Letter to an Online Teacher: See Your Students

Teaching Online

I see you.

In her Ted Talk, Amanda Palmer, the alternative rock icon of the Dresden Dolls, talked about her time as a human statue. She would stand on the street, painted white and on a pedestal, as “The 8 foot bride.” When someone put money into her hat, she would hand them a flower and engage in “A beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact.” She states:

I had the most profound encounters with people, especially lonely people who looked like they hadn’t talked to anyone in weeks, and we would get this beautiful moment of prolonged eye contact … my eyes would say, “Thank you. I see you.” And their eyes would say, “Nobody ever sees me. Thank you.”


You are a genius.

Not in the “especially brilliant” sense of the word, but in the older sense of the word.  According to the Online Etymological Dictionary, a genius is, “a guardian deity or spirit which watches over each person from birth.” We are teachers: guardian gods watching over our students.

Later, genius evolved to mean, “a particular character or essential spirit: what makes something or someone unique.” In Starting from Scratch: One Classroom Builds its Own Curriculum, Steven Levy discusses the “Genius” of each child. He suggests, “We especially need to recognize the genius in each one of our students: that quality or collection of qualities that makes them who they are, which distinguishes them from everybody else.”

How can we see our students?

It is hard to be a genius and see the genius in each of our online students. We can’t as easily see what they are wearing which might give us insight into their personality, style, and how they want to portray themselves. Chatting before class is trickier. We don’t see them walking around campus or in the hallways. It is simply not as easy for us to see them as it is in an old fashioned classroom.

Yet, they are there, wanting to be seen. Here are some tips to help you “see” your online students.

-Stop and look. To see people, Palmer looked at them. She stopped what she was doing, she stopped what she was thinking, and she wholly devoted herself to looking at the passerby. If you want to see your students, you have to look at them. It takes times. You cannot look at them (or their work) when you are tired, when you are trying to cook dinner, or when you are distracted. It takes space. You need a quiet space to really reflect on who they are and what they have created for you.

-Tell your students, over and over again, that you want to know them and see their work. I frequently tell my students, “I love correcting essays! Whatever you write, I will correct. It will not hurt.” What I want to convey is “You are safe here. I know that your mom tears apart your writing and your last teacher never read it. I know that the blank page scares you and you are pretty convinced that you cannot write a sentence, but I promise you: you are safe here. Whatever you write will be kindly received.”

-Learn about your students before class. I conduct a phone interview with the parents of my students before the first class. I ask the parents to tell me what excites and engages their child. I inquire about the student’s learning style and make sure that their hopes for the course are in line with my offerings.

-Ask students for feedback. I frequently ask my students what is working for them. I might say, “How is the reading going? Let me know if it is too hard or too easy. I want the assignment to be just right.” They tell me.

-Ask the parents for feedback. After a few classes, I contact the parents and ask them for feedback. I make sure that the assignments are reasonable and that the kids are not struggling too much. I often tell the parents that I rely on the information that they provide to teach their children. If a kid works on an essay for 4 hours, I want to know that. If a kid finishes in 10 minutes, I want to know that, too. If something truly represents a student’s best work, it must be addressed differently than half-hearted efforts, and I can only learn this from parents.

Tools to see your students

See their faces and what matters to them

Videos: Before classes, I invite each of my students to make an introductory video. I have a teacher account for Animoto, with which my students can make professional looking videos. I ask the students a series of “Get-to-know-you” questions to respond to in the video. With students who I have had repeatedly, I ask more specific questions and prepare them to consider the content of the course.

Pictures: Have your students take pictures of where they read, where they work, their families, etc. Then the students can use Glogster or Prezi to create presentations with their pictures. Glogster:  calls itself Digital Paper. It is “an interface for mixing text, audio, video, images, graphics and data. Glogs provide canvas freedom with portrait and landscape options, an editing tool and simple drag & drop function for adding media.” Prezi is presentation software that “transforms presentations from monologues into conversations: enabling people to see, understand, and remember ideas.” It is a sort of souped up, multimedia PowerPoint creator.

Read their words and learn their thoughts

Journal Letters: Exchanging journal letters is a wonderful way to get to know your students. For years I did it the old fashioned way, in notebooks, and only recently transferred to digital journals. I use Penzu, which is an online writer’s journal. Penzu makes it easy to respond to student’s journal entries. I have had several students share important details of their emerging identities in journal letters, and I am able to support them on their road to adulthood.

Self-directed essays: My students all write an essay, every week. I provide a lot of guidance to help them understand the form and the conventions of an essay. I do often tell them, though, that they can write their essays about ANYTHING that they want. Sometimes, students choose to write about their favorite books or music. Often, students explore a topic of personal interest to them. One of my students wrote many essays on environmental degradation perpetuated by big business. When I learned about this interest of hers I was able to respond with related articles.

Dialogue: In the WizIQ online classroom, we can actually see and hear 6 of our students at a time. Students can talk and interact much as they can in person. I keep my classes to 6 students because it is important to me to be able to see all of them.

Your Students want your attention

Give them your attention and watch them become themselves. Take the time to really see them. Look for the clues in their writing and conversation to find their interests and their genius. Then nurture the heck out of them and be the genius that you are meant to be.


I am a teacher, hiker, mother, dancer and home-maker. I have taught pre-school through SAT prep. I am exploring ways to create on-line learning communities for home-schooled middle school and high school students. In particular, I am starting a low-residency on-line middle school. I would like to help young people explore important ideas while enjoying their lives! You can learn more about my programs at www.onlineclassesforgroovykids.org.


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