websites are nothing.
As Maribel Valdez Gonzalez pointed out in A Healthy Reminder to Educators During School Closings, now is the time to focus on student well-being, not to prioritize academic compliance. Since I work in a district that provides one-to-one technology for our second through 12th graders, I knew I was lucky enough to be able to use the turn to online courses as a way to connect with my students and support them through this crisis.
When I logged on to my first Zoom meeting, seeing the joy on my students’ faces and hearing 17 voices simultaneously sharing all that had happened in the few days since we’d all been together was priceless. We spent the first 20 minutes of our meeting just chatting, reconnecting and discussing our needs. I read aloud, and we discussed the reading. We ended with more questions from students about our new learning environment. I attempted to answer as truthfully as I could. I hope I put to bed some of their fears and anxieties in the process.
After our Zoom, I realized that our meeting included several of the hallmarks of culturally responsive teaching: building trusting learning relationships, creating opportunities for student-centered discourse and meeting the cognitive needs of communal learners. At the heart of culturally responsive teaching is the idea of being responsive to students’ academic and social emotional needs. With care and planning, any educator teaching online can create a culturally responsive virtual classroom, one that can provide a space where every day, students feel welcomed and valued.
Here’s how I’m building on what I learned to ensure I’m meeting the needs of marginalized students even as we shift to a new learning environment.
Building Learning Partnerships Online
Building trusting learning relationships is a cornerstone of culturally responsive instruction. Researchers including Geneva Gay, Sonia Nieto and Gloria Ladson-Billings all stress its importance. In her book Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond explains that high-trust, low-stress environments can help marginalized students effectively process and retain learned information. When students feel safe and trust that we have true learning partnerships with them, they will be more likely to take the necessary risks needed to learn.
Online, these relationships looked different than they did in the classroom. Conducting school from our homes, we were all more vulnerable in our learning environment. In effect, taking 20 minutes to talk to students about their lives at the beginning of our meeting built deeper connections with my students, helping us to strengthen our relationships. The fact that they were seeing me in my home helped show them I was willing to share and trust them, too. This reciprocity helped to create a high-trust environment.
Each day since that initial meeting, I changed the location in my home where I met online with students. These reveals entertained my students while also letting them get to know me better. But there are many ways educators can use online spaces to build trusting relationships. One day we did a show and tell by sharing and discussing items from our homes. The next day we tried a scavenger hunt, where I named things: a pet, a sibling or a roll of toilet paper, for example, and students brought them to the camera to show off. We close each Zoom classroom meeting with a sharing or team building activity giving us an additional opportunity to connect with one another.
Centering Students Online
As in traditional classroom settings, culturally responsive teaching online depends on empowering students through learner-centered lessons. Zaretta Hammond maintains that culturally responsive teaching is about creating trusting learning partnerships with students. When teachers act more as facilitators than lecturers, Gloria Ladson-Billings explains, students from marginalized groups are more likely to participate and succeed. Learner-centered lessons are collaborative and allow students to redirect learning to topics that are culturally and socially relevant to them. Students can become more self-confident through the learning process.
During our initial class meeting, I began by presenting all of the topics that we were planning to cover and asking students what they were motivated to learn about first. We talked about which topics are important to them. And I asked for feedback on the types of learning they enjoyed most: projects, games, flip grids or others. That way, when I redesigned my plans to suit distance learning, I could design lessons around my students’ interests. Now, I use our interactive classroom time to let students share questions, comments and concerns and to connect with and motivate them.
Supporting Communal Learners
Hammond clarifies a distinction between individual learners and communal learners: Our cultural values, she says, can shape whether we learn best by exploring on our own or collaborating with others to build understanding. Current practices of assigning distance learning packets and independent online projects skew toward independent learners. But students who are communal learners can struggle with traditional distance learning.
To better engage communal learners in the classroom, Hammond suggests making lessons more social and utilizing gamified teaching. By adding a live streaming classroom component to my e-learning plan, I added a social layer that helped engage communal learners. While reading a selected text, I asked students questions and had them respond with some of the features on Zoom: thumbs up, “raise your hand” or emojis. Assigning different values to these elements gamified the learning by making it interactive. For example, if the students heard a simile or metaphor, I asked them to give me a thumbs up, but if they heard me read a personification, I asked them to give me a thumbs down.
After our initial e-learning sessions, I realized the importance of the social aspect of students checking in with their teacher and their friends. Now I am looking for more ways to incorporate collaborative work time into our e-learning environment, including using Zoom’s break outs feature for smaller groups. I am also exploring new engaging gamified options like the use of annotation and whiteboard features to have students draw their responses in real time. I plan to use the polling feature to collect student responses, and I have also been trying to implement the chat function as a relay race where students take turns answering questions.
Time for Responsiveness
At the heart of culturally responsive teaching is the idea of being responsive to students’ academic and social emotional needs. As teachers, we provide so much more than the lessons we share. For many of our students, we provide a guided path to successfully navigating those lessons, to security and to reassurance.
For more on supporting students through distance learning, visit TT’s resource collection “Supporting Students Through Coronavirus.”