What a meaningful (virtual) school day looks like now

Here’s how I’m helping my students manage stress and find joy during COVID.

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

“Good morning, everyone! Let’s turn our cameras on, mute our microphones, and remember to raise your hands for questions. Who’s ready to learn something new today?” My virtual background was a custom birthday shoutout for one of my students, and I was excited for them to enjoy a bit of celebration in the meeting chat.

As my partner teacher began laying out the lesson plan for the day, I started to think about how the average school day has changed since the start of the pandemic. When school went online, the usual peer bonding time during class, recess, and lunch evaporated, and individual curiosities became harder to explore. Regardless of current circumstances, students still deserve to feel like their school days are meaningful, and that they’re active participants in their own education.

So, what does a fulfilling school day look like right now?

My colleagues at City Year Detroit and I have been trying to find out. And while it’s been a challenge, we’ve hit on a few strategies that have helped.

First is doing everything we can to make the classroom environment comfortable, rather than frustrating. Creating consistency in the virtual classroom establishes a sense of comfort for students and is essential to student success. Alongside the partner teachers we work with, the City Year Detroit AmeriCorps members have generated a set of virtual norms for our students to review and follow at the start of each class.

In my classes, I post a “Today’s Work” list in the main classroom channels to give students a static place to find their work. It helps them ask specific questions about their assignments and prevents students who are late or having technology trouble from feeling confused or excluded. We also created spaces for small groups, separate from the main classroom, that are dedicated to providing students with individual attention and making sure no one gets lost in the flurry of new rules.

Making students comfortable also means simple things like using student’s names in conversation. Asking students about their lives outside of school and praising thoughtful questions fosters a classroom community that feels less distant.

When I was a student, having peers and teachers I could rely on made me feel heard and that someone was looking forward to seeing me in class every day. This year, I’ve focused on building tutor-mentor relationships with students strong enough for them to feel like they have a real ally as they confront the challenges of virtual learning. My students know that if they have a question, I will always try to answer it, and that dynamic has resulted in rewarding conversations about their lives in and out of school.

During one of my small group sessions, a student was telling me about her plan to create a calmer space for herself at home to improve her focus and her progress on iReady, an online lesson platform. She was so absorbed in that day’s work that she asked for a few extra minutes to finish up so she could tell me her final score. A few weeks before, I could barely get her to log on to class or do her assignments, let alone show excitement about classwork. Now, I can see on her face that she’s happy with the success resulting from her hard work.

Still, virtual school can be difficult or frustrating for many students. Spending time getting them to articulate their feelings and find healthy ways to manage stress — reflective thinking, journaling, stretches, and breathing exercises — has been more helpful than ever.

Now that we have established virtual academic basics, we are channeling more focus into fun. No physical school means the loss of field trips and other chances to explore and find meaning outside of the classroom. I have used my Bitmoji classroom — an animated virtual class space — to bring exciting activities to my fourth grade students. From the Bitmoji classroom, students can visit the Detroit Institute of Arts, watch weekly PBS videos, practice their vocabulary, and even swim with the fish at the Shedd Aquarium. One of my AmeriCorps colleagues, Zelda, arranged virtual trips to Disneyland and used first-person videos to “ride” the rollercoasters with their class. To help their students focus, other members Matt and Steph had their students create music playlists to listen to while they work.

Virtual learning and excursions are not the same as being able to offer students hands-on exploration, but we’re making every effort to ensure that this school year is as “normal” and as meaningful as possible for our students.

Rachel Pfannes is an AmeriCorps member proudly serving with City Year Detroit. Rachel is from Detroit, Michigan and graduated from the University of Michigan with degrees in biomolecular science, Spanish, and sociology.