Sometimes even small talk can have enormous effects on students’ wellbeing. Giving kids a chance to talk with adults about their lives outside of class can be critical for their social-emotional development. But during the pandemic, online classes didn’t often allow the time for that individual attention.
That was the thinking behind Along, a free digital reflection tool developed by the nonprofit Gradient Learning and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and announced yesterday at the 2021 annual conference of ISTE, the International Society for Technology in Education, which is EdSurge’s parent organization. The platform helps teachers prompt students to talk about their personal lives through recorded video, audio or written texts as a way to support them emotionally, not just academically.
“When students have trusting relationships with their mentors, inside or outside of the classroom, it is easier for them to succeed academically, engage socially and manage their emotions,” Priscilla Chan said to audience members.
The platform provides teachers with a menu of steering questions, things like “How do you deal with stress or manage time?” or “What are you grateful for?” After recording a brief response themselves, educators then send their message out to students, who can respond however they choose. Over time, the replies become a kind of digital library offering more comprehensive views of how each student is doing outside of school.
A comprehensive body of research suggests that these kinds of interactions can help students feel more psychologically safe, and even improve academic performance. In her remarks, Chan mentioned Nottingham Elementary School, which closed for nearly four weeks after Hurricane Harvey in 2017, but invested in mental wellness and belonging in its recovery, and later saw test scores rise.
Chan also emphasized that the service isn’t meant to restrict empathetic teaching into rigid queries, and argued it could help teachers attend to their students’ psychological needs without sacrificing academic recovery.