Learning (or should we call it connecting?) Online in Troubled Times

Yes. Especially at this tumultuous (yet, for some lucky people, incredibly boring) point in time, we need to be talking about connection when it comes to learning. (When I say connect, I mean primarily as in human connection but also as in infrastructure.)

Connecting Online in Troubled Times.

There have been a whole new slew of online meeting and learning memes since we have started to work and school from home. Most of them refer to either inappropriate dress (or lack thereof altogether…) in meetings or the extreme boredom, exhaustion, and frustration of them. I could include a ton of pictures of actual online meeting fails…but they involve real people and my friend Avi reminded me how sad it is for them to be reminded of their fails all the time, so here’s a joke video that pretty much sums them up.

But we have a desire to connect, a desire to connect to some kind of normalcy in these very un-normal times so we try to be productive online. Meetings, classes, more meetings, more classes. If we just continue as usual, but online, then we can quasi pretend that we aren’t going through traumatic life shifts. That not only “everything will be alright“, but it is alright.

I hear from some parents, “If only teachers would teach online, that will solve things for me and my children!” I hear from our Ministry of Education (though the last I heard from them was quite a while back…), education consultants, and PD presenters, “Here are lists (and lists and lists and lists) of things you can do to make learning happen. To solve things for those parents asking for solutions.” And so teachers forward these lists to parents weekly but they say, “No! We don’t want lists of things to do, we want…online teaching! We want you to do your jobs in our homes!”

It is all very exhausting and overwhelming. I started tuning the lists out a few weeks ago. At this point there are soooooo many lists that whenever I do need an idea I can just Google what I need and I’ll be ok. But as more of my own learning and connecting experiences are taking place online (and I used to do a lot of online learning and connecting in my former job!) the exhaustion is returning.

For the most part, these experiences are presenter focused. That is, a very traditional lecture-based presentation….despite the possibilities that online learning has for connection, collaboration, and interaction.

Last year, I experimented with working in stations during online PD sessions and I find myself reflecting on those experiences now.

The magic of online stations (which are very doable with breakout rooms in Zoom or Via ‘ateliers’ and even manageable with multiple Meet rooms) is the same as the magic of classroom stations work: the relationship and connection that is created when working with small groups of learners.

At this point in history, after months (in some cases) of being apart, connection needs to be the driving force of online learning – whether for professional development or for student development. We can’t just throw content at our students or participants. We need to design opportunities for them to connect with us, with each other, and with the material.

Some of our students have suffered great loss with sick and dying relatives. Some of our students are alone at home with parents who work at home, yet are in another room for much of the day. Some of our students can’t meet with us online because they don’t have the tech to do so. Or they can’t meet with us because their parents work in essential services and they are at emergency daycare services. All of our students are grieving the loss of their friends, their lives, their fun, their experiences during this forced time at home. Many of them are scared of this loss and of this virus (and so are we.) We can’t ignore these very real facts.

Consider this when arranging to meet with your students or teachers online. How are they connecting with you and with their peers? Are you muting them all because it is just too noisy (and taking away their means to connect and express)? Or are you planning for small group work that they will do in separate meeting rooms so that they can talk with each other and the presenters and not be overwhelmed by 20+ learners talking at the same time? Are you making sure that you have time to connect with each of the small groups so they can ask questions or say things that they may not be brave enough to utter in a large group?

This works. I know because I have lived it a variety of levels. And if you can do this with teaching partners, it works even better because each of the small online breakout rooms can have a teacher to guide the conversations and check in with students. And the bonus is that we teachers get to support and connect with each other as well as we, in turn, support our students and their families in these very troubled times.

We are not teaching. We are connecting.

Caring for each other and being safe. It’s ok to take a break from school learning.

In Quebec, teachers have been told not to teach while the schools are closed for this initial 2-week period (it is hard to believe it has been less than a week that the schools have been closed!):

Teachers, as per the Minister of Education’s statements today, will not be providing work to students over the two week school closure period. As he stated, teachers will work with their students to catch-up when schools re-open.From this EMSB Director General update on March 13, 2020.

These directives will be updated as of March 27 but for now, this is how it stands.

Over the past few days, a number of people have asked me for suggestions regarding homeschooling their children. Some parents are angry that teachers aren’t immediately creating Google classrooms and skype lessons so they are asking – what should we do?

For a little while there, at the onset, I was sharing lists of free resources for learning at home but after about a day, I stopped.

