As millions of educators and students around the world shifted to distance learning over the past few weeks, all sorts of incredible virtual tools have popped up. Companies have generously offered free accounts and product trials to teachers, and I’ve already familiarized myself with a few that I plan on using next year: Screencastify, Flipgrid, Esri StoryMaps, and Doodly. I am sure this list will grow.
The plethora of tools and services are useless, however, if we are unable to locate and communicate with students. Once again, like most challenges related to our social infrastructure, the problem of broken channels of communication disproportionately affects those who are already disadvantaged.
I read a local news story the other day about how the pandemic is revealing just how many households in Southern California lack internet access. I am sure this trend can be extrapolated to communities nationwide. We can huddle all we want as school leaders, and devise and roll out new learning plans, but what is our sustainable strategy as a community of changemakers to address the larger systemic problems of access that our students face? In the absence of communication, the human relationships we have forged with young people no longer exist. We no longer exist.
I am fortunate enough to work at a “one-to-one” school where devices are available for every student. We closed so abruptly that we didn’t get an accurate headcount of how many students needed to take a laptop home, and we are now remedying this through a drive-thru device check-out program. I also feel fortunate because, at the beginning of the year, one of our administrators tasked us with teaching our homeroom students how to set up and regularly check their district-assigned email accounts. She incentivized the program by periodically emailing random students offering them prizes. If they checked the message, they would know a bag of hot Cheetos or some trinket was waiting for them in the office. It seemed silly at the time, but this small initiative has hugely impacted what we have been able to accomplish during this crisis so far. It has saved the efficacy our school community.
Slowly, my students have emerged from the thicket to write me emails, usually in small caps and all typed into the subject line. My email address pops up for them and I suddenly exist again. This lifeline of basic training has enabled our team of teachers to populate digital classrooms and have substantial conversations with students. Many of them have lost cell phone access during this financially difficult time, but they have managed to hop online through free internet that some local providers are offering. Again, tremendous gifts that would fall flat if we hadn’t trained our students on the simple acts of logging in, and checking and composing messages.
Sometimes we tend to overcomplicate things at the school level. Perhaps we do this as a society in general. But so much of success requires sticking to the basics, especially when we are in survival mode. If our current situation is inspiring you to make an impact, I have an idea – sit down with a young person you know and help them setup an email account. Exchange addresses and let them write to you. Respond, and use it as a chance to model basic communication and composition skills. Be explicit about the importance of this mode of communication, and explain small features you take for granted, like how to copy someone on a message or share a homework attachment. Don’t assume that they know, or that you have nothing to teach them. Start a conversation, and keep it going. The skill and especially your outreach during a time when they may be feeling small will remain entrenched in their mind forever.
Solving systemic social problems related to digital access and literacy requires sweeping measures that are very possible, but that also take time. While we work on those and wait, rapid transformative change is still possible through widespread individual initiative. Or put simply, small acts done by each of us every day.