Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Connection, Community, and Curiosity at a Distance

This post was written by 2020 Education Fellow Kim Young.

I’ve never experienced anything like this. Disruptions in teaching are frequent, both big and small. Every day we come to school with a plan but often something totally different happens. As we find out where our students, community, and administrators are at, we adjust our plan throughout the day. But in my 16 years of teaching, I have never had a disruption this long and without any good idea of when it may end. And throughout it all, the biggest sentiment I’m hearing from my community of teachers is, “I’m going to miss my students.”

Like many of you, I became a teacher because I love creating personal connections and interacting one-on-one with students. The best part of my job is not writing lessons, but doing the lessons together with my students. I have loud, smiling, giggling, engaged classes with ideas and discussions flying everywhere, every day. I throw a question out to the class and they immediately get excited, raising their hands, discussing things, asking questions back, and making  jokes. Last Wednesday was a day just like any other. But, when the bell rang to end school, within five minutes I was in a staff meeting finding out that school would be closing. I was teaching as usual one minute and, just like that, I had a whole new reality the next. Today, I woke up to post my first “school from home” lessons to my students and it was just me; no live feedback, no immediate sense of connection with students as they start to explore and figure things out. It feels lonely. It feels different. It feels like nothing I’ve ever experienced.

When I first learned we might shift to online learning I was overwhelmed, thinking, “How do I do exactly what I was doing in the face-to-face classroom, online? How do I literally transfer and share the exact same content, skills and experiences?” Thinking through this transition was very overwhelming. But then I paused, took a breath, and realized I don’t have to do it exactly the same way. I distilled it down to my three main goals, which are all “C” words: provide connection, build community, and foster curiosity. When I use these goals as a guide, it shifts my way of thinking. To me, the “three C’s” are not only uplifting, but they inspire innovation and creativity. I think: “I not only know how to do that, I can do it in a different and innovative way than I would in a face-to-face classroom.”

A crisis has a tendency to shake out what is important. So how am I wrapping my head around this new way of teaching with the “three C’s” in mind? Here are the ideas that have kept me grounded:

Do what you know best. You don’t have to learn a totally new technology now. Lean into your strengths and the things you were already doing well. I am seeing a lot of sharing on social media about tools and big resource banks, which can feel really overwhelming. Start with one thing you know that works in an online environment and tweak it so it works for you and your students.

Seek out opportunities for exploration. We want some of this online learning to actually not be online. While we communicate online, as teachers, we want to ensure we are inspiring our students’ curiosity, encouraging them to explore, and investigate or find out something new. Can we consider ways to spark wonder that still allows students to safely engage with the world around them: perhaps their home, backyard, or a local park? When we focus on helping kids be curious through doing, we expand our options beyond traditional online learning. Here are are a few resources I find engaging for students:

Citizen Science (in particular a Backyard BioBlitz)

Global Closet Calculator

Be Like Jane: Observing, Conserving, and Communicating

Explorer profiles and videos, such as Artifacts of the Future, Ancestors of Emojis, and Soil Secrets

Find authentic tasks where students can be helpers. We are in a crisis. A lot needs to be done but students are often overlooked as people who can and want to help. Rachel Hansen, a National Geographic Explorer and Certified Educator based in Iowa, has explored real-time opportunities with her students to map their community resources. Why not ask students to create a list of where food is available in their area? Or WiFi? What are challenges locally, and how can you creatively mobilize students to help? When we engage students with real-world challenges, we can help them to feel connected, engaged and empowered.

Online learning doesn’t mean 24/7 school, but students need to feel connected. Students have already told me that it feels weird for them to not be in school, and when I think of the strong peer-support systems that I have online, I know I want the same for them. For my Grade 9 World History class we’re going to be doing “Creativity Challenges” each week and meeting virtually as a group to connect, hang out, and share. We will be starting with an architecture/building challenge where students try to build something from the content we’re studying using any found materials from their home/apartment. We’re doing these things to create a sense of community, connection, and feedback.

Communicate with families. Everyone’s situation is different and, in some cases, students are going to confront a variety of challenges. Some people have access to technology, online resources and a safe place to work, and others simply do not. We understand that there are systemic inequalities and other complex hurdles to overcome.  But the message I’m sending to families is this: communicate with me, tell me what your challenges are and let’s work together to find solutions. No matter what hurdles may arise, we can always find ideas and opportunities for learning. As teachers, we can offer what we do best: differentiated instruction that is unique to every student. We’ll roll with challenges as they present themselves and find alternatives that work for our students to ensure they feel supported, even when they’re away from us.

Set up a regular PLC meeting with other teachers. And not just the one required by your school or your boss, but a PLC of teachers that you feel you can be real with. Set up a regular time to meet via video conference each week and keep it unstructured to give space for people to share their feelings and process how things are really going. Then, as you are ready, share some funny stories, resources, and the things that keep you going. Don’t know where to start? Head to the National Geographic Educator Network and engage in conversations on social media using the hashtag #TeacherStrong.

These are unprecedented times and there is a lot of anxiety and fear. And while we may never have experienced something quite like this before, let’s remember: as teachers we need to take care of ourselves and remind ourselves of our strengths. We are already uniquely qualified to provide powerful and meaningful connections to the people around us in fluid, dynamic situations every single day. For me, the power of connection, community and fostering curiosity have served as helpful reminders to recalibrate my own frame of thinking. I know you will find what works for you, too. I also know, now more than ever, that we totally have this. This is our skill set. This is what we’re good at. This is what we do best. The more we remember that, the better we are going to feel. To me, I see this as a chance for the larger community to see how educator strengths truly shine. We’ve got this.

Kim Young is a 2020 National Geographic Explorer and Education Fellow, and longtime public school social studies educator who is passionate about cultivating her students’ identities as explorers and global citizens. She draws most of her inspiration for classroom activities from firsthand experiences in the field. Follow Kim on Twitter: @9thWorldHistory

Feature image by Rebecca Hale.

2 thoughts on “Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Connection, Community, and Curiosity at a Distance

  1. Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Connection, Community and Curiosity at a Distance.
    Martha Patricia Morales Molina.
    This article is very interesting, because as a teacher it allows me to share constant learning and communication with my students regardless of distance.
    Thanks for your information.

  2. I think this is awesome information as we are all trying tu build up on line classes. Sharing ideas and activities is great, suddenly you find yourself all burned out and in needing of some refreshment. Thanks for this wonderful ideas. I will post comments to share how it works.

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