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Building Strengths and Community When Classes Go Online

by Ross Middleton

This fall, many students and their families may be wondering how the academic and social aspects of school will translate to an online environment. Instructor Nishat Ali discovered some surprising benefits of a virtual classroom this year, when she taught two CTD Summer Program classes online. In adapting her courses for remote learning, Ali watched her students as they found ways to cultivate their interests, express their talents, and build stronger connections with peers as well as parents. “It was like a village. It was a community,” she says in a recent interview with CTD.

To create a challenging, collaborative online learning environment for her CTD Summer Program classes, Ali drew on her recent experiences teaching at The Ogden International School of Chicago. At the onset of the pandemic this spring, she found herself troubleshooting and strategizing to quickly move her year-round curriculum to an online format. “With remote learning, you have to have a lot more preparation,” Ali explains. She learned that students generally need more frequent breaks when learning online, as well as time to adjust to interacting with their classmates less than they would in a physical classroom. Ali was also mindful of information delivery: she sent students links to readings in lieu of printouts, and streamlined lesson plans so students wouldn’t miss out on “crucial content.”

Though her year-round classroom requires a different kind of planning than CTD, applying many of these practices to her Summer Program courses resulted in success for Ali and her students. “The program at CTD this summer has made me so much stronger as a teacher,” she shares. In addition to teaching Math, Puzzles & Games for the Solstice program, Ali developed the Global Leadership Intensive for grades 4–6, which provides students with a weeklong course on global issues, such as recycling and climate change. “I felt every child should take this course,” she says of the new Global Leadership Intensive, noting that it gave her students an opportunity to use their voices and develop confidence. “It builds their self-esteem and tells them ‘you, as one person, can make a difference.’”

By studying these topics in depth, Ali’s students found ways to nurture their gifts among like-minded peers. “What’s brilliant and different about CTD is that it’s so focused,” Ali offers; a CTD teacher and students spend hours exploring a single topic from many angles, whereas during the academic year, students spend limited time each day on a range of subjects. “It actually ended up being incredible, because I felt that I was so much more intentional as a teacher, that the kids were having fun,” she shares. Her Summer Program students adapted to online learning by “feeding off each other’s energy,” and Ali notes the importance of maintaining attention levels in a nontraditional environment. Her students favored interactive games (such as Kahoot) as one way to get to know each other, stay engaged, and have fun while learning remotely.

Online classes afforded Ali’s students more opportunities for self-directed learning, as well as ways to build their communication skills. To encourage a thoughtful expression of ideas, Ali

recommends student presentations at the end of a session or semester. Live presentations can give students an opportunity to rehearse for public speaking, and pre-recorded presentations filmed at home can involve the whole family. For curious parents, online education can provide greater insight into what their children are learning, in addition to information about their academic interests and skills. By observing presentations, parents can also learn about their children’s gifts in relation to classmates, providing context for a student’s particular strengths.

As the fall semester begins, Ali offers suggestions for instructors and students acclimating to online learning. She urges teachers to “focus on building community” by utilizing online breakout groups in Google Classroom or a similar service. This lets students learn in smaller cohorts, while still allowing teachers to monitor their progress. She encourages students to “fall in love with reading” while learning remotely, and she emphasizes the importance of creation during the pandemic. “Whatever you’re learning, create,” Ali says, noting some of the many ways students can build knowledge through inventions, dynamic presentations, or other means of expression. By seeing themselves as creators, students can better appreciate the “value of their voices,” while also building community with family as well as peers. “This is your chance to bring forth that independent mind,” Ali says, highlighting the potential for change and discovery in a digital space, and adding “you can put out into the world whatever you want.”

Ross Middleton is an independent writer and formerly part of CTD’s Summer Program staff. He received his BA in English Literature from Wesleyan University and an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence.

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