Jessica is a middle school social worker working in Brooklyn, New York.
When we first started with distance learning in March, I remember thinking how are we going to do this? My school was as prepared as we could be. My principal ensured students had a school-issued laptop and the necessary books, but it all felt strange.
I remember focusing on the negative at first, simply out of fear. How will students engage online? We only know how to do this middle school thing in person. How are we going to meet the unique needs of our students virtually? How will we maintain a sense of community when we are all far apart?
As time went on my team and I grappled with answers to these questions. Simultaneously, I discovered many unexpected positives of distance learning that strengthened our school community.
1. Emotional Support Animals Extend Healing Beyond the Screen
For starters, I have met so many furry friends through zoom who took on a new role: emotional support animals. We tried to get an emotional support animal in The Wellnest, our counseling and student social-emotional space within the school building, but there were just too many logistical hurdles.
At home, many of the students who have cats, dogs, hamsters and even birds have their emotional support with them all day. Students light up when you mention their animal's name and are eager to hold them to the camera.
These times can be stressful, scary, and sad for us all but the impact is felt more deeply by our middle school students. Having their animals with them is one way for students to cope with the stress and intense feelings.
For those who may not have animals at home, we created Animal Club. This once a week virtual space is where students come to talk and view animal videos, even taking virtual trips to zoos. While we may not have been able to supply an emotional support animal within our brick and mortar school, it is amazing to see students connect virtually over a love of animals within their homes or viewed online.
2. Increasing Digital Literacy Skills
Another fear turned unexpected highlight during this time has been our consistency in staying digitally connected and increasing student’s digital literacy skills.
Our school is not immune to the common struggles of remote learning, from difficulty focusing at home to unreliable internet connections. While it is important to acknowledge these struggles, it is also important to recognize the student strengths and how we have creatively collaborated with students and families to maintain connection.
For our students who are easily distracted, our school was able to provide noise-canceling headphones that changed the way they were able to focus during online classes. In other cases, students share with me that they prefer to work from home and find it less distracting than being surrounded by students in a classroom.
For students with internet connectivity issues, we watched how students were creatively thinking of solutions on their own. Frequently I hear students say “my internet cut out, can you send me an email with that I missed?”
3. Increasing Self-Advocacy Skills
I have witnessed our students' self-advocacy and problem-solving skills grow just by navigating the new world of remote school. Some of our students have said that this experience has prepared them for life beyond middle school. Their typing skills have improved and they are more familiar with a plethora of digital academic learning tools.
My initial anxieties that digital learning would result in disengagement did not materialize as significantly as I thought it would. While this is something we have often taught in the past, distance learning has provided students with growing opportunities to practice these implicit skills in a way they hadn’t before.
This leads me to what I consider one of our greatest highlights, the enhanced connections our community has made.
4. A More Connected Community
One of my greatest fears as we rapidly closed our physical doors last year was that the relationships our students had developed with staff and peers would look different online. However, our school has found that the digital platform has increased our ability to connect with some students and deepen the connections we had already developed.
For some who travel far to get to and from school, they now have an opportunity to be more involved in after school activities- something they could not do prior to the remote environment. We have expanded our daily clubs and activities and now regularly host movie nights that entire families can participate in from home!
At a time when we must navigate through an unknown world rife with pain, grief, and confusion- we have taken the time to strengthen our student community connections.
Prior to the pandemic, our amazing After School and Community Partnership Director facilitated a weekly school-wide community circle. During this time, students come together for an hour to recognize student of the week awards followed by a guest speaker or performer. When we are in the building, we are limited to who can join in these weekly activities. Which brings up another positive highlight:
5. More Universal Learning Experiences
Now that our weekly community circle is on Zoom, we have guest performers from all over the world, from distant states such as North Carolina to far-off countries like Spain, India, and Australia!
Our guest speakers have been authors, dancers, fitness instructors, lawyers and we even had a visit with an animal shelter. Our students have an opportunity to ask questions in real time and participate in a world outside of our school. During virtual community circle students are able to post reactions and thoughts in the chat, deepening their connections with peers, staff, and guests.
One of the most rewarding experiences has been our revised virtual Winter Showcase. While the Winter Showcase was a yearly tradition during in-person school, giving all those who participate in afterschool programs an opportunity to demonstrate their new skills and talents, this year’s event was unlike any other. We had parents, school board members and community members who, in years past, have not been able to attend due to time constraints and distance.
Our students cheered for each other, danced, and even enjoyed the virtual spotlight to give props to their peers. In many ways the energy that was created in the virtual space reached further than it ever had; it reached the homes of our entire community.
While I wish we were all back together, it has been beautiful to see students uncover new talents and let their strengths shine.
Whether it's meeting student animals, hearing students more confidently self-advocate and navigate a digital space, or developing a sense of togetherness through virtual community events, I have found positives during remote learning that I did not think would be possible. I hope we can all continue to look for light as we sift through the ongoing newness of virtual learning.
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