Credit: Elizabeth Mee
Elizabeth Mee's classroom at Alliance College Ready school in Los Angeles sits empty after the coronavirus school closures.

As Californians adjust to a restricted and socially distant life amid the coronavirus pandemic, each of us is forced to refocus on what is most important in our lives.

It is no different for Los Angeles educators, who are learning to navigate a new, virtual classroom in the second largest public school district in the United States. While the first inclination may be to return to “business as usual” (except conducted virtually through distance learning), we educators instead must consider the social-emotional needs of our students.

The most basic human needs — the feelings of love and belonging — must be met before a student can get back to the business of meaningful academic learning.

I worried about the emotional well-being of my students from the moment closures were announced at Alliance College-Ready Public Schools, a network of nonprofit public charter schools in Los Angeles. Our schools serve diverse, low-income communities across the county, and 85% of our students are the first in their family to attend college. Many of my students view their Alliance school as their second home — a nurturing environment with meals, safety, routine, mental health resources and caring adults.

I wanted to provide a space for me and my 106 students to continue to connect with one another, albeit virtually, so I created a shared Google Doc called “Class Journal.” The challenge for students was simple: document and share what was happening in their daily lives during this life-altering, generation-defining worldwide event. As an English teacher, I know firsthand that pushing students to write can be difficult, so I included some prompts to motivate them, such as sharing baby pictures or participating in a 30-day music challenge where they would answer a daily question about pop music.

Soon, the posts from students began flowing. Our document now consists of more than 40 pages of a collaborative space, where we can share how we are feeling and coping while isolated at home. Here are some excerpts:

“So yesterday I’ve come to the realization that I will not come (back) to school sane. I love my family but I’m not used to being at the house for so long with these same people constantly.”Sofia Z., March 16

“I’m scared. That’s the top thing. I live with my grandparents who are both over 70, and it (the coronavirus) mainly affects them. … I’m so scared to go out, and that I’ll catch it. … I don’t want to bring anything to harm my family. I recently read that here in LA we have 61 deaths. It’s crazy to think that the little corner I live in, and thought was safe, isn’t.” – Cheyenne G., March 16

“…I honestly feel like bad staying home alllll day and doing really nothing, but im bonding more w my mom again, we’re srsly like besties. I started cleaning for fun since i love to clean and I think I’m going crazy because I’m starting to talk to myself. Anyways, I’m going to do homework. I miss school.” – Ashley A., March 18

Seeing students support each other by sharing playlists, writing uplifting comments or directing each other to stores that still have eggs or milk, reinforced for me what was most important now in our radically changed classroom: To allow students to grapple with their emotions before tackling the English Language Arts curriculum.

I am further inspired by the innovative efforts of my colleagues across the Alliance network to connect with our students in ways that transcend the classroom. My school’s principal spends hours playing the fantasy game Dungeons & Dragons, with students online, one of whom uses that time as an escape from her anxiety about a loved one diagnosed with COVID-19.

Schools are participating in virtual spirit weeks, push-up challenges, positive video messages and college acceptance celebrations through social media. Many are using Zoom to continue enrichment programming and club activities such as art, music, PE, cooking and the Gay Straight Alliance. A group of teachers has pooled money typically used for potluck lunches on campus to create and deliver to families in need “love baskets” filled with disinfectant supplies, food and other essentials.

Our efforts to maintain a strong school culture have contributed to the network’s average daily attendance rate of 92% during distance learning. Attendance is measured through a survey completed by each student, which not only accounts for their presence in school but gauges their mental and physical well-being. Teachers reach out directly to students who fail to complete the survey, assess their situation and provide personalized support — including Wi-Fi hotspots and devices — as needed.

Instruction, of course, is key to achieving our ultimate goal of college completion, so developing quality digital teaching should be our priority.

Our need for connection in these isolating times, however, calls for a concentrated push to emphasize our shared humanity, if only through a screen.

I have no doubt that the love and connection my students have experienced from our “Class Journal” and through the efforts of my Alliance colleagues will be the foundation for academics as we continue with distance learning for the foreseeable future.

•••

Elizabeth Mee teaches 11th grade English and Advanced Placement English Language and Composition in Glassell Park at Alliance Leichtman Levine Family Foundation Environmental Science High School, a charter school in Los Angeles.

The opinions expressed in this commentary represent those of the author. EdSource is interested in hearing from teachers about how they are adapting to distance learning and rising to the challenges posed by the coronavirus crisis. If you would like to submit a commentary, please review our guidelines and contact us.

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  1. Sergio Narez 21 hours ago21 hours ago

    Your school is so lucky to have you! There is no instructional strategy nor restorative justice strategy on Earth more effective than that of making connections with our students!

  2. delphinea 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    We've been in lock down for over seven weeks and our school year will last till the end of June. I've been thinking about doing something like this for a few weeks now but have a few questions-- 1. Do you have all of your classes on the same doc? I've got far fewer students but their levels are quite diverse and they range in age from 14 to 18. (I'm at an international school … Read More

    We’ve been in lock down for over seven weeks and our school year will last till the end of June. I’ve been thinking about doing something like this for a few weeks now but have a few questions–

    1. Do you have all of your classes on the same doc? I’ve got far fewer students but their levels are quite diverse and they range in age from 14 to 18. (I’m at an international school in Europe, teaching English Language Arts. 1 of my classes is at an advanced US high school level. One of my groups, I’m still correcting basic tenses but they’re communicative. My third is somewhere in between but on the higher end.) I’m worried if I do individual groups, only a few kids will participate.

