Combating Social Isolation When Learning Remotely

As teachers move classes online and utilize online tools and resources to engage students in remote learning, it’s essential to add social elements to our online courses. This has a couple of powerful benefits. First, students who feel they are part of a learning community online are less likely to feel alone during this time of social isolation. Second, teachers who invest the time and effort needed to develop a sense of community online will have more success engaging students who are learning remotely.

A simple strategy is to use online discussions to post icebreaker-style discussion questions. Online discussions are a staple of online learning, and the value of discussions can hardly be overstated. They allow students to:

  • Articulate their ideas
  • Ask questions
  • Learn from different perspectives
  • Make connections
  • Think critically about new information and ideas
  • Receive validation from their peers

However, online academic discussions are more successful when students have had the chance to develop their social presence online. The social presence is the student’s ability to project their true selves in an online environment, perceive their classmates as real people, and form meaningful relationships online. This is easier to do if students have opportunities to get to know one another online.

Online icebreakers, or non-academic discussion questions, can help students get to know one another and develop their social presence. Below is an example of an icebreaker discussion question I use to get students chatting informally at the start of a course.

Below are some ideas for fun icebreaker-style discussion questions.

  • If you could have lunch with a famous person, who would you choose and why? In your response, include three questions you would like to ask this person.
  • If you could have a superpower, which would you choose and why?
  • Describe your perfect day from beginning to end. How would you spend your time?
  • If you were stranded on a desert island, which three objects would you bring with you and why?
  • Post three statements (two truths and one lie) then try to guess each other’s lie.
  • Would you rather [one option] or [second option]? Explain your choice.
  • What is your favorite television show to binge-watch? Why?
  • If you could receive a famous award in your lifetime, what would it be and why?
  • If Spotify asked you to design a playlist for teens who are stuck at home, what would you call your playlist, and which 15 songs would you include on it?
  • If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why?

When teachers design any online discussion question–academic or informal, I encourage them to include the following:

  • Creative and catchy title
  • Questions that encourage more detailed responses or provide more than one entry point into the conversation
  • Media (image, photo, video)
  • Instructions for engaging with their peers once they have posted their response to the discussion question.

Not only do informal conversations build community, but they can help students feel connected to their peers while learning remotely. If students feel connected to a learning community online, they are more likely to engage in online tasks and be respectful in their interactions with each other.

Teachers can also use FlipGrid for these informal conversations. Students can record videos responding to discussion prompts and then comment on each other’s videos.

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DIY Homeschooling: Imposing Structure on Chaos

Many teachers, like myself, are facing the prospect of weeks at home with their children. I did not want to spend my days at home engaged in endless debates about how my kids would spend their time. Even though they are not going to school, I want them to continue learning. It also isn’t clear to me how much work their teachers will assign during this school closure.

As teachers, we are uniquely equipped to teach our children during school closures. Still, homeschooling requires structure, preparation, and consistency. I began by drafting the schedule below to ensure my two children were alternating between different types of activities during their days at home.

If I’m honest, the schedule was my attempt to impose a degree of organization on what felt like a chaotic and uncertain situation. I did not think my children would welcome a “schedule.” To my surprise, both of my kids were excited about the prospect of doing “school” with my husband (a high school history teacher) and me. I am not sure how long that enthusiasm will last, but they, like me, are clearly craving structure.

Below is a template families are welcome to copy and use to create their own homeschool schedules.

I cannot control what is happening around us, but I hope that having a daily schedule will keep my kids from feeling adrift during this time of isolation. I look forward to leveraging the strategies and tools I use in my work as a blended learning coach to engage my kids in hands-on learning activities at home.

I know I am not the only educator taking a proactive approach to educating my kids during school closures. If you have a strategy that you are using with your children that you think might help other families, please take a moment and post a comment.

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The Balance with Catlin Tucker: Featuring Jason Green

In this episode of The Balance, I talk with Jason Green, co-author of Blended Learning in Action and Co-Founder and Co-CEO of LINC. Jason Green has dedicated his career to creating positive change in education. Jason has helped hundreds of schools and districts reimagine and implement 21st-century teaching and learning.

In this episode, Jason and I talk about how to positively change the culture on school campuses, shift from pockets of innovation to innovation at scale, move from a focus on presenting to being present, and be compassionate with ourselves. We also share our favorite binge-worthy shows!

If you are part of a professional learning community, the questions below are designed to facilitate a conversation–in person or online–about the issues discussed in this episode of The Balance. If you do not have a PLC at your school but you want to engage in an online conversation with other educators, check out my Facebook page!

  1. If you think about your school’s priorities, where do they fall in the quadrant of urgent versus important? What is your school currently prioritizing in terms of time and energy? Is building culture a priority on your campus?
  2. How can you make the shift around changing mindsets and building culture feel urgent? What behaviors over time can help your school to develop a culture that fosters innovation and student-centered learning? How can you use the TRACE acronym to think about culture building?
  3. If, in 2035, most people in the workforce may have anywhere from 10-20 jobs in their lifetimes, how should that impact the way we approach educating kids? What skills will they need to navigate this new landscape?
  4. Are there structures in place on your campus to encourage your teachers to continue learning (e.g., coaching, PLCs)? Are these structures effective and sustainable? Does the culture and structures on your campus allow teachers to be agents of change instead of objects of change?
  5. How can being compassionate with yourself impact your work? Do you feel like you spend more time in presentation mode or being present? What shifts can you make to spend more time in a compassionate and present space, whether your work with teachers or students? 
  6. What do you enjoy binge-watching when you need a brain break?

If you want to connect with Jason Green you can find him on Twitter @jasontoddgreen. If you want to learn more about LINC (Learning Innovation Catalyst), you can check out the company website here.

Thank you to StudySync for producing and sponsoring this podcast! StudySync is committed to helping teachers find balance in their lives by providing them with a robust multimedia ELA platform that simplifies lesson planning, automatically differentiates tasks for learners at different skill levels and language proficiencies, and blends online and offline engagement to help students develop as thinkers, readers, writers, and speakers.

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