When it comes to digital skills, let’s meet students where they are.

by | 11.18.20

Emily is an ELA teacher in New York City.

If you’re interested in clicking through the “Launching the School Year” resources Emily references below, you can check them out on newvisions.org!

During remote learning, digital communication skills are absolutely essential to everything we do – and my team discovered right away that our students needed a lot of support. My sixth graders struggle to attach a document to a Google Classroom assignment. They haven’t yet mastered using the comment feature on Google Docs. 

When I think about offering supports that will make a difference for my students, I try to start from where students are, even though it means taking things very slowly. My priority right now is guiding them through small, chunkable skills.

My team has really leaned on the Digital Skills Notebook from NVPS, part of their collection of resources for teaching during this especially challenging school year. The notebook includes lessons and supports on six topics: email, Google Classroom, Google Docs, Google Slides, Zoom breakout rooms, Google Calendar and peer collaboration. It also offers a “Unit Zero” resource with lessons on foundational skills and digital citizenship. 

One of my focus areas has been students’ email skills. At the beginning of the year, students would send me an email with the entire message in all caps or the entire message in the subject line. While I’m not expecting some extreme formality from sixth grade students, I do want to make sure they have the skills to communicate clearly with adults over email.

I used an email activity from “Unit Zero” featuring Batman and Superman to create an asynchronous lesson on email etiquette. The lesson starts by covering basic email etiquette, like using a short and clear subject line, a greeting and a closing. It then shows students two sample emails – an email from Batman to Superman and Superman’s reply – and asks students to compare the two emails. (Only one of the sample emails follows the etiquette presented in the lesson.) I asked students to follow this up by writing an email to me describing their dream job. 

I gave a ton of feedback on every single email that came to me, and that definitely moved the needle. Today, one of my students sent me an email that said, “Dear Ms. Wiley, I hope you are feeling good. I can’t get into the Zoom session because of the advisory today. Sincerely,” and then her name. It was fantastic. I’ve never met this student in person, and she’s been struggling with all the disruption this school year. Because she does not turn her camera on, I don’t know what she looks like. But I can look back at how drastically her emails have improved, and I can see that, even under these circumstances, we’re getting somewhere. 

There is an urgency to teaching digital skills that feels unique to this moment – and, as challenging as this time is for all of us, there is something special about that urgency. All hands are completely on deck to make sure students can log onto Zoom and send emails to communicate. This intense focus on digital skills is making it possible for me to reach out and support kids who “disappeared” early in the pandemic. 

In the classroom, you might see a student who doesn’t turn in her homework and sits quietly, and it might take a little while to identify what the problem is– or to even start trying to figure it out. Right now, we have such little time with our students – so few interactions available to us – that the time we do have counts a lot. The overarching mantra in my head is: Take care of the kids, take care of the kids, take care of the kids – in any way, over anything else. We’re not letting anyone disappear under the wave this year. The interactions I am having with my students this year feel really meaningful, and I’m going to make sure I’m connected with every single one. 

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