Great Public Schools

Power of Personal Connections

By Melissa Stolasz

Math and Science Teacher, Ridgeview High School, Redmond Education Association

Melissa Stolasz is the 2021 High Desert ESD Teacher of the Year Finalist and is eligible for the 2021 Oregon Teacher of the Year award.

What has worked for me so far in distance learning is to be very organized, sequential, and present the work for the week in a few different ways so that the content works for all learners and families. Every math teacher knows, you can’t teach the concepts once. You teach it once, then you teach it in a different way, then you have a student teach it a third way, and then you sit down with students and work the concept out on paper. This is much more difficult now.

One tool I’ve used with a lot of success is Explain Everything, which is a free interactive white board app. I am live on Explain Everything everyday between 4-5 p.m. Students and I can’t see each other but we can hear each other and can work on the same whiteboard together. It’s kind of like sitting right next to them and working out problems on a piece of paper. In math, it is more important that we see the paper together than see each other.

I have several students now coming to the office hours regularly but there are also students who ask questions in class but aren’t coming to those office hours. We all have students that struggle to ask for help and, in the classroom, I can approach that student and help them even when they don’t ask the questions they have. Now, for these students, I am reaching out to them personally to encourage them to come to office hours. Once I get them to come the first time to those office hours, they are hooked and are getting the support they need.

The biggest thing I’m missing right now is the personal contact and relationships with students. I miss laughing with my students. I miss them laughing at me. I miss those profound moments when we hit our stride in class and everything clicks.

I’m also finding time to make personal connections with every student. I’m able to find this time because I teach three sections of astronomy but am only building one set of content. I use the extra time to send a personal email every other week to each student. I tell them that this distance learning thing is TOUGH but I am so proud of them. If students are behind, I tell them that what they have done so far is great and outline what they need to do to get back on track. If the students haven’t been engaging, I encourage them and let them know that it is not too late. Some students just don’t know where to get started and need to take the first step. If I can walk them through Google Classroom step by step, then they feel more prepared to accomplish the work.

This personal email campaign gets a bigger response from students than anything else I do. Nothing gets students to come back to the table like a personal email or a personal phone call. Even the students that are caught up write back just to say thanks and that distance learning is hard and the encouragement helps. I know it seems like a lot of work, but it means so much to the students.

One piece of advice is knowing when to let go of something that isn’t working. Earlier in distance learning, I was trying to get students to engage with Flipgrid, but students were telling me that they didn’t like this format and it was a barrier to learning. So I dropped it! The older I get, the less time I spend on something if it isn’t working.

We went into distance learning with no glide path and no runway and trying to build the parachute while we jumped out of the plane. All we can do with students right now is to pull out all the stops and try everything. We may try 10 things and only one or two will work. That’s OK! We can’t be afraid to let go of the things that aren’t working with our students so we can spend more time on what is working.

I use the extra time to send a personal email every other week to each student. I tell them that this distance learning thing is TOUGH but I am so proud of them.

Tools to Share

One way I use Explain Everything to record me explaining problems and practice work. This is better than just posting the answer key to problems because I use the whiteboard to go through the problems, explain the concepts, model mathematical thinking, and show students the steps. Here's a video in which I walk students through a problem.