Planning for Online Connection and Collaboration with Primary-Grades Children

Michael Silverstone teaches at Wellan Montessori School, near Boston. With Dr. Debbie Zacarian, he co-wrote Teaching to Empower: Taking Action to Foster Student Agency, Self-Confidence, and Collaboration (ASCD). The following, by Michael, originally appeared on 3/20/2020 in Classroom Q&A with Larry Ferlazzo

Among the bigger surprises at the start of the COVID-19 era is how well-prepared we are to work off-site with each other and with administrators. In recent years, at my school, we have collectively created online calendars, collaborated on documents, and become increasingly more reliant on using online formats. Videoconferencing small-group planning meetings is the only new wrinkle. But, after a few of these, once the novelty falls away, there have been more times that we’re able to forget that we’re not in the same room. That’s the good news.

Teaching at a Montessori school with young children without being in person is a much bigger challenge, akin to trying to eat soup with one chopstick. The challenge is even greater due to how suddenly schools closed. At my school, we were given one day in-person to plan- a very short time to think about all that was looming ahead at full speed. We grabbed what we could from our classrooms and went home to learn new skills. Afterward, we were given one additional week to collaboratively make plans from home before we rolled these out to students.

“Teaching… without being in person is a much bigger challenge, akin to trying to eat soup with one chopstick”

In these very beginning stages, here are some guiding intentions and some discoveries I’ve observed in working with my team at the start of this online-learning era:

Keeping priorities in mind. Whatever we offer our students in this format can never be a replacement for school, which provides its greatest value from the face-to-face relationships children have with their peers and teachers as they learn in one another’s physical presence. At least for the spring of 2020, during an extraordinarily challenging time for everyone, the main goals include providing children with:

  • A sense of continuity in their school lives.
  • An ongoing connection with friends and teachers.
  • A sense of structure, routine, and predictability in a time of change for students and families.

Creating routines that are reassuring. Regularly scheduled and purposeful communication between school, students and families provides a kind of emotional grounding and reassurance that young people need. It’s beneficial for adults, too, of course, to know they aren’t alone in providing continuity for their children. And personally, it’s been a relief every time I find I have some work activity in my day besides doing personal hobbies and watching the news. These familiar teaching tasks are thoroughly absorbing and allow me a kind of calm and empowered mood that I’m grateful for.

Scheduling a Weekly Online Class Meeting: Our school community is offering participation in our online outreach as an opt-in activity meant to offer continuity in children’s lives. We are also offering to loan a computer to any student who needs one during this period of separation from school. Plus, we are planning to have one 20-minute video-conference call with all of our students. It will consist of a greeting, a sharing, an activity, and a closing. The intention of our video conferencing is for students to see their classmates and teachers to feel and be connected and supported by their school community. If this video tool were not available, we likely would provide a periodic mailing to achieve some of these goals.

Empowering students to develop learning goals: The initial plan at my school is to hold twice weekly 10-minute one-on-one video conferences with students to devise a series of work goals for the week. We expect that some of our students may have ambitious goals and others modest ones. We plan to adjust these as we go and provide options that will be sent electronically. The important thing, we believe, is for students to get the message that we: are there for them, think about them, and care about their learning and well-being. In whatever ways we can do that, our goal is to provide a sense of stability, guidance, and care. As educators, that has always been a guiding purpose and ever more so now.

Our goal is to provide a sense of stability, guidance and care

Michael Silverstone, Ed Week Teacher

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