Relational Learning in Remote-Learning Times 

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Relational Learning in Remote-Learning Times 

These models from Monte del Sol Charter School could foster connection for your students. 

By Esther Kovari and Judy Herzl

The maintenance of human connection in this time of isolation is arguably more important now than the conventional academic teaching we usually focus on.   

Students have lost their motivation, and many pre-teens and teenagers have spiraled into depression or are feeling that they don’t even remember how to be social anymore. They are well aware of the stress that their families and communities are facing and have their own fears of the future to contend with as well. 

For students learning online, the challenges go much deeper than academic engagement and focus. During this difficult time, when so many students are slipping between the cracks, you may find inspiration in the pod structure and mentorship program that we have developed at Monte del Sol Charter School in Santa Fe, as perhaps our best chance to maintain meaningful connections with and between students.

At Monte del Sol Charter School, which serves students in grades seven through 12, we have grouped students into small pods, with 12 to 14 students to one advisor.  Students spend most of their school time (currently online, but eventually in-person) in this pod.  Student learning is focused and guided through twice-weekly, half-day pod meetings, while content classes occur online only on the other days.  

Pod meetings provide a structured time and place for students to complete coursework for their classes, with the support of the pod advisor providing guidance and coaching. Pods are also the place where students can build strong relationships with each other and with a teacher and discuss the challenges that life is throwing at all of us these days. If (when) some students or staff test positive for the coronavirus, then it’s possible that only individual pods may need to be quarantined, not the entire school.  

This model turns the conventional school format on its head. Instead of spending most of their school time in academic classes, our students spend the majority of time with their pod advisor, who helps and coaches them with independent learning for all their classes.  Students meet with their content teachers only twice a week online, for class discussions, problem-solving and answering questions.   

While Monte del Sol’s school leaders have made the decision not to reopen in person until at least January, we nevertheless have been encouraged to meet in person with small groups of pod students as state regulations allow, making it possible to provide help to those students who desperately need the structure of meeting with an in-person teacher.  

Similar educational models, based on small pods of students with one teacher, have been adopted in many European countries (for example, Denmark and Norway) in order to keep schools open. And this is what many upper-income families in the U.S. have chosen to do, pulling their children out of online public-school instruction, and instead hiring a teacher for small pods of children.

If your school is not utilizing such a model, you can ask them to consider it. If you are able to, you could coordinate small groups of your student and their friends to meet around topics of interest to them — virtually for now, and in-person as state regulations allow. This can help to normalize a time that has been characterized by isolation for a demographic that emotionally relies on their peers.  

Jamboard, a Google whiteboard app, encourages collaboration and is especially helpful for shier teens who are more comfortable writing and drawing visually on a shared board without having to speak. Games such as Charades or Pictionary, discussions of movies they watch together or separately, book groups, or even activities like drawing, baking or fitness can bring relief when done on a regular basis. 

You can also consider coordinating some of the SEL (social-emotional learning) tools that we utilize for a portion of our pod time. These include mindfulness practices aimed at reducing stress and anxiety, gratitude and generosity rituals, and movement practices such as yoga and Qi Gong. Games such as “Two Truths and a Lie” allow students to get to know things about each other in a structured way, as do group circles and dialogues that encourage respectful listening of each person. While these may seem simple, in this time of COVID anything that heightens connection, community and kindness is more therapeutic than we know. 

Mentorship is another form of relational learning that has been a cornerstone and integral part of Monte del Sol’s mission, with over 3,200 mentorships to date. Mentorship is recognized by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as one of the 10 most promising practices in charter schools.  

Over the years, we have witnessed the transformative benefits on a student’s well-being of having an adult who cares. We have also seen how many students continue to pursue their area of mentorship, whether it is a hobby or becomes a career or college major. Mentorship has been noted to have many positive results, such as increased high school graduation rates, a better attitude about school, healthier relationships and lifestyle choices, increased confidence and self-esteem, and improved interpersonal skills.  

In this time of COVID, when students feel more vulnerable and alone — and, in some cases, find their families stretched and under even more stress — the commitment of an adult in their lives is proving to be more valuable than ever. Mentors often become an anchor, confidante and an important ally. If an organized mentorship program is available to your student, you can approach the model of relational learning with friends and other members of your community who have hobbies, passions or vocations that your child can be inspired and learn from.  

Many mentorships can happen safely one on one, while others translate surprisingly well to a virtual platform. These include cooking and baking; sports and athletics; arts, crafts and music; computer coding and digital media; and animal care and training. And with the virtual platform, it may be that a relative or friend in another state can now play an important role in your child’s life as a mentor. A key aspect of mentorship is that it lasts over a significant portion of time to allow the relationship to build. 

And don’t overlook other opportunities that empower your child to see their value to their community. This might be calling their elder relatives, shoveling a neighbor’s driveway or reading to a younger sibling or relative. While the loss of a full academic classroom has been felt deeply among all age groups and demographics, we hope that there can be silver linings in this new learning environment that foster skills and capacities, such as adaptability, a deeper awareness of one’s personal interests and passions, and learning that includes social and emotional abilities as well as academic achievement. 


Esther Kovari is a high school history teacher at Monte del Sol Charter School and has lived in northern New Mexico for 30 years. Judy Herzl is the assistant director of the Mentorship Program at Monte del Sol and also works with writers as an author mentor. 


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