Last spring, amidst the uprisings following the immediate failure to bring any sort of justice for George Floyd’s murder, I received a Google Hangout video call from a student I will call Sean. Getting random calls from students became an enjoyable virtual learning norm, but the nature of this call was different. This was apparent in the frustration on Sean’s face and the sensitivity of his tone.
“Ms. Medor, I’m having a hard time doing my work.”
I inquired about the source of his sentiment. As expected, Sean expressed an exhaustion that resonated with my spirit. I, too, had been struggling with bearing the burden of the criminalization of our Blackness.
Sean’s call served as my motivation to ensure that learning in my virtual classroom would be culturally relevant. More specifically, I knew virtual learning needed to foster the development of critical consciousness in my students.
There is no dispute that students would benefit physically, socially and academically from a full-scale reopening of schools, but virtual learning is the reality in thousands of school districts for all or part of 2020-21. This calls for a wholehearted investment in ensuring that virtual learning is engaging and effective—because we simply cannot fail our students once again.
Culturally relevant teaching is simply good teaching, and the shift from physical to virtual learning should not forsake this duty of equity. Due to the unprecedented and unpredictable nature of the pandemic, we failed our students by abandoning this obligation. Now, with several months of virtual learning experience under our belts, we must commit to being anti-racist educators and invest in making virtual learning culturally relevant.
I argue that an investment in ensuring cultural relevance will increase the engagement and effectiveness of online learning. Here’s how...
When school leaders and educators work together to create spaces where students can critically reflect on the social realities of our world in the virtual classroom, student-teacher relationships are strengthened and students are more likely to achieve. Therefore school leaders should invest in training teachers to do so.
When community stakeholders engage with students and show them how to create positive social change, this can influence students’ belief in their own ability to effect change. There are many experts in this work, and school leaders should prepare to encourage and assist this form of collaboration in virtual classrooms.
School leaders must encourage teachers to create thoughtful, rigorous virtual assignments that draw from cultures familiar and unfamiliar to students—creating “windows and mirrors” that nurture and respect students even while engaging them in exploring new ideas.
Right now, teachers are just beginning to get to know new groups of students virtually. It’s imperative to allocate adequate time and resources to build these relationships. To foster community in virtual classrooms, school leaders can develop effective plans for peer teaching, engagement and collaboration opportunities.
The possibilities are endless.
Sean reminded me that we need to take advantage of this moment in history and ensure that our teaching is culturally relevant enough to build critical consciousness in our students. It is our responsibility as educators striving for equity. And a wholehearted effort to increase the effectiveness and engagement of virtual learning through culturally relevant teaching may atone some of our spring virtual learning failures.
Vanessa Medor is a 2019-2020 Teach Plus Commonwealth Policy Fellow. Vanessa taught sixth grade math at Match Middle School in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts for three years. She began her service there as a member of the homegrown program at Teach for America ...