Why did I stop? It was getting to be too much. There are SO MANY lists floating around that I realized – wait. It almost feels like education resource companies (educational technology, textbook, evaluations, etc…) are creating a false sense of panic. This escalated sharing of lists and resources of free (for now) resources started to remind me of people grabbing up as much toilet paper as they could.

So what have I been doing since then? My response is now always the same. Read. Read alone and read together.

Readers create thinkers but even more important reading together creates feelings of care and security. We need to build those feelings up right now.

Reading together can be an adult reading to children, children reading to adults or to each other, or everyone listening to stories together through their library’s audio books (Quebec’s library, the BANQ, has TONS of audio books in English and in French), Storyline Online, Boukili (en francais, for little ones), or from any of the many, many wonderful authors who have begun to read to us over the Internet.

If you are working from home, book (ha ha) reading time before or after work. And while you are working? It is more than ok if your children play. Play also helps to increase feelings of security and as an added bonus it is important in brain development.

Imagine for now if each of your child’s teachers sent home work to do. Now reflect on that scenario with multiple children. And now reflect on that scenario for people with no access to a computer at home for each of those children to work. And now imagine all of the screen time that this will entail. Here is one woman’s heart-felt response as she lives this reality. In fact, this is the video that inspired this article.

Being liked.

I am back in the classroom.

Writing that is akin to writing that I am back home. After a long hiatus that brought me through high school, adult ed, and teacher professional development I am back in an elementary school and it sure feels fine.

I am reminded of old posts I wrote on this blog about the role of relationship in teaching and I will definitely continue along that theme because without it, where is learning?

Specifically, I’m reminded of a post I wrote about something Michael Wesch said,as cited byStephen Downes,years ago. Get a cup of coffee, it’s a longish quote:

…her hairdresser said, “Love your audience and they’ll love you back.” Instead of focusing on self, she focused on the beauty of the audience and the whole event. And I allowed myself to do the same thing.

I never let that leave me. I would start with that. I would start with loving my students. And it’s striking how much my teaching has changed in five years, as a result of that. It’s basically about shifting from getting people to love you, to you loving them. It has four parts (Fromm, 1956):
– caring
– responsibility
– respect
– knowledge

It requires all four. For example, caring without the rest is like patronizing. Respect without the rest is idolizing. The four together are true long. And focusing on that, instead of focusing on your performance, opens you up to your audience. It makes the walls go away.

What I know about teaching & learning is that yes, learning is hard to get at it if the student doesn’t like their teacher.

But teaching is not about being liked. It is about loving our students. Within the context of whatever it is they are learning with us, but foremost it is about loving them.

Make Me Care

Andrew Stanton’s line, “The greatest story commandment is: Make me care.” stopped me in my tracks when I first heard it almost a year ago.

I was on my way to working with a couple of teachers in another area of Quebec and had a long drive ahead of me, so I plugged in my phone and listened to a podcast I had been saving for just such an opportunity – from NPRs TED Radio Hour, Framing the Story. Listen to it to hear what Andrew says about storytelling.


Grant Wiggins writes:

…a course must seem coherent and meaningful from the learner’s perspective. There must be a narrative, if you will; there must be a throughline; there must be engaging and stimulating inquiries and performances that provide direction, priorities, and incentives. (What is a course?)

This is true at any level, in any industry. Whether working with students or professionals – learning will happen, learning will be meaningful – when I care about the story you have to tell and can fold it into my own.


Make me care – say all learners to all teachers.

When they are skipping class, doing the minimum to pass, avoiding work, avoiding professional development opportunities – somehow we have not made our material something they care about. Sometimes it is beyond our control – other stories in their lives have prominence.

For me, I strive to make you care about what I have to teach.


The truth about stories are that that’s what we are ~ Thomas King


(Oh – and to my students – you don’t need to make me care. I already do.)

Why blog? (and it’s not about making learning fun.)

Blogging is not about making journaling fun for students.
It’s not about trying to find a reason for students to spell correctly.
It’s not even about connecting them to global others.

I can think of no more horrible an exercise than forcing all of the students in my class to create a blog for the sake of writing online what could be written in a journal. For the sake of trying to trick them into writing with the flashy, shiny technology as if they won’t know that really all they are doing is writing on a computer (I did it about 5 or 10 years ago, so I know of what I speak).

If blogging is a something (and I think it is) then it’s about having a passion to share. It’s about loving something so much you want to write, talk, show – create – about it. It’s about having a story to tell. It’s about having a voice.

Inherent in my job as a teacher is showing my students to their voice. For some, blogging could be a good vehicle for that trip.

The secret for me is to get them to that voice in a way that makes sense for them.