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November 16, 2020

As 2020 comes to a close, it’s nearly impossible to reflect on how differently the year has gone compared to how we thought it might. One thing is clear: a pandemic must be combatted together, even as it forces us apart.

As the midyear point approaches in a program cycle that was designed to be largely virtual, unlike last spring when all decisions were merely in reaction to the emergency, Y4Y offered valuable tips and lessons gained through the collective experiences of 21st CCLC programs in last month’s webinar series. Let’s get into a few key takeaways.

Structure and consistency have always been one benefit of your program, so give thought to adapting this priority virtually. Where simple emailed notifications of schedules or events might have once been fine, everyone is in digital overload. Consider using flashy emailed or possibly snail-mailed invitations to upcoming events or new activities to build enthusiasm. Make sure your program schedule is easy to find, whether posted on social media or partner school websites, and keep the schedule consistent. Traditions or rituals like greeting students every day by name, celebrating birthdays, creating digital name tents with “all about me” information, or holding daily reflections are more important than ever.

Reinvent homework time to help students switch gears from a day of virtual learning. Zoom will now allow students to self-select their breakout room, which you might find broadens your possible room themes or designations. As a large group or in those breakouts, give students the opportunity to socialize, play games, solve brainteasers as teams, journal or share a mindful moment to move into a headspace that eases the transition. (Speaking of “headspace,” visit the webinar discussion board for links to great online mindfulness resources.) Then, sorting homework breakout rooms by grade or by subject will allow for the small groups or individual attention that have always been essential. Be sure to offer an environment that includes parents, since the evolution of the field has left even highly educated parents struggling with the “right steps” for supporting their children’s homework.  

Building rapport continues to be critical to engaging and retaining students. You and staff can create meet-and-greet videos – maybe your students can work up to participating in this new tradition as well. Favorite games of “raise your hand if…,” “finish my sentence,” and show and tell translate well to virtual programming. In fact, suddenly pets in your “learning space” are acceptable with no allergies or discomfort to worry about! Creating opportunities for collaboration in small-group breakouts, in the chat box, or on shared websites like Padlet is critical. An exciting new trend is “gratitude bombs.” Have students brainstorm professionals or people in their circle who have gone above and beyond to ease school closures and have them write notes or record video messages of thanks. Flipgrid, with its Mixtape feature, is a great resource for compiling messages. You can still show students how proud you are of their hard work by displaying artwork facing outward in physical buildings, or posting on social media, newsletters or program websites.

Endless online resources are available for free on the internet. See part 1 of Y4Y’s webinar series on 21st CCLC Programs in a Virtual World, where the U.S. Department of Education's Y4Y Technical Assistance Team walks viewers through many online platforms that could serve different functions in your virtual programming. Be sure to catch the webinar for an overview of resources and ideas for use in your program; these include colorful or flexible academic interactivity, collecting feedback or knowledge checks to report on SMART goals, creating scavenger hunts, and socializing or other fun break opportunities. Or, do your own exploring by clicking through the links posted on the webinar discussion board for the first installment and this follow-up series. Besides handy tools, websites explored include information and activities around tolerance, stories as a tool to build global oneness and compassion, and virtual field trips.

Battle burnout with lots of physical movement in your virtual program! See all those smiling faces in gallery view in Zoom as much as possible to build a sense of community and keep an eye out for those slips in engagement. Take brain breaks, whether physically active, social or restful/mindful. Bear in mind that young people depend much more on in-person opportunities to get that social contact we humans need, so your program is critical for facilitating student-to-student engagement.

Virtual family engagement might have changed even more dramatically than your program itself, and there are some advantages to this year’s virtual efforts. Keep these strategies in mind:

  • Communicate often through multiple channels.
  • Strengthen your social media presence. Use lots of photos, and invite postings from families based on themes or activities done together (but be mindful of privacy policies).
  • Create family leaders. Every program has some parents who demonstrate a willingness to be involved. Include them in virtual planning, student activities, or even reaching out to other families.
  • Connect with other organizations for cross-support. This could be around food drives/pick-ups, flu shots, or entertainment events like drive-in movies.
  • Develop a sense of community. What kinds of virtual events can bring in the whole family? Quiz bowl? Paint night? Find a hook, but keep the structure loose to allow for socializing.

Families will feel more supported if you’ve covered some basic virtual program functions with them. Talk a little about setting up a home learning environment, walk them through some of the learning platforms you’re using, let them know they’re welcome in the homework help sessions if they’re looking for tips, and offer virtual office hours for whatever they need. Using tools like Google Voice, staff can put themselves at families’ disposal at set hours without compromising their own privacy. The “Remind” website offers many communication features, including analytics, document sharing and translating.

Right now it may seem hard to keep up with all the moving parts it will take to keep your students and families engaged, but we’re all looking for that opportunity for togetherness, granting one another the grace we need to muddle through. In those precious moments of reflection, remember that the new practices and wisdom gained this year will be invaluable for years to come, when we can truly be together again.

 


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