5 Fun Ways to Connect with Students during Distance Learning

I think that we can all agree that this back-to-school season is fraught with far more anxiety than any in recent memory. Whether we’re starting back in-person, with a hybrid model, or like my district, completely online, we all have something in common: we all want to connect with our students in meaningful ways. Relationships matter!!

When schools across the country closed down in March, rather than Distance Learning, we all went into crisis teaching mode. Like the good teachers we are, we organized lessons and zoom meetings, we made sure our students had access to technology and food, and we did regular check-ins on student mental well-being. For some teachers, shifting to an online model was completely new, while others have been using blended learning and digital assignments for years. For some districts, grades and attendance were kept, and for others, like mine, they operated on a “hold harmless” policy.

Whether you were satisfied with Spring’s distance learning or not, though, one thing is for sure. We are living in a new reality amid a global pandemic and connecting with our new students (who are also living with stress, anxiety, and loneliness) needs to be our primary goal.

So, how do we do that? Here are five ways that I’ll be getting to know my students.

1. Shared One-pagers: Before we do any actual lessons, I need to know who these kids that I’ll be spending the next year with are. I usually do a ‘Back to School One Pager’ (it’s free on my TpT), but with the absence of paper-based assignments, it has to be digital. Yes, I know that they could create on paper and send a photo, but in my experience, the quality hasn’t been great, and I want this to be a shared, living document, that we can all look at and learn about each other. So, I created THIS Digital One-Pager template that I will share with my students via an editable Google Slides presentation. There is a sample slide with my information and three different templates that they can choose from. I’ll ask them to pick their choice of slide, copy it, and paste it into the presentation, where they can fill it in with information about themselves. This way, we’ll have a class yearbook, if you will, that we can continue to browse and get to know each other.

2. While We Were Gone BINGO: With the distance learning schedule my district is following, we’ll have three synchronous days (M, W, F) and two asynchronous days (T, Th). The first week or two, I plan to do nothing but introductory activities, and the first one is simple BINGO, I created a blank bingo card and a list of 45 common things that people did during Quarantine/Social-Distance Summer. You can find it HERE. The students will have time to fill in their cards, and then we’ll play. This will allow us to talk and make some connections; “You binge-watched Tiger King? Me, too!” or “You dyed your hair pink? I did, too!” Starting these connections early, even if they’re surface level, will increase the comfort level among my students, making collaborative work much easier in the future.

3. Classroom Tour: Every year when we’ve started school, I’ve given a class tour. Some years I’ve been in a really big classroom and the tour made sense. Other years, my classroom has been smaller, but I still wanted students to know where to find supplies, turn in work, etc. Obviously, I don’t have a physical classroom to share with my classes (yet), but I still plan to share our space. I will take them on a tour of our Schoology page, show them how to access assignments, where to turn in work, and how to set office hour appointments. But, I will also show them my home office where I’ll be working. I’ll let them see photos of my kids, dog, and husband, show them my bookshelves and let them peek at the art on my walls. While I would never ask them to do the same (too many issues including the embarrassment of their home/workspace, invasion of privacy, etc.), I feel that by giving them a glimpse of my world, they know I’m a real person. I have a family, love to read, and like inspirational quotes and art. When they know me, they’ll be more comfortable asking me for help when needed.

4. Individual Conference Time: One of my favorite teaching practices is conferencing with my students. While I do keep up conferences throughout the year, my most important conferences are at the start of school. In the conferences, I ask questions to get to know my students. I also discuss our plans for the year and ask where they anticipate needing a little extra help. From that, we set goals together. I talked about my conferences in THIS blog post if you want to take a look. Now, with school being online, I’m going to have to be a little more creative. Since we’re a Google District, I investigated ways to set appointments in Google Meet and found this. In the first few weeks, I will open slots for all of my students to have a five-minute conference with me. Is that a lot of work? Yes! Am I absolutely convinced it’s a must-do? Also yes! My past students have written me countless letters about our conferences and about how they felt heard, sometimes for the first time in a classroom. While that makes me sad, it also convinces me that this is a practice worth keeping. HERE’s a link to some digital conferencing trackers.

5. Daily Check-ins: I always share my daily agenda with students, and often it is accompanied by a question or poll that I want them to answer right away. With that in mind, I created a set of digital check-in slides that I will begin every online class meeting with. There are 125 slides, broken into three categories: This or That, Yep! Or Nope!, and Open-Ended Response. I will post a slide and allow the students to answer in multiple ways. Sometimes I will use Google Forms. Other times, I’ll use the poll feature in my LMS and have students answer the poll right away. I like to show the results, too, so we can have a quick chat. Padlet works well for open-ended responses, as long as the questions aren’t personal so that students can read other’s responses as they show up. Finally, a new-to-me free site is Answer Garden, which allows users to type a question for students to respond, making a word-image as the responses come in. I posted this in my TpT store HERE if you’re interested in checking it out. You’ll get the 125-slide presentation, an editable Google Form, plus a tutorial telling you how to edit the form, plus all 125 image files to place wherever you want them. The questions are funny, engaging, and will help to keep connecting with the kids who are entrusted to your care.

I said it before and I’ll say it again. Relationships matter, perhaps more than any subject we teach. I hope that you find some useful ideas here. Be sure to leave a comment; I’d love to hear how you’re using them and how you make connections with kids.

Take care and stay healthy!