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Fostering student belonging during distance learning

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Frameworks for building equity in distance learning

Research shows attendance improves, and students engage more deeply with learning, when they feel like valued members of their school community. During disruptions caused by COVID-19, helping students feel a strong sense of belonging is especially important, according to Brandon Jones, senior dean of instruction at Compass Academy, a charter public middle school in Denver, and Nate Kerr, senior director of City Year’s School Design and Improvement division.

Compass is based on an educational model that integrates a bilingual and biliterate focus—about two-thirds of its students last year were English language learners—and prioritizes developing strong in-school relationships to help students’ build their academic, social and emotional skills, like teamwork and self-awareness.

Together with community stakeholders in Denver, City Year and Johns Hopkins School of Education launched Compass in 2015. City Year AmeriCorps members collaborate with teachers to support Compass students.

Jones and Kerr discuss below how Compass is adapting to a new school year when all of its students are distance learning. Answers have been edited for length.

City Year (CY): How is COVID-19 magnifying educational inequities?

Nate Kerr (NK): All of the challenges of growing up in poverty are exacerbated right now. Compass is a trauma-informed model and the focus is really on the emotional impacts that the challenges of growing up in poverty places on kids. Those are more pronounced now, so there’s more to combat in terms of just the amount that kids are dealing with on a daily basis.

Brandon Jones (BJ): Within a household of the students we serve, you might have a multi-generational family. You could have seven kids on Zoom classes in one apartment, because they’re all in different classes and schools. If they have a slow internet connection on their computer, they can’t even hear what’s going on. We’re a bi-literate, bilingual school. A big part of learning for multi-lingual students is being able to see someone’s mouth moving and hearing those words, interacting with things in the classroom, and kinesthetic learning.

CY: What is your teaching approach to distance learning?

BJ: Now that the dust has settled, there’s a lot more clarity. And things are not as different as everybody expected they would be. The approach we’re taking to everything is: how did we do it in person? And how are we going to do that same thing, or the closest thing to it, during distance learning? The last thing we want is to return to in-person learning or switch to hybrid learning, and have it feel like another brand new start to a school year

CY: How did Compass approach onboarding sixth graders for their first year of middle school?

Sixth graders at Compass usually would go through a multiday in-person orientation, called camp, with peers and teachers.

NK: It’s really important that sixth graders have a very strong community experience during their first interaction with the school. If you succeed in that, attendance goes up for the rest of their three years. It’s a very important thing to invest in, because it shapes how kids view their place in the school. Camp is all focused on belonging. It’s all about team builders and understanding the culture of the school. We’ve put a lot of effort into making sure students understand we’re still a community and they belong here, and it’s very important that they show up every day.

CY: You expanded the camp experience to include seventh and eighth grade this year. How else did camp change?

BJ: We adapted what we know works with kids in person. In person, we do physical challenges to get kids out of their comfort zone. Those activities create a sense of belonging, because it’s a safe place for students to fail. But if we can’t do those physical challenges, what can we do?

Before the pandemic, for example, we’d have all the sixth graders meet in the auditorium, and we’d challenge them to place a cookie on their forehead and get it into their mouth without using their hands, and without it falling off. And when the cookie does fall off, they see they’re in a space where they won’t be laughed at. Now, we’d do that same type of exercise, just via Zoom. We’d still debrief afterwards with students online in the same way we would debrief in person. We’d talk about comfort levels, and what we learned about ourselves through an activity. We’d talk about how we would ask for support through Zoom, in the same way we might ask for support in person. Students can advocate for themselves and feel comfortable asking for support.

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Read City Year’s free distance learning resources for teachers and parents designed to help them support students who are learning online.

CY: What do some more of those online exercises look like?

BJ: We’ve had success with an exercise in which a teacher designates one student to be the facilitator, who is the only person who is allowed to talk. The teacher shows the facilitator an object or a picture, and the facilitator then tells everyone else what to do on camera in order to recreate it. For example, one time the photo was the COVID-19 symbol—that image of a round cell with red spikes sticking out. The facilitator had the kids who appeared in the middle of his Zoom screen form a circle, and then he had everyone around the edges of his screen stretch their arms. Then the facilitator took a screenshot of his Zoom screen and shared it back out to the team. That activity creates an opportunity afterwards for the student to share about his experience of being the only person who could talk.

Another very popular activity is song of the week. The teacher finds an impactful song to share and analyzes it with the kids. Students connect with the lyrics and talk about them; through their analysis of the song they end up sharing aspects of their lives. The students also bring songs to the table. It’s a great way to be culturally relevant with our students.

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Read more about how Compass Academy is helping students to stay engaged in their learning during the pandemic by focusing on social-emotional skills.

CY: Why are predictable, regular activities like ‘song of the week’ important now?

NK: School should be a place where it feels good to show up and participate. And routine is incredibly important. The more you can create a routine for kids, the more they’re going to show up at school, and the more it’s going to drive attendance.

CY: How is tracking attendance different now?

NK: Attendance tracking has to be more complex and nuanced during distance learning, and we’re still perfecting that change to the system. You can’t just say that a student logged on at 8:00 a.m., and then check them off as present. Certain kids will drop offline in the afternoon, which is very different compared with in person learning—a student wouldn’t just walk out of school. It takes a ton of effort to pay close attention to that data, and think about interventions to support student engagement, and follow up with those students.

Also, there’s an overlap between attendance and engagement that teachers need to think about. If a student is logging on but not doing anything, is that really attending? A teacher should be there to say `I know you’ve logged on, but you’re not really here. What’s going on, and how can I support you?’

Looking for resources to help foster student belonging and engagement? Check out this City Year guide for educators designed to help students returning to school this fall.

Learn more

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