What would you see if you wandered into a Zoom classroom during school hours? Would you see students on other devices, playing games, or texting? Or would they be hard at work, engaging in academic activities, or participating in an interesting conversation? 

The pandemic made it hard for students to connect with teachers and other students the way they used to. Talking in the hallways, sitting with each other at lunch, and chatting with teachers during advisory periods were no longer available. The virtual learning environment threw its share of curveballs. However, at Rosa Parks Middle School (RPMS) in Olney, MD, the staff provided a welcoming and joyful atmosphere that unlocked many opportunities for students to be as successful as possible.

At RPMS, students are challenged to engage in interactive lessons, educational games, and conversations to get to know each other in a fun and personal manner and bring social-emotional learning (SEL) to the forefront. Students participate in lessons, competitions, and experiments within their various classes to understand the material being taught and boost memorization of those skills. Students and staff have several ways of communicating with one another, and they have a variety of ways to help students’ SEL. 

Engaging in a Virtual World

One way the staff has provided a welcoming virtual environment for students is through icebreakers. Teachers consistently ask students at the beginning (or toward the end) of class to answer questions to get to know them better and help them feel more connected to one another. These icebreakers are usually unrelated to the educational material, and topics are fun for both the teachers and students. The activities make students feel more connected to one another and can be used as a conversation piece between them as well. They can also be used as a type of checkup. For example, one teacher may ask everyone: If you were a weather forecast, what would you be? Sunny, cloudy, rainy, partially sunny? It is up to the student to decide how to respond, and sometimes there will be a follow-up question asking them why they feel the way they do. 

RPMS staff also creates an engaging and welcoming environment for students by having time at the end of class periods to talk with them about anything that may be on their minds. The students could be having trouble connecting with friends or family members. Having someone they can trust to talk to about personal topics is crucial. The teachers can engage with students and feel more comfortable with them throughout the process. That connection between teacher and student can help clear the student’s mind, and a clear mind means clearer comprehension of the material being learned throughout the day. Also, when a student feels more comfortable with the teacher, they are more likely to ask questions once they have some experience talking to and getting to know them. 

RPMS staff talks with students about their challenges or concerns through counseling sessions as well. The students can email the counselors when they could use someone to talk to or need any help working through issues inside or outside of school. The counselors always find time for students, even if they have a busy schedule, because they are dedicated to their well-being and emotional health. Students can talk about the challenges of connecting with others, family, friendships, and just overall hardships that are occurring. It can be hard to focus while having all of that pent up aggravation (and sometimes anger). Having those kinds of talks can be difficult but can also make a big difference in a student’s life—it can be extremely helpful, especially when they’re isolated with family members.

Training and Activities for SEL

During teacher advisory periods (TAP), there are lessons that all students and staff are required to participate in—lessons that revolve around how to help boost your social and emotional health. One lesson may be about perspective, while another could reflect on how students feel and people they can talk to about those feelings.

At RPMS, TAP has become a free and open environment to talk about delicate topics that need to be addressed. Having that time to be open with others is critical to human health and being able to experience that with people you are in class with almost every day is so important. Another effect of the lessons involves discovering similarities. Initially, students start out having conversations with other students that they may not think are similar to them. Once they start talking and getting a basic understanding, they begin to see that they aren’t so different after all. Once students notice that they have quite a bit in common, their similarities can help establish a relationship.

Virtual lunch bunches have been established so people can have contact with one another during the lunch period, like they would during school in the cafeteria. The lunch bunches sometimes have themes, such as an anime lunch bunch or one to just talk about recent events. These virtual gatherings have been a huge success, as students are excited to see their friends and catch up with them, even if it isn’t an ideal situation. Knowing that people are still going to be able to see and talk to their friends is stress relieving because they get a sense of happiness knowing there is something that is similar to what used to be considered normal.

A final way the staff is helping students’ SEL at RPMS is by continuing to hold extracurricular activities. For example, our Student Diversity Leadership Team and Student Government Association have been allowed to meet, and we’re looking for Art Club to be back as well. Clubs bring people together while focusing on activities where everyone has similar interests. In this environment, students can have honest discussions, and in more artistic clubs (e.g., Art Club and Yearbook Club), they can show off their amazing talents and pieces of artwork. The members must collaborate and use their knowledge on perspective and other important skills to talk with others about topics being discussed. Students have many opportunities to connect with other teachers, members of the staff, and one another.

It’s been important to remember during this pandemic that the social aspects of school make up the majority of the school experience. We’re pleased that RPMS staff and students have come up with several solutions to respond to social demands. We have been working diligently to bring back important aspects of the school day, including clear communication and fun lessons that will keep us engaged and excited.

RPMS administration serves as a wonderful example. Students are encouraged to branch out of their comfort zone, talk to new people, join more clubs, and share their ideas. Teachers have adapted to a new way of teaching, gone the extra mile for their students, and have consistently raised the bar higher every day. Overall, Rosa Parks Middle School has done a fantastic job of helping their students with SEL throughout the journey of virtual learning.

Janet Abramson is a seventh-grade student at Rosa Parks Middle School in Olney, MD. George Awkard and Keira Jones are eighth-grade students at Rosa Parks Middle School.