Jun 25, 2021 2021-06-25
By Renee Sudol
Independence, accountability, and leadership—how do we fit these powerful life skills into a remote learning environment? The start of the school year was an adjustment. Most of our students attended school in a hybrid model while others opted for 100 percent virtual. September was the start of a teaching and learning experience like no other, and we were ready for anything.
When our administrators shared our school professional development plan in the beginning of the school year, the virtual teachers knew it would be a challenge. We were presented with the following question: how can we successfully implement social–emotional learning (SEL) strategies that enhance students’ capabilities to meet challenges ethically and effectively and prepare for future successes?
SEL forms the foundation of our school philosophy. A rocket ship represents our school mascot and is the acronym for our mission statement: Respect, Optimism, Compassion, Kindness, Empathy, and Team Player (R.O.C.K.E.T.). Assemblies, school events, and daily learning practices foster these important skills.
Following the CASEL.org framework, our SEL committee meets regularly to discuss strategies, gather resources, and provide professional development opportunities. Our committee was equipped with numerous resources for in-person teaching, but needed different strategies to support virtual learners. We examined existing programs and looked for ways to modify and implement resources.
Morning meetings are a powerful part of our daily practice. They empower and strengthen students’ independence, accountability, and leadership skills. They provide time for students to express their feelings, connect with others, and learn how to address their peers by name. Facilitated in the classroom, students can engage with others, ask questions, and build friendships. Virtual morning meetings may look different, but they have the same end goal. Rachel Jamison, a colleague and virtual second grade teacher, explained her “aha” moment this year:
“Students can bring emotions with them from the evening or day before, but emotions are heightened with virtual students because they are learning from home. A parent struggling to get a sibling ready or a family member frustrated over internet issues is on display for everyone to see and the students know that.”
Rachel begins her morning meeting with a positive, upbeat song as a way to promote the weekly theme. “What I am,” by Will.i.am was shared with her class when learning about pride. The songs are inspirational and help motivate her students. Some dance, while others sing along. Rachel explained even though morning meetings take time, providing her students opportunities to share, make connections, and find commonalities are invaluable life skills that extend beyond the curriculum.
When we look closely enough, we find ordinary students doing extraordinary things. The student who holds the door for a teacher, a kindergartener who consoles a friend on the playground, and the third-grader who cheers on his or her classmates during gym class. We recognize and nominate students on a daily basis with R.O.C.K.E.T. shout outs. The nominated students show respectful, optimistic, compassionate, kindness, empathy, and team player behaviors. The acronym is part of our school motto, “Riverview Rockets,” and is the foundation for our code of conduct.
Daily shout outs commence our dismissal process. At the end of the school day, the student body connects virtually through a Google Meet. Announcements are made, messages are shared, and student shout outs are broadcast to all. Students caught doing something that exemplifies the ROCKET acronym are recognized. Classmates cheer for each other, which creates a snowball effect for more R.O.C.K.E.T. behaviors.
During the school day it is easy to witness exceptional behavior, but virtually it is not so easy. Teachers have learned to use online mishaps as teachable moments. Overcoming adversity is a daily lesson in a virtual learning environment. Students watch teachers face challenges, identify solutions, and overcome issues. This has become a very powerful learning tool. Over time, teachers have seen a shift from teacher-directed solutions to student-initiated support. Our students have developed into confident problem-solvers who share ideas and work towards solutions. In these moments our teachers pause to recognize the R.O.C.K.E.T. behaviors that are taking place.
“How are you feeling on a scale of…” check ins have become a regular part of my virtual computer class. With upwards of 60 students on the grade-level Zoom call, check ins are a powerful way to connect and let students know we care. Check ins are not limited to rating scales. This or That activities, Would You Rather, Stand Up If questions, and interactive games engage students and help them feel connected. Students laugh, share opinions, and find commonalities with others. Most students look forward to this type of accountability. Compliment boards are another great way to connect. Using sticky notes in Jamboard, students or teachers can leave valuable feedback for individual or group work, projects, and presentations. Peer feedback is quick and yet so powerful!
Assemblies transitioned from in-person to online events. Each month a different grade level collaborated and created an assembly showcasing one of the R.O.C.K.E.T. elements. Fifth graders led the way with respect. Fourth graders taught us about optimism, third explored compassion, kindergarten reminded us to be kind, second taught us the meaning of empathy, and first graders showed us how to be team players. The creativity showed with videos, interactive graphics, skits, poetry, and songs. The virtual performances provided an opportunity for student leaders to shine.
Student of the month gatherings also moved to virtual celebrations. Students are celebrated and recognized for their individual accomplishments. The nominated students join a virtual celebration hosted by the principal and vice principal. Students reflect on the positive qualities and character exhibited throughout the month and enjoy interactive Go Noodle activities.
Therapy Dog Visits and Special Guests
A therapy dog visitation grant was written to increase pet therapy awareness and provide an opportunity for students to enjoy the benefits of spending time with therapy dogs. Persevering through the pandemic has been difficult. One of our kindergarten teachers reached out to a local nonprofit therapy pet organization to set up a visitation schedule. We were lucky to coordinate two separate visitation times during the school year. Our kindergarten through fifth grade students thoroughly enjoyed learning about the program, petting the dogs, and reading to them.
In addition to therapy dog visits, teachers also invited the town librarian to support our virtual learners with story time. Our guidance counselor visited classes to teach social–emotional learning and various guest readers, including parents and teachers, joined in virtual celebrations.
Looking back on the school year, we learned SEL is not something we needed to do in isolation. It is more effective when we infuse the skills into our everyday teaching and learning. We learned to listen more, provide frequent breaks, allow time for students to share how they are feeling, and modify assignments as needed. We learned how to turn blunders and technology mishaps into teachable moments. Students learned to problem-solve and help each other. By embracing a digital platform, we taught students to become leaders who persevere and overcome difficulties. Most importantly, we have successfully implemented SEL strategies that enable students to meet challenges ethically and effectively, and prepare for future success.
Renee is an Instructional Technology Coach, Technology Teacher, and the Elementary School Webmaster for the Denville Township Public School District. Renee has been teaching for 23 years and is a Google Certified Educator and Trainer. You can follow Renee on Twitter.