Community Comes Closer

This article is part of a new series called “Distance Learning Highlights,” which features innovative and inspirational stories from our spring 2020 Distance Learning experience.

By Jillian Frediani, Sixth Grade Integrated Science Teacher at Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy 12. 

My strength as a teacher lies in the strong relationships I build with my sixth-grade students and colleagues at Alliance College-Ready Middle Academy 12 in South Park. Before Distance Learning (DL), I would greet each of my students by name and choose a different child daily for a more extended check-in. Collaboration with my fellow educators was simple. If I needed a lesson idea, I could walk next door to my science colleagues and discuss experiment options. Naturally, when we made the shift to DL, I was afraid of losing the connections we’d spent months developing. What I didn’t anticipate was how much these relationships would actually be strengthened through DL.

At the start of DL, I set a goal of connecting with each of my scholars weekly. Normally, I connect with 151 students in one day, so I assumed this was more than feasible. It was not. I struggled to reach all my students in a week. And I was still struggling after two weeks. Both my students and I had trouble adjusting to new technology and school-life balance in quarantine. It was heartbreaking to not hear from the students who would eat lunch with me every day––the Lunch Bunch––and those students who would open up to me after school. I didn’t think I would be able to handle DL without these moments of personal connection.

Fortunately, each of our 13,000 students in the Alliance network were provided access to internet-enabled devices, and more than 1,000 hotspots were distributed to scholars who didn’t have Wi-Fi at home. I decided to use this to my advantage by inviting my students to a daily lunch session via Zoom. I posted an invitation for my first lunch on Google Classroom for each of my science classes and figured I would at least see the eight students in the Lunch Bunch. To my surprise, a new Lunch Bunch formed with not just the original members, but a rotating group of 5-10 students eager to share their home, pets, families, and feelings with me.

During the final weeks of the school year, we ate our lunches together daily and discussed life during quarantine. Students started voluntarily asking me science questions about everything ranging from weather (our current unit) to dinosaurs, viruses, and astronomy. And best of all, students who didn’t often participate in class are now engaging with their fellow peers while in the comfort of their own homes.

After observing these transformations, I learned to treat DL as a new school year. The connection to my students is going to be different online in the midst of a pandemic, and that is okay. I have found that these new relationships are just as meaningful as the relationships I made in person, if not more so.

In addition, DL brought our staff closer together in several ways. We participated in weekly community circles with our grade-level educators based on the Valor Collegiate Academies’ Compass model, allowing staff to share their personal and professional challenges with DL. We socialized online, playing trivia games and swapping recipes. I’m learning more now about some of my colleagues than in the past three years teaching alongside them! And we are increasing collaboration with the 28 schools in the Alliance network through Google Classroom hubs for each subject so that teachers can share materials, lessons, and resources. I hope to continue utilizing this collaborative community once we return to teaching on campus.

Yes, DL has been very challenging, but there are benefits, as well, if you choose to see them.