Tending to the Garden

My dad was an avid gardener. Every spring, he’d be out in the back yard, shirtless with a shovel in hand, digging up a huge area to plant tomatoes, zucchini, peppers and a ton of other vegetables. And throughout the summer, I’d find him out in the yard, shirtless and tending to his plants. That’s what one of the things I remember the most about my father. He tended to the garden he’d plant. It is a good metaphor for the kind of man and father he was.

Despite my best efforts to channel my father’s spirit, I haven’t had much success with the gardens I’ve planted over the years. I always have good intentions but I usually lose focus or motivation. Then one day, I realize my tomatoes are overgrown with weeds and my peppers are dying from dehydration. Despite the expert modeling from my father, I’m not very good at tending to the garden.

But, I’m working on it. I’ve given up trying to grow a physical garden, but I’m using that mindset to guide my work with my online classes this semester.  I’m trying to be more mindful about tending to my online classroom and cultivating a “fertile soil” that can help my students grow and learn amidst some really challenging times for them and for me. To me, “tending to the garden” means that I’m explicitly and intentionally attending to their social and emotional needs. Here are some things I’ve been trying.

Icebreakers!
This semester, I’ve been starting every one of my synchronous classes with some sort of opening icebreaker question. The questions are not anything particularly cognitively taxing. Instead, they’re a way for me to work on making connections with my students. This week’s question was “What was your all-time favorite Halloween costume?” Some students replied through chat. Others shared their costume memories through voice and video. Ultimately how they participate doesn’t matter to me. I just want to take a few minutes to foster some relationship building. If you’re worried about coming up with good icebreaker questions, check out these icebreakers curated by Rob Walker. Definitely some awesome ideas there.

Show Up Early and Stay Late
Since the start of the semester, I’ve been opening up my Zoom rooms 15-20 minutes early. I’ll project a “Welcome!” slide and play music as students start to show up. Usually a handful of students will come early just to hang out. Sometimes, they’ll ask questions about upcoming assignments. Other times, we’ll just chat about the music that’s playing or how their other classes are going. At the end of class, I’ll stick around until the last student leaves to make sure I’m available for anyone who may have questions or concerns. I know it’s a simple strategy but I’m communicating to my students that building relationships is important to me.

Individual Meetings
Last week, my students were working on one of the major culminating projects in my class. To give them time to work on the projects, I decided to restructure our class time and focus more on one-on-one meetings with students. Using SignUpGenius, I required every student to schedule an independent meeting with me through Zoom. And every student scheduled meetings and showed up!  The really cool part was that some students who were reluctant to turn their cameras on during class were more comfortable about doing this in an one-on-one meeting. After nine weeks of the semester, I was finally to able to see everyone’s face!

Finding Joys
This is a mindfulness strategy that I’m using in one of my classes. In this class, the students are completing internships in area K-12 schools while also taking college classes. It’s a stressful semester that creates a lot of emotional challenges for students. To combat this, I’ve asked them to identify joys from their week. While there are lots of challenges we’re all experiencing right now, there are lots of joyful moments, too. We just have to remember to look for them.

Tickets out the Door
At the end of many of classes, I’ll use a Google Form to ask students a few reflective questions about the lesson. Usually they’ll be things like “What questions do you have?” or “What was the muddiest part of today’s lesson?” This semester, I’ve been adding questions like “How are you doing?” and “Do you need to chat?” This gives me the chance to check in with students and see if they’re okay.

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