A recent survey asked students what would be most helpful to their learning during the pandemic. Nearly two-thirds agreed that more interaction with teachers would make a difference. After 20 years in the classroom, I can attest that student interaction is not only the most joyful part of my job, it is also deeply important for fostering student success. The connections teachers build with students are crucial to student learning, and during the pandemic, they can be a lifeline.
This has been a tremendously difficult year for our students and their families—from the toll of the pandemic to the devastating wildfires. Managing the well-being and mental health of students is a top priority for teachers, but staring at boxes on a screen instead of interacting with students face-to-face gives us far less information about how each student is actually doing.
The urgent task of making sure kids feel safe in our virtual classrooms is key to their engagement and achievement, and creative technologies are emerging to help these connections happen virtually. While I often text and email my students, technologies like ClassDojo also help teachers and students maintain contact. Another tool I’ve started using is a free, interactive video journal called Along. It has helped me build relationships with my students and understand how best to support them during this challenging year.
My students and I love that video journals are not social media. In other words, a student’s journal stays between us, and this sense of privacy allows them to share their experiences more freely. I’m careful not to use this space for “business” or schoolwork. Instead, it’s an opportunity for students to take the lead, reflect on aspects of their lives, and develop their social-emotional skills. Journaling allows students to open up and be vulnerable in a virtual space, which has already translated to increased engagement during class time.
What I learn through these video journals informs my practice and approach to supporting students. For example, if one of my students shares about the important role a grandparent plays in their life, I know exactly who I can turn to if the student ever needs some extra support. For many of my students, these video journals have been a safe space where they can express themselves without judgement, and I can respond with encouragement.
Of course, students aren’t the only ones feeling especially vulnerable this year. When I use video journaling, I’m often grateful for the extra few moments I get to thoughtfully respond. For example, if I don’t like my answer because it has too many “umms,” I can re-record before sending it. Meanwhile, if the background noise of my family at home interrupts the video, I can choose to keep rolling to show my students we are all dealing with challenges in a remote setting. Video journaling reminds us that we’re in this together.
When the school year began, one of my greatest concerns was figuring out how to make genuine connections with students. Video journaling has brought back what I missed most from teaching in-person—the engagement, the laughter, the powerful ideas—in a new way that opens up possibilities for connection and growth.
Dr. Kimi Schmidt
K-12 Science Education Coach
Calaveras Hills High School, Milpitas, CA