In the midst of the chaos happening right now I feel very lucky. For one thing, my children are teenagers which means they are pretty independent and don’t need me to be right there with them all the time. I count my blessings daily that they aren’t toddlers or preschoolers anymore. Those of you with little ones at home, trying to keep them occupied and learning while you do your thing and while you navigate this new reality, you all are amazing.
I’m also feeling lucky because my district opted to not jump in with both feet to the distance learning pool. We’ve been out of our school buildings for two weeks and there are resources available to families and students, but teachers haven’t been required to immediately begin teaching remotely. We’re getting time to plan and some training to support us.
But I can’t stop thinking about my third graders. We’ve spent so much time building our community, working, learning, playing, and struggling together. Suddenly being done and physically apart is really hard. For some kids, it’s probably just fine. For others, this is a traumatic situation for many different reasons.
Keeping Our Community Strong
One more reason I feel lucky is that I had just managed to get all my kids using Google Classroom before schools closed. I’ve been posting fun links and videos of me reading picture books there. About a third of my students have posted there as well, either in response to my posts or posts of their own. They’re chatting with each other and with me in that space. While many of my links are connected to our academic work, there is nothing required and I’ve erred on the side of fun rather than rigorous. Our Google Classroom is a space for us to connect and to feel like a community again.
I’m also lucky to be teaching in a school at which all of my families speak English. (This is the first year that is true in 22 years of teaching.) They all have email addresses as well. So I have sent several emails out to everyone with reminders about our Google Classroom and with, I hope, parent-friendly explanations of our school district’s plans as well as some links they might find useful. I’ve also had one-on-one emails with multiple families. Between Google Classroom and emails, I know I have connected with about two-thirds of my students or their families.
What about that other third? Maybe they’re in our Google Classroom and just aren’t posting. Maybe their families are reading my emails and finding them useful. Maybe.
I don’t have any way of knowing and that matters to me. I want to be sure that every child in my class, and their families, have whatever support they need from me. For some that may be concerns about their IEPs or about academic challenges, including a need for enrichment. For others it is more about their social-emotional learning. For some families it is the adults who want the support from me as they navigate being home with their child(ren). Whatever it might be, I want to be sure they know where to go and that I’m doing what I can.
This week I walked to the post office and dropped postcards in the mail to all of my students. The first ones on my list were the ones I haven’t seen online yet. I’ve spoken with our librarian and reading teacher and given them names and addresses of kids so they can add to the mail for those that I think might need it. I’ve also been in contact with the special education teacher and other support teachers to coordinate reaching out to families. Honestly, I’d rather they hear offers of support from us too much, than not enough.
Hard to Reach Families
There will always be families who are hard to reach. Some may be feeling comfortable and confident with what they are doing and not feel the need to be in contact with me. Others may be hard to reach for reasons that mean they need more. Some families are juggling working with having kids at home all day. Some families will have folks who are sick. Some families don’t have strong, consistent access to technology and the internet. Some families don’t speak English well enough to navigate all the information coming from school districts and teachers.
My next step, for families with whom I haven’t had any reciprocal communication, will be to start making phone calls. Just a short call to let them know that I am still here, supporting their child and them in whatever ways they need. A short call to remind them of the various ways they can reach out to me. A short call to give them the opportunity to ask me any questions they might have. I’m not a teacher who has given out her cell phone number in years past. That is going out the window for me this year. I can control when I answer but I am not going to hold back on offering ways for families to reach me. A phone call may be the best option for some. So be it.
Texting will be another option I will offer families. In my experience, many families who are learning English prefer to text (if they have the technology and plan that make it possible) because it allows them time to work through what is written and compose what they need to say or ask. Talking on the phone in a new language is exceptionally challenging as you don’t even have any of the physical clues of body language and facial expressions to help understanding.
My students are young. This experience may not faze them but for at least some it will be disorienting and scary. The most important thing I can offer them, and their families, in this moment is support. What that support looks like will vary by child and I need to be flexible and understanding about their needs. I hope they will keep reading and writing and practicing the skills we have been learning, but mostly I hope they will come through this emotionally okay. I’ll do all I can to help make that happen.
Written by Jen Orr. Jen is a third-grade teacher at Fort Belvoir Elementary School in Fairfax County. You can follow her on Twitter @jenorr.