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Making Meaningful Connections Through Distance Learning

Teachers, students, parents adapt to alternative education methods

We can't forget how hard this has been for our kids, socially. They’re used to the social side of school and they are really missing that. Our 9 a.m. check in has been a chance to see faces and hear voices.
Michelle Pfeiffer, third grade teacher at Nisswa Elementary School

For a non-educator, it may be hard enough to fathom keeping a room of more than 20 third graders in check. Now imagine holding the same group's attention while they're each logged in on computers and navigating software from 20-some different homes.

Distance learning – forced due to COVID-19 – has created a brand-new set of opportunities and challenges for classroom teachers throughout the nation, and world, in providing topical content and effective strategies in an online-learning world. At the same time, parents and guardians have been thrust into a teaching position they never prepared for or imagined.


Meeting students where they're at – literally

Each weekday morning at 9 a.m., Nisswa Elementary teacher Michelle Pfeiffer ‘meets’ her third-grade class in a Google Hangout. Similar to Zoom or a Microsoft Teams chat, the class is given private log in credentials to connect with their classmates and teacher for interaction and discussion.

“Our morning chat is similar to a morning meeting we would have at school,” Pfeiffer explained. “We say ‘good morning,’ check in with each other, and then I lay out the group plan for the day and work through logistics. It's my chance to get up-to-speed with students who may have missing work or who are struggling with something.”

When distance learning was deemed necessary, each student in the district was issued a Chromebook with video and audio capabilities. During Pfeiffer's morning chat sessions, students are able to see and hear one another in their new learning environments.

Pfeiffer said the group may, at times, seem a bit disjointed as students walk room-to-room holding their Chromebooks or when others forget to mute themselves when not talking and classmates are privy to barking dogs or siblings shouting from another room. Regardless, Pfeiffer said this meeting time is critical to helping her students still feel an important sense of community.

“I think they really want to ‘see’ each other,” Pfeiffer said “We can't forget how hard this has been for our kids, socially. They're used to the social side of school and they are really missing that. Our 9 a.m. check in has been a chance to see faces and hear voices.”

Because her students had already been accustomed to navigating Chromebooks in the classroom, Pfeiffer said the use of technology has been fairly seamless. When working independently, students that encounter issues are encouraged to 'meet up' with their teacher in their secure Google Hangout. Pfeiffer said she makes herself available each day so students can ask questions – whether about assignments or technology challenges.

“I think it's going great,” Pfeiffer said, noting her class has maintained a high daily attendance rate. “We've had our share of challenges and mistakes, but that's where learning lives. I'm trying to embrace the journey. It is good for kids to see the real world and watch adults navigate challenges.”


Making the most of it

While nine-year-old Ella Annand joins Mrs. Pfeiffer's morning chat from a desk in her bedroom, her brother Max – a fifth grader at Forestview Middle School in Baxter – is in the next room reading from an online chapter book. Older sister, Evelyn, does her best to focus on assignments despite the commotion around her, not to mention the bogged down internet speed. All the while, mom Katie, rotates between rooms doing her best to answer questions and keep all three kids on task.

“The first week was very challenging,” Katie said, “especially when I started working from home and was trying to help the kids at the same time. The second week, we all fell into a better routine and the kids were a little more familiar with what was expected of them.”

Annand said there have certainly been struggles, but she knows she's not alone and takes it one day at a time – doing the best she can for her children and herself.

“I just feel so fortunate that my kids' teachers have prepared lessons so well and do their best despite their own chaotic personal situations to ensure their students are still able to learn and grow academically.”


It takes a village

The struggle certainly is real, said Sourcewell Manager of Education Solutions Kassidy Rice. Access issues across the region mean not every student is engaged online – particularly early elementary students in some districts where packets of materials are the best option for learning.

“Our team has been intentional about trying to curate resources that are not completely reliant on digital access,” Rice said. “We have also tried to emphasize that parents should not have to be teachers.”

“One of the biggest challenges to distance learning is maintaining a sense of community and supporting social-emotional needs that are multiplied due to the uncertainty, upheaval, and fear associated with the pandemic,” Rice added. “Teachers have to be creative about connecting and supporting students, as well as their caregivers.”

Pfeiffer does admit, it takes an extra layer of mindful preparation to deliver quality instruction from a distance; however, through it all, she maintains a heart of gratitude and acceptance.

“There are so many angles to consider with all of this change,” she said. "Giving each other the benefit-of-the-doubt is more important now than ever. We're all just doing the best we can in uncharted waters."

Life isn't perfect and we have to make the best of our time together. I can't even tell you how proud I am of these kids. They're working so hard to do it all. They handle change beautifully and their willingness to help each other has been one really cool thing for our learning community as we all adjust."


We're here to help. Sourcewell has posted several resources and tools on its website to help students, parents, and educators navigate the journey of distance learning. Click here to learn more.