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Un-muting Students' Virtual Voices: A Reflection on Distance Learning

Posted by Christy Hermann Thompson on Jun 10, 2020 8:09:06 AM

Below is a guest blog post from Christy Hermann Thompson, co-author with Kassia Omohundro Wedekind of the upcoming book, Hands Down Speak Out: Listening and Talking Across Literacy and Math.


Unmuting Students Virtual Voices (1)

Whether sitting by two kindergarteners sharing knee-to-knee, crouching down next to a book club or listening to an entire class circled around the carpet, my favorite classroom moments are listening to young students talk and grow ideas through conversation. On March 13 that came to an abrupt halt. Like many of us, I have spent the last couple months trying to figure out how to mesh the education world I know with the education world we are in now (and may be in for a while, in some shape or form). 

As a literacy coach at my school, I’ve taken on several roles during this time of distance learning, including teaching whole classes, small groups, and one-on-one lessons. Simultaneously, I’ve served as teacher-parent to my own pre-kindergartener and first grader (who have also been on the receiving end of virtual learning experiences from their own hard-working schools). My experiences on both sides of the lens have left me reflecting a lot about this world of virtual and distance learning for our PreK through second graders, and how we can, in the words of Kelsey Sorum at Two Writing Teachers, “do the most good, and do the least harm.” 

The Potential of Virtual Learning 

First, I’ve seen how virtual whole-class experiences can do wonders for childrens’ sense of belonging to a community. This value cannot be diminished. It was amazing to me how the second graders I worked with went from largely reporting that they were feeling “depressed,” “sad,” and “lonely” during our earliest phone calls after school was canceled to saying that they were feeling “funny,” “happy,” and “good” once we had started meeting online as a class. 

  • I’ve watched my daughters delight in seeing their friends and excitedly consider what bit of family news they will share with their classmates when it is their turn. (Spoiler—a lot of it has to do with food.) 
  • I’ve watched classes of kindergarteners jump and squeal with joy when I show up with one of our favorite familiar puppet friends to visit them. 
  • I’ve heard about the joyful noises my friend Katie Keier and her kindergarteners make together in their virtual drum circles. 
  • Second graders at our school show up voluntarily for “lunch bunch,” sometimes coordinating ahead of time with their teacher and friends what foods they could all eat “together.” 

Anecdotal evidence indicates there is measurable value in offering opportunities to virtually gather as a whole class with a focus on fostering a sense of belonging. (Note: I emphasize the word “offer,” because no young child should be compelled to join an online learning session during this crisis or penalized if they do not wish to participate. My preschooler has let me know several times that she is all done with the conversation, and we’ve simply left a class with a wave. This is not a natural human mode of interaction, and should be optional.)

The Challenges of Virtual Learning

When it comes to academics, however, I have to really take a pause and consider whether a whole-class virtual lesson is the best format for this age. I firmly believe in the role that student conversation plays in engagement, agency, and constructing knowledge and understanding. I also know that giving our students the space to express their varied perspectives, experiences, and unique opinions is a critical first step towards building and/or maintaining a community that honors all children. When students can’t even hear each other's voices, we cannot hope to begin to do the important work of understanding each other's stories.

With sixteen or twenty or twenty-five young students in a virtual classroom, we almost always have to ask them to turn their mics off. Or we have to literally remove their voices by muting them ourselves. There is simply too much background noise in all the different houses for them to be able to hear any single person speak when all the mics are on. This logistical issue increases the chances that a lot of teaching we do in this format will fall into the “IRE” pattern (teacher initiates, student responds, teacher evaluates), which so many teachers have worked to move away from in their classrooms. In addition, when the teacher plays gate-keeper to the conversation, she chooses who speaks, what topics are discussed, and what viewpoints are valued. These decisions are never neutral, and because the majority of elementary school teachers are white women, these decisions come with a set of biases that privilege white children over students of color. 

Remember the “do no harm” mantra I mentioned before? We need to deeply consider these issues as we push forward with distance learning for young children. Yes, there are ways to get students interacting virtually without having to turn on all their mics—there are clever apps, platforms, and interactive slide templates. These tools are awesome, and thank goodness for these wonderful innovations and the people out there who are teaching us how to use them. They help increase engagement and give teachers some feedback on what students are thinking, particularly with older students, who have the technological dexterity and literacy to navigate them. But I come back to the belief that authentic out-loud TALK is a crucial component of learning for all students, and for our youngest students it is a non-negotiable tool for learning. We should not be willing to put that to the side, even in this temporary situation. 

Making the Most of Virtual Learning

So how do we keep student talk alive in this virtual environment? It seems to me that we can best do this by using a small-group session format for academic instruction. When there are less than seven or so young children gathered, we get to the point where those “mute” buttons might be released. Closer to four or five children, and our faces might be large enough on the screen to read facial expressions. Depending on the platform we are using, we might even be able to see all the students on the screen at the same time. Then student conversation can start to flow naturally, and no longer has to pass through the teacher-as-gatekeeper. Students can begin to “own” the talk again. What does that sound like? I am sure many of you have your own beautiful moments to share. Here are a few of my own examples:

  • A few weeks ago, I watched my first-grade daughter engage in a small-group math lesson where the teacher asked students to work out a problem, and then the students talked, sharing their strategies for solving the problem with each other while the teacher recorded their strategies on a virtual whiteboard. A simple but powerful moment, this carried over to the next day when my daughter was solving a different problem with me and said, “I’m just going to write down here how I got that, okay?” (Umm. Yes! This was huge. Evidence of transfer of learning taken on in a virtual environment.)
  • Last week I signed on for my one-on-one reading lesson with a student who had recently received a bag of donated books. I had a digital guided reading text ready to pull up and share with her for our lesson, but then she waved one of her new-to-her books in front of the camera, saying, “Look at this one! Today I’m going to read you Peppa the Pig’s Ballet Lesson.” (“By all means!” I thought. Reading engagement, student agency, and natural conversation!)
  • A few days ago, I hosted two second-grade writers in a virtual small-group writing workshop. I watched as they bounced back and forth between working with their heads down and holding up their writing, talking about the superhero characters they were creating and revising as they went. 

“Hey, look at this, how I drew my guy. Do you see he got bit by the Killer Wolf?”  

“Yeah, What powers does yours have? Does yours have super speed?”

“Oh, yeah, umm… he can...I think mine can just say a word and he can go right to that place. Like Honduras, El Salvador, Virginia, you know, anywhere.”

“Woah, cool.”

These moments have given me hope because they mirror the kinds of student-led learning and student-led talk that I am used to and love. The kind of talk-rich environment that does not require the teacher to initiate, evaluate or dominate. As we look towards a fall and/or winter when some distance learning will possibly probably remain, I want to take these memories and reflections with me. I also would like us to think collectively, as educators, about how we are scheduling our digital learning for the youngest students. Designing a model where most (or all) academic learning takes place with a very small number of children at a time may be the best way to bring our student voices back to the way they need to be—ON.


About the Author

Christy picChristy Thompson is a Literacy Coach in Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia. She has spent her teaching and coaching career particularly focused on listening to and learning from the talk of our youngest students. Keep an eye out for Hands Down, Speak Out, coming later this year. You can follow Christy on Twitter @TeacherThomp.