In the virtual environment of remote instruction, teachers face the challenging task of connecting with students through the screen. The virtual environment loses a lot of personal interactions- good morning hugs are reduced to waves inside the confines of a zoom box. Congratulatory high fives after solving a problem correctly are now thumbs-up emojis hardly capturing the enthusiasm and excitement of a well-deserved celebration. Casual conversation during lunch is nonexistent – if it happens it is sterilized by gloves and distance. Group cheers and classroom singing is discouraged.
In the context of COVID, we’ve lost opportunities to stay connected. That’s why virtual learning environments need to foster connectivity. Not just to STEM content, but to one another. Let’s look at how CoderZ and platforms like it are fostering kids’ connections to coding and to each other.
When you walk into a classroom, do you greet your students? A greeting in a physical space is automatic, and sets the tone for the day. It is the initial “temperature check” between the teacher and student. Does the student seam down? Tired? Annoyed? Teachers gather a lot of information in the first interaction of the day, albeit no more than a three second interaction. This greeting can and must extend to the virtual environment. Before diving into a coding lesson, take the first few minutes to greet students by name. Use an icebreaker to get students talking, or simply ask how they are doing, or how their weekend was. Why does this matter? Students that feel seen and welcomed in the virtual environment are more likely to engage in discussion and ask for help when they need it. A reluctant sharer at first will warm up if the routine of a greeting is established every time the class meets.
This is especially important if students might feel intimidated by the content.
When you’re in the physical classroom, do you assign classroom jobs to students? Most of us do because we know that just about every student wants to be involved, even if archetypes portrayed in movies would tell you otherwise. Why would a virtual coding classroom be any different? In the virtual environment, it might seem as though a lot of the classroom tasks no longer exist, but the reality simply that the jobs have changed. One of the rules I try to follow is that the teacher does only the jobs that no one else can do. Ask a student to take attendance, for example. It’s a simple task but it immediately adds another voice to the classroom, which is important for setting expectations about engagement. When instruction starts, I might assign a coding task to take 10 minutes, I give a student the task of setting the classroom timer. And I don’t relegate only the simple tasks to students. A student that excels at a lesson, for instance, can be the student teacher for a portion (or all!) of the class. You will likely have students in your virtual classroom that are gifted with a specific coding skill. Name these students the expert of the skill, and whenever a peer runs into a problem with the skill, direct them to the expert! Designating jobs in coding class not only gives students ownership over a task, but encourages attendance. If a student knows she is in charge of an important task in class, she will be less likely to miss class, or at least will let you know why she couldn’t make it that day.
Add Stories and Personalities to Coding
As students learn to code, they are also enhancing their creative skills. When coding a robot, you will be surprised that students can relate to the very thing that they are designing. Ask students: “If your robot had a personality, what would it be like? Silly? Serious? Determined?” Students can also come up with a name and storyline for their coding creations. Better yet, students can come up with a storyline together while coding. As the teacher, let the creative process flow! Encourage students to engage in the creative writing process by scripting out a dialogue of characters that they are coding. Students can write out dialogue between their coded characters, or infuse their coding genius into comic strip creations. After students have given their characters personalities and a storyline, they can share out loud with one another. It’s not important if the story makes sense, or has a narrative arch. What’s important in this process is that as students are learning to code they can also connect with one another.
Stop and Reflect
When students are confined to a computer screen for hours during the day, it is important they are given time to reflect on their feelings, even during a coding lesson. Younger students might use images of different emoji faces to describe how they are feeling during the activity. At the end of a class, share the screen with 5-10 different emoji faces, complete with a variety of different emotions. Ask your students to describe which emoji face they relate to at the end of the lesson. On screen students can mimic the emoji they have chosen, or explain which face they relate to and why. Older students love the emoji faces too, but for some variety and vocabulary development, you can screen share 10 words that describe different emotions. Options should range from “excited” and “happy” to “disappointed” and “annoyed”. Giving students a variety of words to choose from (including the not so happy ones) shows students it’s ok to have different feelings and emotions when learning a new skill – you don’t always have to be a happy learner. Always give students the option to pass- they will share when they are ready, and often the students that pass at the beginning of the year have the most to share by the end.
As the teacher, it is important to validate all feelings and normalize them. Often, a student will verbalize feeling many different, and perhaps conflicting emotions. Maybe they are frustrated by a new coding skill that they have not yet mastered, but happy because their dog is home with them and also a little hungry. This is normal! Connect the emotions students are feeling if possible and narrate them. Respond “I hear that both Jacob and Kayla are frustrated by level 6. Andy and Lashawn are happy and enjoying learning how to program their robots to change direction.” Through narration, the teacher is validating the students feelings without passing judgment. Once this becomes a habit in the classroom, students will be eager to share. Start the practice of stopping and reflecting early and often. Remember, this is not time for you to talk, this is time for your students to talk! If you find yourself giving advice, you are missing the point. You can surely validate all feelings, but be careful not to add in much else. The point of this time is to provide a space where students have the (virtual) floor and you are the listener.
One of the harsh realities to online learning is that it has become an isolating experience for many. Although we see many faces on a screen, we experience the lessons in isolation. That’s one reason to encourage Shout Outs throughout a lesson and/or at the end. The Shout Outs are quick comments from students about other students. Not everyone has to participate, but it’s your job to ensure that everyone receives a shout out at some point. While this will come naturally to some students who might say something like, “That comment from Anna got me thinking,” it won’t come as naturally to others. So, you can call on a student to give a shout out, saying something like, “Owen, how about a shout out to Maya for her work today?” and then use wait time. Building quick statements of support between supports starts with building trust early and often, which then leads to building habits in students that foster connections to your classroom…and to each other.
Author – Lauren Mangione
Lauren is an experienced science teacher with a demonstrated history of working in the primary/secondary education industry. She is not only a teacher at the highly regarded Equity Project Charter School in New York, but Lauren is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Lehman College. Skilled in Secondary Education, Educational Technology, Educational Research, Middle School, and Curriculum Design, Lauren holds a Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) focused on Science Education from Teachers College of Columbia University.