As a special education teacher in an inclusive classroom, Christina Ramsay knows that growing students’ social-emotional and mindfulness skills can mean the difference between meltdowns and managed emotions, self-doubt and confidence or isolation and connection.
For nine years, Ramsay has taught in the Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) Nest program at the Academy of Talented Scholars public school in Brooklyn, New York. In that time, she’s witnessed incredible growth in her students when they learn to recognize and manage their emotions.
But in the spring of 2020, when her school closed because of the pandemic, Ramsay was worried. How could she and her co-teacher create the kind of experiences and connections that their students needed in a virtual classroom?
Then she stumbled onto Pear Deck’s website.
With the Pear Deck platform, Ramsay and her co-teacher can teach virtual synchronous and asynchronous lessons, create content, use free, premade lessons from Pear Deck, run quick formative assessments and engage with students as a group or one-on-one. The platform even offers ready-made SEL templates.
“I thought, this is incredible! This is what I need right now to continue having interactions with the kids in real time, give them in-the-moment feedback and virtually do some of the fun activities we would normally do in the classroom,” exclaims Ramsay.
EdSurge sat down with Ramsay to hear more about the impacts of teaching social-emotional and mindfulness skills to students and how Pear Deck helps her continue teaching those skills even as her students learn virtually throughout the 2021 school year.
EdSurge: Can you start by sharing why SEL is such an essential part of your approach to teaching and learning?
Ramsay: This work of social-emotional learning and mindfulness has to be our foundation because that’s how we ensure we’re meeting our kids’ needs—by responding to them and building relationships with them.
It’s not just about this one grade, lesson or day. It’s about being able to transfer what you’re teaching them across their lifetime.
Teaching them how to deal with stress or anxiety and find joy each day, even when things aren’t going their way—these are tools we all need for life.
How does Pear Deck help you continue to teach social-emotional and mindfulness skills during virtual learning?
It’s creating connections even when we can’t be in the same room together. A child needs to have that personal connection to learn from you and to trust you. I think that’s the heart of teaching, really having that connection, and Pear Deck helps us continue building and growing those connections with our students.
When we switched to virtual learning, my co-teacher and I knew morning meetings needed to be the most important part of the day, just like when we were in the classroom. That’s where we are a community. The focus isn’t on academics. It’s about us being in the moment, being present and connecting.
Instead of a coloring sheet like we used in the classroom, we start in Pear Deck with a coloring slide and feelings slide where we ask, “How are you feeling today?”
It’s so much more efficient with Pear Deck because I can quickly see if all the kids are working on their sheets. I can also see who feels a little down today, who feels anxious, and I know instantly, who needs a teacher check-in.
Those private responses to the feelings check-in are crucial.
There are some kids who, although you can physically see they are not okay when you do an in-person check-in, sometimes still won’t tell you anything. But the virtual check-in takes away that nervousness of being face to face with an adult asking you what’s wrong. It allows them to share in a way that’s more comfortable for them.
What other SEL activities have you incorporated into your virtual classroom?
What I love about Pear Deck is its flexibility. We can use it for everything: SEL, academic lessons and even use it with other resources. I can embed a GoNoodle video, a read-aloud or a drawing slide to teach students to give themselves a brain break.
You see this with all kids, but especially with our kids on the spectrum, the tension can build up in their bodies all day. The school day, the requirement to be social, use executive functioning skills—their brains are doing so much. Their minds need that break to release some tension.
Have you noticed any unexpected benefits to using Pear Deck with your students?
Yes! One of the things we’re working on with a lot of our kids on the spectrum is advocating for yourself, asking questions, asking for help. You may have a student who is not comfortable raising their hand in front of everyone. But using Pear Deck, it’s easier.
As the teacher, you have two windows. One is the presentation you’re showing students, the other is the teacher dashboard where I see all the students’ responses and send students messages. These tools are incredibly helpful.
For example, one of my students gets anxious about doing math, and we were doing division. He’d already told me, “I just can’t do division, Ms. Ramsay.” As we were doing the activity, he wrote to me through Pear Deck, saying, “I really don’t understand this.”
Although we were in a small group and there were other kids on the meet with us, I could respond to him privately. I was just literally being his cheerleader, saying, “You’re doing amazing. You did that part so well. Can you share it out to the group?” He knew how to do the math, but his anxiety made him feel he didn’t understand.
Those are moments that we don’t always get to catch when we’re teaching in the classroom. You can have a child who maybe feels insecure at that moment, but you miss the sign because you’re busy with another student, and it goes straight to full-on tears or a meltdown. But with this student, in that virtual moment, he could communicate with me, and I could support him and build his confidence before it got to that point.