Two weeks ago my district announced that we would start online for at least the first six weeks, with the hope of returning in-person after that. My feelings about this were too wide-ranging and complex for the scope of this post, but in short, I was at once relieved that I won’t be spending hours upon hours in a small brick room that has no ventilation (we still have boilers and radiators) with 150+ teenagers who can seemingly spread Covid as effectively as any adult, frustrated at how little is being done nationally to get case levels down to where it would be at least reasonably safe to send students and teachers to school, and deeply concerned about how additional months of learning from a distance will affect many of my students.

My guess is that many of you might be experiencing some similar feelings, and what makes them even more acute for me is that I can do so little about so many of the issues. Our country’s infection rate, the state of our over 100 year old building, and district, state, and national policy lie largely outside of my immediate control.

There is one of these areas of concern that I can impact in a significant way though, and it brings me to my question for the week:

How Can We Best Support Our Students From a Distance?

I might not have the nation’s ear or even my local school board’s ear, but my students will be listening to me, which means I have an opportunity to provide meaningful support to them, even if it is from a distance.

Doing this won’t be easy though. While predicting what will happen this fall is pretty much impossible, I can say with relative surety that many educators will face substantial barriers to providing meaningful support to students. Likely barriers include the need for care/school for one’s own children, the limitations of online platforms, and the diminished time and bandwidth that comes from navigating month-after-month of an unrelenting pandemic.

With these in mind, this fall we need to invest even more than ever in strategies that have a high return on investment, and when it comes to supporting students, there are three in particular that have become focal points of my preparation for the fall. They are the following:

  1. Supporting Students Through Carefully Managing Touchpoints

The first time I encountered the term “touchpoints” was a couple years ago in this article by Dr. Lori Desautels. In the article she defines a touchpoint as an interaction between a student and a trusted adult that is:

  • Positive in nature.
  • Initiated by an adult.
  • Generally short (30 seconds to five minutes).
  • Focused on noticing and affirming student strengths, interests, passions, challenges, belief systems, and cultures.

Dr. Desautels goes on to describe how regular touchpoints, while only the investment of a minute here or there, can help students who have experienced trauma to build resiliency, lessen feelings of despair and hopelessness, and generally better engage with the work and the people they encounter in school.

Dr. Desautels isn’t the only one who has noticed the power of touchpoints either. The newly-released Distance Teacher Playbook by Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie discusses how Disneyland of all places has figured out that one of the most effective ways to enhance their guests’ experiences is to pay close attention to any time that the guests interact with the park, including some not so obvious moments that range from waiting in lines to parking in the lots. For Disney, every moment where they interact with a guest is a potential opportunity to enhance that guest’s experiences, and thus they think closely about maximizing each point of connection.

As much as I’d never thought I’d say this, this fall I plan to take a more Disney-like approach and think closely about each touchpoint, both as a way to further connect with all students and as a way to offer another layer of support to my students who have experienced trauma, Covid-related or otherwise. I plan to do that in the following ways:

  • Personally greeting every student every class. I normally strive to verbally greet students by name when they enter my class, and I still plan to do this over Zoom, but more importantly I also plan to use the fact that we are on Zoom to my advantage when it comes to greetings by using the direct message function on Zoom to send short personalized, individual greetings each morning like, “Good morning, ______! I loved your drawing in the art show,” or “Great to see you, ______. Strong work on that story last week!” I hope to do this during the first ten minutes of our ninety minute blocks while the students do their choice reading.
  • Carefully tracking students who need support. I plan to use my Moments of Genuine Connection clipboard to ensure I have regular meaningful touchpoints with all students, but I also plan to implement a related system from The Distance Learning Playbook where I will use this sheet or something similar to more closely track my interactions with students who seem in need of some extra support. In the past I have struggled with systems like this because filling out anything with any sort of depth or regularity in the hustle and bustle of a normal school day is really hard. There aren’t many advantages I can think of about teaching from a distance, but I do think it will be far easier to keep on top of systems like this to track students who need our support the most.
  • Personalizing touchpoints with video/audio messages. In the same way that Disney has looked for ways to improve the experience of being in a line, we teachers can look for ways to personalize the many little logistical touchpoints we have with students. In my book Flash Feedback, I make a case for making sure that each piece of feedback is human and personal, but this year I am going to try and expand that concept to other touchpoints. For example, when giving an assignment’s directions, I plan to take advantage of being online and embed video explanations in the assignment, creating a more human touchpoint. Doing this doesn’t need to take more time either. Rebekah O’Dell in her new Inside the Blended Workshop Community gives a great time-saving tip when she encourages teachers not overwork short video messages. Instead of shooting them multiple times and/or doing some editing to make them perfect, she suggests to just go for it in one take, as it will both save a lot of time and feel more human because it will be closer to how we normally give messages in class.
  • Doing a lot of letter writing. I’ve mentioned the importance of letter correspondence before, but I now have more specifics about my plan for the year. Normally, students write me a letter once a quarter, but this year students will write me a monthly letter whose topic/s will correspond with the month. I think this is the right balance for remote learning, as it increases the two-way communication. I also plan to conference with students about these letters, which is something I have never done before. I do recognize that this will take a fair amount of time, but I think given the circumstances it will be time well spent, as it will create a very meaningful touchpoint. Below is a copy of my September Letter, which is an adaptation of my normal introductory letter (there is a link to download it as well). Notice how it is part pandemic and part business as usual. I structured it this way because I want to signal that while some parts of this year will be different and may be hard, we will also be doing the same wonderful things we always do–namely, growing as readers, writers, thinkers, and people!
Here is a link to my September Letter

2. Supporting Students Through Poetry

One of the hardest parts of supporting students is that we don’t always know what students need. Letters and greetings like I describe above and generally being careful listeners can give us some sense for student needs, but many students, especially early in the year, can be silent about their true needs, even when asked directly.

