S'mores a la Zoom

There is no doubt that student collaboration adds many dimensions to learning: discussion about a given topic, deeper understanding of material, even adding a level of enjoyment to the most tedious of subjects. Transitioning to distance learning meant the transition into survival mode—as parents, students, educators, and as humanity. Student collaboration was the furthest thought while lesson planning—that is, until the shock wore off. It was then time to get creative in this new environment. My usual bag of classroom tricks wouldn’t work online, and this had me stumped. The turning point was realizing that it was not an unsolvable problem but a matter of reframing the situation, “Look at what we have and how can we use it” rather than “this won’t work because…”

During normal times, one of the fun hands-on activities that is popular in third grade is an “achdut bonfire,” in which after discussing the themes of achdut and ahavat Yisrael (Jewish unity and love), each child gets a precut piece of tissue paper and sticks it onto an overturned clear bowl. Before doing so, the student shares the resolution they will attempt in this area. After all the pieces are stuck, I turn on an electric candle under the bowl and we enjoy s’mores around our bonfire, sharing stories and continuing the discussion.

On Zoom, the s’mores part was easy to do, as was the discussion. The twist for the bonfire was doing one virtually and having the students “build the flames.” Enter ”virtual whiteboard” with open control setting and voila, the magic happened.

To revisit the theme of achdut during another lesson, we explored the importance of effective communication in another lesson. Again using the virtual whiteboard and open control, I asked the students to draw a picture as a group, but their microphones had to be muted and there was to be no communication. After a few minutes and multiple complaints of “Who erased my picture?” and “Who is drawing over my picture?” I asked for “hands off,” cleared the screen, and said, “Let’s try this again, but with communication this time.” The result was an organized picture in which each student had her place to draw. The added bonus was watching the natural leaders shine as they communicated and spoke with each other about the plan for organization.

The shift to distance learning presents many challenges, but collaboration should not be one of them. There are many tools that can be used online, for both synchronous learning and asynchronous learning, to enable students to collaborate. This is the time to be more creative in encouraging students to share their voice and take ownership of their learning. If only we could do the same with hugs and high-fives!

Rivkie Gottlieb
Knowledge Topics
Teaching and Learning, School Policies and Procedures
Published: Fall 2020