This was a week of online firsts- jumping into the deep end of our ‘online’ selves in ways familiar and new.  It leads us to a discussion about the virtues of students having a voice and choice in their online learning. experiences.

Debbie: I had my first tele-health conference.

It was kind of cool to be sitting in the comfort of home (in sweatpants) speaking with a doctor who was, probably, in his. The ease and convenience of this medical visit felt positive and pleasant–a silver lining to the shocks and anxieties being experienced globally in response to the pandemic we know is happening world-wide. After offering encouraging feedback about my efforts to stay and be healthy, he ended our conversation with how badly he feels now when he sees elderly patients struggling with the hardship of taking a senior van to his office and how he hopes this might bring a new way of doing health care that can be more personal and caring.

Making it personal and caring

We  had a number of  ‘conference calls with groups we might have met with in person in the pre-COVID-19 era. They shared the qualities of Debbie’s tele-health conference: personal and caring conversations that left us feeling encouraged and energized afterwards.

At a time when in-person contact is limited, online face to face conversation offers an essential kind of emotional sustenance.  In addition, the visual dimension of online video experiences with others opens up awareness of how we and our personal environments are perceived by others.  I  confessed to Michael that I tried to find the quickest and most efficient way  to make my ‘professional self’ look good enough as I braced for the swift change from having face-to-face meetings and presentations to being fully connected online.  Here’s what Michael shared with me about his efforts to reconnect with his students followed with what I am learning from others.

Michael: Before my first teleconferences with my students, I thought about what I could do.

I wanted to make the most reassuring and engaging visuals as I could in the frame of the monitor. I made sure to include some plants and a bookcase and, of course, the class pet (a Leopard Gecko named Cosmo, who lives in a glass terrarium.

I wore the professional clothes that my students are used to seeing me in. I shaved and cleaned my eyeglasses and put a cushion on my chair so that I could sit up with good posture. I tested what they would see by previewing the screen, as if I was looking at the monitor of my own home television studio.

Debbie: I attended a series of workshop style events that used Zoom.

Wanting to see how others teleconferenced, I observed that some tried to combine a short teacher-led presentation with small group break-out meetings. I noted that the bigger the groups, the more challenging it became to convey a sense of personal connection.  This became even more true when technical stumbles, frozen screens, lost connections, and intrusive  household noises and background voices disrupted  the conference-especially when people forgot to use the mute function.

With all of its this newness, clunkiness, and disorientation notwithstanding, we both found that when we stayed focused on our purpose, we were able to experience the same kinds of benefits that I experiencedduring that tele-health meeting.  We felt the real time live presence of one another by being able to read each other’s faces and  see each other’s body language.  Having this experience with others allowed me to feel connected and empowered to share our and common purpose.

Being Empowered 

Debbie:  My  nephew, like many school-aged children, returned to school this week

Or should we say, began attending a new school- an online one from home that is populated by the same teacher and classmates as his old.  What did his teacher do to make it special?  From what I  learned, his teacher is treating the shift from a public brick and mortar school where everyone gathers to an online school that fits into a laptop size screen.  His first week was, in fact, the beginning of a new school year–one where social identity and sense of self was being expressed in a new way, via images and voice, rather than in person. She asked each member of the class to share something special from home.  Debbie’s nephew shared his most beloved treasure, his dog, Bruin.  And, he spent the day so excited knowing that he would have this precious time to have that meaningful sharing of his own choice!

Supporting Self-Advocacy

The actual term self-advocacy is often used interchangeably with self-empowerment and empowerment by those who study sociology and education (Blankstein & Noguera, 2015; Noguera, 2015); social justice (e.g. Gorski & Pothini, 2018) students with disabilities (e.g., Roberts, Ju, & Zhang, 2014); students living in poverty (Budge & Parret, 2018); bilingual education (Baker, Wright, & Cook, 2017) and collaborative learning (Cohen & Lotan, 2014).

We believe that there are 3 types of self-advocacy.  These include self advocacy to express:

  • an idea– such as a student who suggests a new type of online activity or presentation.  
  • a need- for example, a student who confesses: “I really don’t get this, can you show me how you do that?”
  • a desire- such as, a student who expresses a desire to play an alternative role in an online class play.

While there are countless examples of self-advocacy, one sure method for engaging students in it is to give them a voice and choice in their own online learning by offering them opportunities to exercise a meaningful choice in their online learning experience.

Here are some suggestions for K-12 Online Learning

Grade LevelGrade LevelExamples
K-2Decide on welcoming online greetingStudents determine the type of welcoming greeting that will occur when they gather together online.
3-12Collaboratively create online learning spacesStudents express ideas, needs & desires for their classroom design  (e.g., online chat spaces, types of presentations, etc).
K-12Students express an idea-their own or someone else’s

Students engage in an online classroom council
Students use online messaging to communicate ideas to the teacher without interrupting the lesson.  

Online Classroom Councils are formed for students to collaboratively propose, test and modify solutions to problems as well as to express their own desires or someone else’s.

Whatever we try as we embark in a world upended by Covid-19, there is no doubt that what is needed is for our students to feel that they have some control over their lives and there is no better time for empowering them to do just that than right now.

For more ideas see our book: Teaching to Empower: Taking Action to Foster Student Agency, Self-Confidence and Collaboration from ASCD

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