How to Model Empathy and Inspire Learners During COVID-19
Q&A 20 May 2020
By Chris Gothorpe, The Met High School
I want [my students] to know this is hard for me, too, and that I miss being with them. I want to give them space to share anything on their minds because there’s no denying this is difficult.
Advisor, The Met High School
Q: What has this distance learning experience revealed to you about your learners?
Chris: One of the first things I did with my students was a show-and-tell around their houses or within the area they’ve chosen to work (e.g. their bedroom, kitchen, living room). During the show-and-tell, though I had been developing strong relationships with each of my students prior to distance learning, I discovered hobbies, interests, and personal collections each of my students had that never came up organically in our school setting.
Q: With the Met being so focused on meeting the needs and interests of each learner, what do you think may have prevented the young people in your advisory from bringing up those fun facts about themselves before now?
Chris: It could be unique to my advisory this year. While they are all juniors, they are also all transfer students. For any student in their first year at the Met, there is a trust-building period with adults and peers. And, as with any relationship, it takes time to get to know everyone on a deeper level.
We were only six months into getting to know one another as an advisory, so time was definitely a limiting factor. In those six months, we had many conversations about their interests, including what careers and internships they might want to explore. And, it is my job to find more ways to get to know them and to have them bring up about interests they have yet to share.
With distance learning, I’ve had to build out more ways for them to identify and share these interests, so the learning remains relevant to them. The show-and-tell activity was a great avenue to make that happen, not to mention the opportunity it gave to help alleviate some of the anxiety that is swirling around everyone during this moment.
Note: At the Met, advisories most commonly begin with a new cohort of freshmen, and the advisory, along with their advisor, stays together for four years until the class graduates.
Q: Given these learners had only been at the Met for six months prior to facilities closing, did it limit how smoothly your advisory was able to make this transition?
Chris: We had just enough time to get past the honeymoon phase of our group dynamic before we were all learning from our homes. Some of my students’ past traumas and reasons for them transferring to the Met were just coming to the surface—then all this happened.
We do what we can to continue building those relationships, which includes strong communication with parents and guardians, working together to maintain some sort of routine or structure.
In the early going, I did have a few students wanting to fall back on conventional expectations like requesting me to assign work; so they could simply take on what I assigned to them, rather than exploring what they might be interested in working on. I had to prompt them with some questions.
Although we don’t have internships right now, how might you still explore career-related skills or understand the field that you’re pursuing in some way? Then, how are you going to document your learning while doing that exploration? Are you going to create videos? Are you going to start a blog?
The ideas [my students] come up with are usually bigger and bolder than anything I would have come up with for them.
Advisor, The Met High School
Reminding them of the freedom they have to decide how to represent and chronicle what they’re doing and learning has been a hard adjustment. There are 15 students doing 15 different things, and I’m trying to give them multiple entry points for showing their work. There is no doubt this is more difficult to do remotely than in-person.
Overall, luckily, my advisory had enough time before the pandemic hit to find their voices. With that groundwork laid, they were more capable of communicating their needs to me. Rather than assuming something couldn’t be done, they would simply ask, “Hey, can I do this?”
They feel free to explain what they want to do and how they will show their learning. For the most part, I don’t have to provide much input and can simply say, “Yeah, perfect. Go forth.” They know the learning expectations they need to fulfill, and I simply confirm that their plan satisfies those expectations.
They’re advocating for themselves and when they do that, the work they produce is naturally of better quality because it is relevant to their interests. And, because it is relevant, the ideas they come up with are usually bigger and bolder than anything I would have come up with for them.
Q: With community in-person learning experiences unavailable at the moment, what are some of the creative solutions your learners have come up with to engage with their interests?
Chris: Some of our students have maintained communication with their mentors (i.e. their internship hosts) and seen directly how their mentors are adjusting and adapting to what’s going on.
For example, I have one student who is working with a fitness trainer, and her gym is currently closed, so she’s having to think about how she can provide online classes—something she has never done before. In all sorts of fields, our students are seeing how quickly these businesses need to become tech savvy to continue earning revenue.
We were also just starting a new trimester, so some of my students have used this moment as a fresh start. They’ve been taking advantage of online resources to explore different career fields, including watching pre-recorded interviews with people in various fields.
I want kids learning how to learn, learning how to think, and doing things that matter to them (not what I think matters to them).
Advisor, The Met High School
For students who are more hands-on builders and makers, they are watching YouTube tutorials on different things like painting, woodworking, and mechanics. My student interested in woodworking has a few tools at his house, so he’s been able to keep himself engaged by tackling different projects around his house.
The last story I’ll mention is about a student who loves wrestling. During this time, she’s enrolled in an online certification program to become a wrestling coach. She’s reading, taking online modules, and teaching herself all about what it takes to be a wrestling coach. And, it’s not just about the practice of wrestling. She’s also learning what it means to be a mandated reporter for youth, including understanding the ethical and legal nuances of being a youth mentor.
While taking that program, she’s also applying for several prestigious sports scholarships and pursuing other opportunities with the aid of her wrestling coach and me. She’s never been busier.
This moment has become an unexpected opportunity for her—when she would normally be practicing wrestling with her coach and team, she’s had to fill that void in new ways that still advance her toward her aspirations. She’s even been exploring how to get others—particularly females—interested and involved in wrestling. It’s been amazing to see.
Q: What skills do you have as a learner-centered educator that has made this a time where deep and engaging learning is still possible for the young people you serve?
Chris: Just before this conversation, I was in our morning advisory meeting and found myself being very transparent. I want to be as open and honest with them as possible. I want them to know this is hard for me, too, and that I miss being with them. I want to give them space to share anything on their minds because there’s no denying this is difficult.
If I’m having a rough day, I don’t hold that back. I hope modeling that it’s okay to say, “Yesterday was a tough day” or “I struggled getting out of bed this morning” will show them that not only is it a perfectly normal feeling but that they can share that with me and their peers.
I want them to continue seeing our advisory as a safe space, where they’re able to talk with everyone, and ask for help and support when they need it. And, to also share their successes and the things they’re enjoying right now. Being transparent is important.
Another important skill is flexibility, which becomes easier when we are transparent with one another. Letting my students know, “This is new to me. I’m going to make mistakes. You can make mistakes, too. We just need to adapt and learn from our mistakes, so we all get better. We’re all trying to get better each day.”
Last week, when I noticed our morning advisories were feeling flat, I brought it up to the group and requested solutions for how we might get out of our funk. We’d been doing the same routine for about a month and needed to get the energy back.
It’s no different than if we were in our physical learning environment: I’d say, “All right, wait, let’s take a time out. This isn’t working. What do we need to do instead of this?” Maintaining a culture of adjusting as necessary is important.
Q: For other educators who are curious about integrating learner-centered practices into their work, what might you recommend they focus on first?
Chris: I think a really important question to ask is: What qualifies as a good use of your kids’ time?
Even if you feel restricted by the content you have to cover, consider what options might be available for your students to document or show their learning—skits, songs, paintings, videos, writing, and other ideas are ways students can connect content to an activity that interests them.
Personally, I want kids learning how to learn, learning how to think, and doing things that matter to them (not what I think matters to them).
I always start with, “Okay, so you have this path you see for yourself. If you are aware of the things people who followed a similar path learned and the skills they’ve acquired to be successful on that path, how will you pick up that knowledge and those skills, too?”
If an educator in a conventional model starts from a similar place, they can connect the skills a student needs to the subject areas they might be limited to covering. It’s a more limited way to operate, but creativity can go a long way. Rather than starting with the material, start with those higher level questions.
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