How to Help Students Feel ‘Seen’ in Pandemic Times

How to Help Students Feel ‘Seen’ in Pandemic Times (Unsplash / MayoFi)

Believe it or not, some students are thriving during distance learning. The reasons run the gamut from getting more sleep because of later school start-times to loving the chat feature that enables them to have side conversations with teachers. A few learners, like Jimmy Rodgers, author of YR Media’s Dear Teachers: Black Students Deserve Your Time Too, are flourishing in school because even though they’re just a little box on a computer screen, they feel like teachers are finally seeing them.

We considered what Jimmy said was working about his remote learning experience and translated it into a lesson plan that will help your students feel seen and hone their writing skills. 

NOTE: This lesson plan outlines a lot of questions to ask students to get them thinking critically about the story and activities. Make sure that you are meeting their vulnerability by answering the questions yourself and sharing your own experiences. We hear from students that your participation provides a meaningful model for how to answer these questions and helps build a connected classroom community.

Icebreaker: What is a surprising fact about you? 

Open up the class with this icebreaker question and give students a minute or two to reflect on their answers. Give students the option to answer by unmuting themselves and speaking or putting their answers into the chat. Tell students that as soon as they answer they can “popcorn” or pick another student to answer next. 

NOTE: Distance learning affords students some of the perks that classroom learning does not, so you may want to leverage different ways students can participate in classes so that you’re making sure to hear from all of your students, whether they turn cameras on or off. Make it easy for students to contribute to class discussions by exploring some of the additional features on your video conferencing platform. The chat, in particular, has been a game-changer for more introverted students

Activity 1: Reading and discussing Jimmy’s story 

Give students four minutes to read Jimmy’s story Dear Teachers: Black Students Deserve Your Time Too.

Depending on the size of your group, you can discuss as a class or go into breakout rooms. If you have the capabilities, we recommend putting your students into groups of 3-4 and putting the questions below in the chat so they are available for reference while students are in breakout rooms. When students come back to the whole group, tell them to put words or phrases from the story that resonated with them in the chat. You can invite them to elaborate on the words and phrases they selected.


  • What stood out to you about the story? Did anything surprise you? 
  • Are there parts of Jimmy’s experience that resonate with you? Which ones? 
  • Can you think of a time that you were unseen/seen in your schooling experience?
  • Can you think of ways that pandemic school has turned out differently than you expected? 
  • Can you think of any pleasant surprises from the pandemic? At home? In school?

Activity 2: Personal narrative writing prompt: When do you feel seen? 

NOTE: Feel free to draw from whatever unit that you’re in right now. For example, if you’re in the middle of a poetry unit, you may want to adapt this to be a poetry exercise. We’ll give instructions that guide students through creating a personal narrative. 

Students may want to focus on identity, as Jimmy did, taking into account how their race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ethnicity, ability, nationality or other core identifiers contribute to their being seen by others differently than how they see themselves. Students may choose to make their personal narratives about debunking stereotypes and prejudices that they have noticed. 

If so, you may want to prompt them with these questions: 

  • Do you feel like there is a common set of assumptions people make about you? What are they? How did they first come to your attention? Where do you think those assumptions come from?
  • In what ways do you feel or act differently from how you think you’re seen?
  • In what ways do you feel that you resist stereotypes about you or the identities you hold? 

Some students may want to focus on a hobby or interest they have and how engaging in that activity can make them feel closer to their true selves. 

They may want to ask themselves: 

  • What are your most salient interests?
  • What sparked this interest for you? 
  • In what ways do you practice or hone this interest? 
  • How do you feel when you are practicing or honing this interest? 
  • Why do you think this interest captures your attention?

If students need more support, they can follow this loose structure to help them shape their narratives: 

  • Intro paragraph(s) - Describe what aspect of your identity or interests you will be exploring 
  • Middle paragraph(s) - Focus on a story or incident where you felt your most seen and authentic. If students are pursuing a story about identity, they may want to talk about a time that someone made an incorrect assumption about them and how they debunked that assumption. If students are working on an interest that makes them feel “seen,” they may want to describe how they felt pursuing their interest for the first time, or at a breakthrough moment. 
  • Ending paragraph(s) - Students who are writing about identity can use these paragraphs to drive home why the way that they debunk stereotypes/prejudices is important. Students who are writing about an interest can elaborate on what drives them to deepen their involvement and how they hope to pursue it in the future. 

Finishing up: Share out

There are two options you can use to complete the personal narrative project: sharing out as a whole class or a digital archive that includes everyone’s personal narrative. 

In a class-wide share out, you may want to have a certain number of students per day read out their narratives and leave time for feedback and questions from classmates. Feel free to use our critique guidelines to structure the discussion. 

If you choose to go the digital archive route, you can upload each student’s personal narrative to a digital folder and share it with your students, so that they are able to access everyone’s work from their homes. Optionally, you can give students the assignment to comment on at least two of their classmates' stories according to our critique guidelines

Finally, if your students are inspired to take their personal narratives even further, please have them check out the YR Media pitch guidelines, where they can learn how to submit stories and join our contributor community. 

This learning resource was produced by Nimah Gobir. Thanks to Clifford Lee, Kathleen Arada and Stephanie Stiede for expert feedback.

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