I worry that this student reticence to share what they are thinking, feeling, and needing, might be even more pronounced this year, as I will have never seen many students in person, but I have a favorite writing class tool that I think will help: Poetry.

Eight years ago I did the Oregon Writing Project with Linda Christensen, and at the time I was amazed at how Christensen can get even the the most shy students to open up about what is really happening inside them. When I asked her how she did it, her answer was largely her early focus on writing poetry, which for many students is an irresistible invitation for them to talk about the joys and hardships they’ve encountered.

I have since found this to indeed be the case and made poetry an early (and frequent) focus of my classes. From a support perspective, poems offer support to students in two ways: First, they invite the students to share what they are grappling with in a way that no other genre can, thus allowing us to better offer support because we better understand the students’ struggles. And second, students get the natural support that comes from putting the difficult things in their lives onto paper.

There are three poems in particular that Christensen highlights in her wonderful book Teaching for Joy and Justice that work incredibly well at inviting students to go deep. This year I plan to do all three. They are…

  • “For My People,” which is where students write a poem for their people, whatever that means to them, based on Margaret Walker’s gorgeous poem “For My People
  • “Raised by…” which is where students write about who or what they were raised by, based on Kelly Normal Ellis’s “Raised by Women.” Here is a blog post where Christensen shares the poem and explains how she uses it. I do something similar.
  • Age Poem, which is where students pick an age and write about it based on Garrett Hongo’s “What For.” In it, my students start with the stem, “At ____ (fill in an age)” and then go from there.

3. Supporting the Support Networks of Students

As a new teacher, my knowledge concerning special education was lacking and I was well aware of it. Consequently, I developed a habit early in my career of popping into the special education rooms nearly every day to talk, learn, and touch base. 

I now have a far better understanding of special education, but the habit of popping into the special education classrooms on a near daily basis remains, as I have found that the couple minute investment of my time yields the following returns: 

  • I get incredible insights about my students that make me a better teacher of them.
  • The special education teachers get a better understanding of my classes, which makes them better supporters of the classroom work.
  • Chatting about my classes for a quick minute with the special education teachers (and often students in the room) gives me real-time data about how students are experiencing the class.
  • I get a little exercise going up and down the stairs 🙂

Add up all of the gained insights, increased communication, misunderstandings that are avoided, and I am convinced that the time saved on the backend is exponentially more than the time I expend on my short walks downstairs.

This fall, I plan to do a similar thing, albeit electronically, not only with special education teachers, but also with my new co-teachers–namely, the parents, guardians, siblings, tutors, etc. who will be helping my students from home. I plan to do this by…

  • having a clean and clear section on my classroom page just for those who will be working with my students from home.
  • sending clear weekly updates directly to parents/guardians.
  • using more of those old-fashioned phone calls to check-in (my goal is 3-5 brief check-in calls a day, which equates to at least one check-in call a quarter).
  • creating some early assignments that encourage some sort of collaboration between the students and those who they live and/or learn with.

Doing these things will take a little extra time, but I have a hunch that like my trips to the special education rooms, the increased clarity and communication on both sides will save time later and allow me to better support students who really need it!

Thanks as always for reading!

Yours in teaching,


If You Liked This…

Join my mailing list and I will send you a thoughtful post about finding balance and success as a writing teacher and a list of curated reading suggestions each week. Also, as a thank you for signing up, you will also receive a short ebook on how to cut feedback time without cutting feedback quality that is adapted from my newly released book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

5 thoughts on “How Can We Best Support Our Students From a Distance?

  1. Hi Matthew,

    Thanks for writing this topic on how we can support our students while on distance learning. Just like you, I also had my reservations when our school director told us that we may still be teaching online until term 2.

    I make sure to greet every student who I see online in our Teams meeting before we start our class while waiting for the rest to log in. It is also my way of taking attendance. If in case, I miss greeting a student, I do it in the middle of the lesson or when they are doing some tasks.

    I also like the idea of touchpoints.

    How do you handle a student who is online but refuses to interact with his classmates or even answer a question or two when called?


    1. Thanks for writing and the kind words, Maryanne! I haven’t had any students refuse to engage yet, though my instinct would be to not say much in the moment (so as not to shame the student) and then to try to call or individually chat with the student as soon as possible to get to the bottom of what is going on. All behavior is communicating, so before figuring out the next steps, I’d want to know what the student was communicating!


      1. Thanks, Matt. I agree with you that all behavior is communicating. I personally feel that teachers should always find the time or ways to connect with their students.

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s