A few years ago, while conducting a focus group, I started by asking the 10th grade students, whom the school classified as “low-performing,” if they liked being in school. One girl responded, “I feel like my teachers don’t even see me.” This has stuck in my mind. We know this girl: She is quiet and well-behaved but often falls off our radar, right under our noses.
And now, in these extraordinary times of school closures, as adults and children navigate new terrain, moving learning from the classroom to kitchen tables and from human interactions to digital devices, our ability to connect with students has become increasingly more challenging. We won’t see students on the playground to ask a question or pass them in the corridor to slip in an encouraging smile. In a remote learning environment, everyday interactions obviously become more difficult and less natural. Students from disadvantaged backgrounds will face the biggest challenges due to a variety of reasons such as lack of online access, quiet spaces to work, and anxiety about home life like finances and caring for others, to name a few. These factors will further alienate students from that sense of belonging to the school and classroom community that is so important for excelling at learning.
CLASSROOM CONNECTION CHECK-INs for building rapport and trust over time
In Connect the Dots: the Collective Power of Relationships, Memory and Mindset in the Classroom, we make the case that relationships influence every aspect of our teaching and we lay out the research to back it up. Positive relationships are the most powerful when they are intentional and inclusive. Everyone is seen. Classroom Connection Check-in is a simple set of tools teachers can create to build rapport and trust and ensure that they intentionally connect each student, adapted for the home learning but useful for when we return. These connections will impact future learning.
First, collect information from students by creating a simple questionnaire using Google forms or some other method that is built into your remote learning platform. These questionnaires are private (for your eyes only), so make sure students know this. And of course, if you want to share any responses, ask permission.
Below are some suggestions, each aligned with topic categories, so it’s easier for you to find information later. For younger students, they can fill in the questionnaires with their parents or a caregiver. For older students, you might also want to include questions like: “What is your biggest distraction when you are doing schoolwork?” “Is there anything that stresses you out? How do you handle stress?” I have adapted the questions to make them more useful for home learning or in times of uncertainty. For example, you may want to include questions like, “Where do you normally study or do homework?” Some students may find it difficult to find a quiet place away from others in their homes, and this would be useful to know. Overall, though, keep it positive. These are also future conversation starters that you can use when students return.
Teacher Time Saver: Here is an example of one I created. Feel free to make a copy and adapt. Obviously, check with your school policy and safeguarding guidelines for remote learning.
The next step is to create a chart based on your questionnaire. This is an invaluable tool for collecting potential conversation starters with students or remembering small details. In other words, it’s your crib sheet. It will also be important for understanding the home learning context and identifying students who may be struggling. Allow the charts to evolve by asking more questions or seeing if their answers have changed. Try to keep to the same categories for simplicity’s sake.
Teacher Time Saver: If you are using Google Forms or Google Classrooms, it is really easy to export as a spreadsheet so that this table is automatically made for you, with a few small changes.
Then create your Classroom Connection Check-in Check List. This is where the magic happens because the chart helps you keep track of your interactions to ensure that you have connected with each student. I added the second column to encourage you to test yourself on what you can recall about your students. Simply check off each time you make a personal or positive reference. Because the online environment is more controlled than the classroom or school atmosphere, you’ll have to find new ways of reaching students. Try inserting a comment during a live lesson if appropriate (“Zain knows a lot .... Maybe he could explain that. Zain?”), asking a follow-up question in an email or call home; or making a small note on a student’s feedback.
BACK AT SCHOOL
As Geoff Barton wrote in a recent blog in TES, “After coronavirus, teachers will need to be given a long period to rebuild.” Strengthening relationships and re-creating a space where children feel cared for will be paramount and prioritized over Ofsted and performance tables. Classroom Connection Check-in will be an invaluable tool for when you return. You can also change the questions and expand across the whole school.
One whole-school example is Cold Springs Middle School in Nevada whose principal created a large chart with columns titled, “Name/face,” “Something personal,” “Personal Family Story,” and “Academic Standing.” Teachers collectively indicated how much they knew about each student, making evident which students were less known. This chat grew into a system for ensuring that every child connected with at least one adult at school every day and helped ignite conversations in the corridor about anything that interests them like collecting stickers or swimming after school. Read about this inspiring project and the positive impacts here in the article in Edutopia.
Peter DeWitt, “Classroom Connection Check-In: Making Sure All Children Are Seen During Remote Learning”, As originally published on Education Week, May 13, 2020, https://www.edweek.org/education/opinion-classroom-connection-check-in-making-sure-all-children-are-seen-during-remote-learning/2020/05