As a middle school teacher, if I have learned anything about being an effective teacher, I have learned it's all about connection
. Not connection with 'the class' because there's no such thing as 'the class'. The connection(s) you must cultivate are those between you and each and every student.
Students will largely forget what you say to them but they will never forget how you made them feel. Connection offers the opportunity for you to build trust in students. Sometimes all it takes is eye contact and a smile. That is connection. In other cases, perhaps you offer feedback quickly or you answer an off-topic question (showing your humanity and interest in the student as well as the subject).
In the digital age, we can add e-mail to the list of ways a teacher can connect with a student. Far from being a "cool" medium (as in 'not personal'), I have found that using e-mail increases
the opportunity to connect with students. I'm not talking about casual, social e-mails sent from my personal e-mail account to a student over the weekend. And I'm not talking about contacting students through social networks which I feel is Very Bad Idea. (I have told my current students that they can 'Facebook' me when they are 21 years of age, if they still are interested in a connection). Limitations and restraint are essential in the digital age--that's where media literacy comes in which I believe should be mandatory in school now.
What I AM
talking about is using class-related e-mail on closed-system accounts such as can be created using Google Apps. All my students have an account at a domain of my choosing. It's closed to the world but all students in the class have the ability to share information, projects and ideas with me or the whole class with the push of a button. My music classes are project-based by design and the instructions for each project are delivered to all students via e-mail. As all teachers know this is where the need for differentiation begins. Some students will read the instructions, do what they say and bang out a quality project in a few class periods. Others will get stuck on Step 1.
If they are stuck, I encourage students to e-mail me
questions. It may seem silly (like students texting to each other when they are 2 feet away) but the use of e-mail provides a one-to-one connection with a student. It also provides documentation (data) for me as to what instructions students are unclear about so I can revise as necessary. As I have learned, too, some students embellish their e-mails with smiley faces, color, funky fonts etc. I've also learned that students are more apt to let me know they "don't get it" because e-mailing me is a 'private' communication. I could ask 'the class' as I stand in front of the room if they understand the instructions at which point we could hear the crickets chirp because no middle-schooler is going to admit that they don't get it publicly. One student I taught recently who struggles in school and is somewhat disengaged, sent me 3-4 e-mails per day until she "understood" what to do with each project. I could see the level of trust and connection build as she would add 'random happiness' to her e-mails (in the way of the aforementioned smiley faces). Most of the time when she needed assistance I read her e-mail and her question, I responded (data, again) then I got up and went to her midi station and assisted her directly-in person.
But the catalyst for this one-on-one assistance was an e-mail. A valid connection. Which matters for students. They yearn for it. Connect any way you can. Make them feel that you care about them
not just your subject.