    2. Have you seen any issues with bullying? I was hired 2 weeks before the lock down so I didn’t get a good view of all the social relations. I have a sense of who’s friends with whom and the tensions but am just wondering if you’ve seen any issues.

    3. Do you think it would be awkward to start such a journal 7 weeks into quarantine? We might be going back to school in June (still a question mark though) so I don’t know if this would really make sense.

    Thanks and great idea!

    Replies

    • Elizabeth Mee 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Hi delphinea, 1. I teach two different courses, so I have two separate docs. I did this mostly for organizational reasons, but looking back, I wish I only had created one. However, all of my students are in the same grade level, so I am not sure how it will work with the range you have. I always like to assume positively though, so maybe try it out with one and see how the kids … Read More

      Hi delphinea,

      1. I teach two different courses, so I have two separate docs. I did this mostly for organizational reasons, but looking back, I wish I only had created one. However, all of my students are in the same grade level, so I am not sure how it will work with the range you have. I always like to assume positively though, so maybe try it out with one and see how the kids can help one another. You might just share some of your concerns in your first post and encourage your students to provide support to one another, keeping in mind the age and language variety in the group.

      2. I have not had any issues on the Class Journal. I think this stems from the relationships and culture I built in the classroom during the year before we left for Distance Learning. I did make it a point to check the journal frequently to ensure everything was running peacefully, and I would add comments to student posts so they knew I was “watching”. Google Docs also helps you to know who is typing what, so if an issue arose, it could be spoken about directly with the offending individual.

      3. Not sure about starting it at the end of the year. I wanted my students to stay connected to me and one another, so I’m not sure if there’s ever a bad time for that. But it may be a better strategy at the start of the year since we are so close to the end of the year at this point?

      I’m really curious to hear how it goes for you if you do try it out!

  3. Erin Belefski 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Your kindness is why our students thrive at Alliance; thank you for reminding us all that the human nature of teaching must shine during this time away from our students!!

    Replies

    • Elizabeth Mee 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

      Thank you, Erin!!

  4. el 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    I think this is really cool and I think the author's main thesis - that making that emotional connection, and creating safety is essential to learning - is right on. The one caveat I want to add is that I think it's important to recognize that not all students feel comfortable or safe sharing the kinds of details she is seeking. It's not just about not liking to write but being extraordinarily uncomfortable with writing about … Read More

    I think this is really cool and I think the author’s main thesis – that making that emotional connection, and creating safety is essential to learning – is right on.

    The one caveat I want to add is that I think it’s important to recognize that not all students feel comfortable or safe sharing the kinds of details she is seeking. It’s not just about not liking to write but being extraordinarily uncomfortable with writing about their own thoughts and feelings, most especially in a situation where that writing will be shared within the class. Obviously, students from abusive situations may feel this way, but I’ve seen it just among intensely private people, or people who once felt safe sharing and maybe had a teacher or fellow student abuse that trust.

    My student would rather write you a 10 page research paper about black holes than share a baby picture or write a paragraph about pop music (which they don’t listen to).

    One exercise that I saw that might create some connection without being quite so obligatory on the sharing was a collaborative story. The instructor wrote the first paragraph, setting up the fictional scenario, and each student would add another paragraph to the story. The end result was maybe not an example of great literature but it was delightful as the students riffed off each other and tugged the story into new and improbable directions that the next person had to somehow continue. It created community, it was funny, and it gave each student a lot of freedom to express themselves in a way that felt safe and interesting to them.

    Replies

    • Elizabeth Mee 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Hi el, Just a note: the Class Journal was not an assignment, so therefore was not "obligatory." It was optional and purely meant to offer a space for students who felt safe sharing. Interestingly, those students who I would not hear much from during the "normal" school year shared quite often in this format. And the more that students shared and encouraged one another, the more participation the Class Journal received. Their kindness to one … Read More

      Hi el,
      Just a note: the Class Journal was not an assignment, so therefore was not “obligatory.” It was optional and purely meant to offer a space for students who felt safe sharing. Interestingly, those students who I would not hear much from during the “normal” school year shared quite often in this format.

      And the more that students shared and encouraged one another, the more participation the Class Journal received. Their kindness to one another was really wonderful to see.

  5. Ramona "Monie" Garcia 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

    Elizabeth,

    Would you share the Google doc format you used to start your class journal with me? And anything else you think would be helpful during this distance learning time.

    Thank you.

    Replies

    • Elizabeth Mee 4 weeks ago4 weeks ago

      Hi Ramona, The Class Journal is just a Google Doc that I then shared with my students via Google Classroom. I put some "rules" in the header to help remind students to be respectful in the context and to prompt them to share. "RULES: 1. Do not post anything that would not normally be appropriate to share at school. 2. This is the place for us to continue to build our community - so share openly, respond … Read More

      Hi Ramona,

      The Class Journal is just a Google Doc that I then shared with my students via Google Classroom. I put some “rules” in the header to help remind students to be respectful in the context and to prompt them to share.

      “RULES:
      1. Do not post anything that would not normally be appropriate to share at school.
      2. This is the place for us to continue to build our community – so share openly, respond to others, visit often!
      3. Add a new post AT THE TOP (so the oldest material is at the bottom). This way, we won’t have to scroll down too much if this gets too long.
      4. Add your own writing to the document. Do not edit or delete others’ work. Add comments (and replies) if you’d like to start a conversation about what someone has posted.”

      Then, I posted my own entry, with my name and the date. I found that adding in little prompts (share a baby picture, what kind of pets do you have?) helped spur students who might not know what to share in a more open-ended format.

      I posted every few days and commented on student posts so they knew I was reading what they were writing, but I mostly encouraged them to interact with one another.

      And that’s it!