How Online Students Connect and Collaborate
This is my ninth year as an online teacher. Every year I am pleasantly surprised by the students at my school and how close I become with each of them. You might not expect that would be the case in a virtual environment. However, due to all the ways we get to collaborate and communicate, the relationships are authentic and even stronger. My students are not just individuals I see once during class. They are fascinating individuals who I get to connect with thanks to Class Connect (our virtual classroom), e-mails, and phone calls.
Some students enroll at my school due to crippling anxiety or never-ending bullying. My school, Insight School of Washington, offers these students a chance to heal and thrive while earning their high school education. If they don’t feel comfortable asking questions in front of their peers, they can ask them privately thanks to the many modes of communication available to them. Some students even surprise themselves as they reach out and connect with their peers—developing new, trustworthy friendships. I have one group of students from my first year teaching who still talk to each other. Two of them even got married to each other!
One of my favorite student stories from this past school year is about a very talented, passionate, young woman who was enrolled in my year-long creative writing course. The student struggled with many learning challenges; however, she had immense strengths. She shines in her story-telling abilities. She has a knack with words, knowing how to utilize each one to make her story glow.
At the start of the school year, I was unaware of her struggles or strengths. She had trouble getting started with the first unit in the class as it was about self-writing—memoirs. After talking with her mom and her, we decided it would be best to skip to the next unit—fiction writing. I wanted her to experience success and find her stride.
When this student submitted her first project to me, I was blown away. She submitted the beginning to a fantasy novel that I could easily envision being published and on the shelves of a bookstore. I wrote lengthy feedback for her. I told her that she was talented. Later that day, her mother sent me an e-mail thanking me for the feedback. She said her daughter had been smiling all day because of it. In this e-mail, the mother shared that this story was one that her daughter works on all the time but has never shared with anyone—including her family!
Over the school year, I noticed this student slowly opening up to me more and more. At first, she would only send e-mails to communicate her progress or ask questions about assignments. Then, as she felt more comfortable, she would meet me in Class Connects to type her questions. The communication eventually graduated to her being willing to talk with me on the phone. She let me push her on writing outside of her comfort zone. I’m grateful that she kept working on her novel and let me read new chapters as she completed them.
At my school, we have graduation and prom on the same day in June. While chaperoning the prom, an adult whom I didn’t know came up to me and asked, “Are you Andrea?” As I nodded, she smiled and grabbed my hand. “There is someone who wants to meet you!” I followed; not really sure whom I would meet, but still excited. (Oddly enough, this sort of thing happens frequently at school events.)
The mother took me to her daughter, introducing her. It was the young lady who I had been working closely with all year long! I was so happy that I immediately asked if I could hug her. I then couldn’t resist gushing and singing praises about her and all the hard work she accomplished this school year. I wanted her to hear the pride in my voice, to take to heart that I see how talented and amazing she is. I wanted her, despite what life throws at her later, to know that she matters and she is extraordinary. Then I looked behind me, to where her parents were, and I saw the pride in their eyes, too.
The beauty of online learning is that we as teachers get to work individually with students, helping them advance academically, emotionally, and socially. You might wonder if students could grow emotionally and socially in an online environment, but they can and they do. They open up their hearts to their teachers, less scared to ask for help and guidance. They form deeper friendships with their peers. We, as teachers, are fortunate to have such wondrous and brave students.