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April 8, 2020

Elizabeth Eckenrode: Student well-being in the times of COVID-19

April 7, 2020

Elizabeth Eckenrode is a student in the Master of Arts in Educational Technology program and an English as an additional language instructor for 6th grade at an international school in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. This is her third year teaching internationally and has previously taught in South Korea and the United States. You can connect with Eckenrode on Twitter at @MsEckenrode and on Instagram at @ms.eckenrode.

Seven weeks of distance learning later — and I am exhausted. 

All schools in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam were closed mid-February shortly following school closures in China and Taiwan. 

My job involves supporting my co-teachers with in-class support and my focus is on making academic content more accessible to English language learners. My job description has shifted majorly since online learning began. 

I am usually a relatively organized person, but I now try to support my co-teachers by chasing after kids online to reteach, provide tech support or generally follow-up with kids if we haven’t heard from them. 

One thing I have done consistently is call my advisory group of 12 sixth-grade students every morning to check on how they are faring with online learning, their emotional well-being and fit into mini-lessons on all those additional soft skills that make a student successful. 

My kids learned quickly through my screencasts how to write a proper email, how to navigate Google Hangouts and how to use proper etiquette in a chatroom, amongst other things. The first week was exciting and new for everyone.

However, my 9:45 a.m. advisory calls began to evolve. There was a sudden shift into week 3 where I could quickly see how lonely the students had become. Some of them told me that their families asked them to stay inside all day. Others had no idea how to access reliable information and had created misconceptions based on whatever their parents had shared with them. 

Many of them were afraid to message classmates for help with classwork because they are teenagers fearing judgment from one another. They had been thrust into online learning — an entirely foreign concept to Vietnamese students and their parents. 

They were lonely. They were confused. They were frustrated.

I really had to take a step back and forget my woes about not diving into the curriculum as I had originally planned. What could I do to address the emotional needs of my students and take away their stress about school? What could I do for my students who were not allowed to go out and socialize with their friends? How could I be the emotional pillar that my students desperately needed?

My co-teachers and I made major changes to our academic check-ins. We shifted expectations from self-paced assignments to a schedule that closely resembled our normal letter day schedule. 

Students were expected to be on small-group calls with their teacher during “class.” Instead of homework, we got kids on video calls to screenshare new content with them and asked them to fill out an exit ticket at the end of each call. 

More work was being accomplished after we asked less of them. More thinking and reflecting began to happen when we were purposeful about the structure of our video calls. 

Many of us have now changed our 20-minute advisory calls so they are filled with games and fun activities. There are the usual “quiz” sites like Kahoot and Quizizz but some of my colleagues have taken it to the next level by playing bingo, having “backwards day” where everyone had to say their names backwards to each other and filling in sentences like “I’ve been SO bored that I ______.” 

As for myself? I like to take my kids by surprise. I’ve awarded house points for all students who can show me their pets on the screen — it was a BIG day when one kid showed me five piglets. 

I asked kids to meow like cats if someone shows up to the call late while I’m screensharing. I hold a “question of the day” before every call to get some discussion going: Netflix or YouTube? What would be your ultimate ice cream flavor? What TV show would you watch for the rest of your life if you had to?

When you begin to make the shift that less is more, and try to bring some more life into your call, online learning gets significantly better. 

The students are desperate for some normalcy during these times and there is nothing like some fun to bring them all back together. Allow for some time to catch up with them at the beginning of each call. Eventually, these little changes will start to lessen your stress, too. 

Our hearts are bleeding for all of the kids we can’t reach and for all of the kids who desperately need us. This is a challenging time for all stakeholders in education — it’s okay to go easy on ourselves right now. 

For the sake of yourself and your students, bring in a little extra fun and stay firm in the routine that you create for them. They welcome the consistency of each day and they are so glad to be with you.