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September 1, 2021
Vol. 79
No. 1

Rediscovering Relationship-Based Learning

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Instructional Strategies
Social-emotional learning
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Last year was, by far, the toughest one of my teaching career. Educators nationwide met the challenges of hybrid teaching and intensive block scheduling and gained a deeper understanding of the extensive inequities that so many communities face. My students and I adapted to the fast-changing formats and guidelines as best we could, switching from completely online to hybrid learning to having all students present at different points in the year. Educators and students alike were asked to completely rethink schooling as the pandemic laid bare a fundamental question: What should education look like in this new world?
I was wrestling with that question in October 2020 when I published a piece for ASCD called “What Is Homework’s Purpose in a Pandemic?” With the switch to remote learning, the lines between homework and classwork had suddenly blurred. Traditionally, homework is given to practice skills learned during school hours or to develop students’ abilities to work independently outside of the classroom. But in the past year, everything was done outside the traditional classroom, and my students were often working without my direct guidance. For me, this structure necessitated a pedagogical shift as well as a big-picture reconsideration of the entire classroom experience.
In particular, my beliefs about homework shifted. I wrote that, in this new environment, homework should be less about independent practice or assessing engagement and more about providing enrichment and practicing cognitive growth and critical thinking. Homework should consist of activities that give students time to access ideas or resources outside the classroom, provide opportunities to finish work they did not complete in class, and, when possible, provide choice and agency.
As the year progressed, my biggest realization about teaching wasn’t about a certain type of class set-up or a great new app, but about the nature of “school” itself. The physical structures and routines we thought school consisted of—bell schedules, bulletin boards, and even physical classrooms—do not make an education. At its core, education is people coming together to learn with and from one another. Physical proximity can help build relationships, but having it stripped away pushed me to create more intentional spaces for my students to connect with each other and with me. I considered what I wanted my students to get out of each activity: How did I want students to grow together?

Valuing the Student Experience

Education shouldn’t be a product-based model, but rather a relationship-based one that values the learning process (Leadbeater, 2008). Instead of focusing solely on what a student produces, like an essay, we should also consider the experiences they have in creating those products. It’s just as important to support the intellectual and emotional journey through drafting, editing, and revising and help students connect with each other during those activities.
Unfortunately, the transition to remote learning often had the opposite effect. Some educators sought control in an uncontrollable situation by trying to recreate in-person structures—through more homework, for example—in students’ homes. The longstanding false belief that more work equals more productivity and more knowledge led to overly prescriptive curricula that required too much work or that ultimately hurt students (Samuels, 2020).

By considering both skills and relationship-building when creating activities, we ask students to spend their time in ways that can support deepening connections for everyone.

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In fact, many students reported an overall increase in stress during an already mentally and emotionally trying period, especially fully remote students (Einhorn, 2021). Eighty-four percent of remote students said they experienced exhaustion, headaches, insomnia, or other stress-related issues, compared with 82 percent of students who were in the classroom part-time and 78 percent of students who were in the classroom full time. These statistics aren’t surprising—I struggled to sit in front of screens by myself all day, unable to fully decompress because my “classroom” was now a part of my home.
The types of supplemental work students received often added to that stress. For example, one online learning curriculum that has been used by thousands of schools contained what some parents pointed out as racist or hurtful readings and response choices (Associated Press, 2020). As if this weren’t tough enough, huge gaps in access to resources magnified the struggle, with some reports saying as many as 16 million students lacked the internet or supplies necessary to receive instruction and ­complete assignments (Tate, 2021).

Building Connections

So, what does all of this mean for the way I want to design instruction going forward?
One of the biggest shifts that I’ve made as a teacher has been mental: I no longer think of separate “classwork” and “homework,” but rather consider everything I do as an “educational activity.” This reframing pushes me to pause and consider the merit of what I’m asking students to do academically, socially, and emotionally. “Homework” is usually seen as an independent practice, but an “educational activity” is something that supports students’ ability to connect and build relationships with others as well. I still assign homework on occasion—about once a week—but the activities I give are much more focused and flexible and often provide opportunities for students to discuss or work together on tasks such as comparing gender and social roles in a text.
When I want to assign something now, I ask myself how it will serve my students’ knowledge or skill-building and how it could strengthen our relationship as a class. For example, I used to assign reading homework because I thought kids would benefit from independent reading practice. When I shifted to seeing reading as an “educational activity,” I realized what I really wanted was for students to practice connecting with a text. When we read during class, I could support them in doing so while they engage with each other. My students shared that this change made reading more enjoyable. I’ve noticed the quality of their work improved, since they are often able to start their reading in class and get support from me or their peers.
I also consider whether the activity I’ve assigned is feasible given my students’ circumstances. What am I assuming students have access to? Will they have everything they need to complete the assignment, such as Wi-Fi, a computer, paper, or colored pencils? Can I provide alternative options to complete the assignment if they don’t have a resource at home, like a choice between digital and handmade learning products? Learning can only happen when students have the resources, whether that’s internet access, time, or emotional bandwidth.
It’s also necessary to recognize that, while it can be powerful to use current events in our classroom, we have to consider the emotional effects of the last year and be thoughtful about how we raise these issues in class. When I ask kids to journal about their pandemic experiences, I always make sure they also have an alternate, non-pandemic-related prompt they can respond to instead (for example, “What would koalas fight about?”). This is an easy way for students to opt into something more emotionally appropriate for them if needed.

Using Current Events in the Classroom

While it can be powerful to use current events in our classroom, educators should consider the emotional effects of the last year and be thoughtful about how we raise these issues in class. When asking kids to journal about their pandemic experiences, for example, make sure they also have an alternate, non-pandemic-related prompt they can respond to instead. This is an easy way for students to opt into something more emotionally appropriate for them if needed.

Listening and Adapting

Building relationship-based assignments and assessments means listening and adapting to the needs of everyone involved. This coming year, we can solicit student feedback on how much time assignments are taking or what types of assignments help students learn best. Are we providing multiple ways for students to show mastery or even allowing them to propose how they can best show mastery? Are we ensuring each assignment is a valuable use of time, instead of just checking boxes for the teacher’s benefit? Do students understand the reason we are asking them to complete an assignment?
We can also tie relationship-based goals to our assignments to ensure our planning is fostering a sense of community and connection among and with our students. Providing peer feedback on an essay doesn’t just give students practice in becoming better writers; it helps them open up to and learn to trust classmates.
When we return to in-person learning, school shouldn’t be a building designed to monitor every aspect of our students, but instead be a space where students can go on their intellectual journeys and receive support, whether that’s emotional, educational, or resource-based. By considering both skills and relationship-building when creating ­activities, we ask students to spend their time in ways that can support deepening connections for everyone.

Associated Press. (2020, October 4). Parents: Online learning program has racist, sexist content. U.S. News.

Einhorn, E. (2021, February 15). Remote students are more stressed than their peers in the classroom, study shows. NBC News.

Leadbeater, C. (2008). It’s all about relationships. Educational Leadership, 66(3).

Samuels, C. (2020, April 2). How much home teaching is too much? Schools differ in demands on parents. Education Week.

Tate, E. (2021, January 27). The digital divide has narrowed, but 12 million students are still disconnected. EdSurge.

Torres, C. (2020). What is homework’s purpose in a pandemic? Education Update, 62(10), 1–4.

Christina Torres is an English teacher in Honolulu, Hawaii.

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