Fostering Student Well-Being in Times of Crisis
Christina L. Anandari and Yuseva A. Iswandari, Sanata Dharma University
5 July 2022
A little bit about us before we tell our story
Christina and Yuseva are university-level teachers who have been teaching at the English Education Department for more than 10 years. Throughout the years of teaching, we have come across different types of classroom conditions and different types of students. Even though we teach adult learners, we realize that they, too, need consolation from teachers when they face academic and non-academic problems.
A little background to our story
These past two years (2020-2022) have been quite an emotional roller-coaster for both the teachers and students. In several meetings and interactions with teachers, we listened to their emotional stories on how COVID-19 pandemic and remote learning have caused abrupt changes to their academic and social lives. A female teacher from Kalimantan emotionally expressed:
“I miss going to school and meeting my students. I spend more time on distance learning because I have to create materials using technology. I am emotionally exhausted from preparing materials alone and not being able to meet my students and other teachers.”
Similarly, a teacher from East Nusa Tenggara intensely told us how remote learning had isolated her from her colleagues and students:
“I was shocked and frustrated because I am not able to interact with my students and other teachers in a normal way. My online learning hasn’t been successful because my students do not actively participate. I am not sure if what I prepare could help students in this distant learning. I miss preparing materials with other teachers. I feel I am isolated and have nobody to talk to.”
From these discussions with the teachers, we then wondered if our students would feel the same way. So, we decided to pay more attention to how our students acted during the class sessions. Unfortunately, we witnessed how our students struggled with these turmoil.
The use of remote learning where social interactions are very much limited due to the social distancing impacted their concentrations. Some had to suddenly work to make ends meet because their parents lost their jobs. Others had to cope with the sudden loss of their family members due to COVID-19. These were just some of the problems that we could describe. The impact of the job losses, the limited human interaction, and the loss of family members should not be taken lightly.
It cannot be denied that remote learning had extremely impacted students’ emotions and wellbeing. We managed to informally interview several students to know about their feelings. A 3rd-year university student from Yogyakarta expressed:
“I miss having direct discussions, listening to direct explanations from the teachers. Distance learning really influences me. I easily feel bored and stressed. I cried several times when doing my assignment because I cannot communicate and discuss with my friends (face to face). I feel isolated.”
A strong feeling of isolation was also felt by a university student from Lampung:
“I experience anxiety and lose my motivation. I am anxious because I cannot follow the lesson well. I am anxious because of the internet connection. I am anxious because I cannot meet my friends. I am anxious because I have to stay in my room all the time with no friends, feeling lonely. It really makes me frustrated because my mom is angry all the time because I stay in my room all the time. In fact, I was in my room because I have my classes.”
The feeling of isolation described by these students is actually one of the challenges of remote learning, that is isolated everything (Gillet-Swan (2017) – isolated learners, isolated teachers, isolated materials, and isolated interactions.
Furthermore, during the online class activities we realized that there were some students who failed to submit the given assignments on time, join the online classes while doing some errands or working to make ends meet, or not even join the class at all. Because of this, we tried to communicate with the students by giving them daily greetings through the online chat groups that we created for each class.
What really got our attention was that there were a number of students who would private text us and say that they just didn’t know how to cope with these abrupt changes. They would write, “Why do I feel numb?”, “I don’t even know how to feel anymore”, “I don’t think it’s a good morning for me”, “I’m sad for my parents. They’re suffering, but I don’t know how to help”.
Honestly, we were taken aback with these responses. We realized that we needed to do something about it. We need to put aside all of the lectures and assignments for a bit to make space for them to deal with these conditions. We need to ensure the students’ well-being. Wilkinson, et al. (2019) state that social isolation because of the absence of meaningful interaction with others can cause deterioration of wellbeing and mental health.
How we helped our students cope with their gloomy feelings
Since both of us love reading and are extensive reading practitioners, we have come across some extensive theories on the benefits of using literature to help readers connect with emotions. Roberts & Crawford (2008) mentioned that “books addressing real-life situations are effective with a wide range of age levels because their storylines ring true and they evoke real feelings” (p.2). Bishop in his book described that “through the mirror of literature we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience.
Reading then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, of reaffirming our place in the world and our society (1990, p. 11). Both of these descriptions gave us confirmation that using literature or reading can probably be an effective way to help our students to talk about their emotional turbulence without feeling interrogated. With these in mind, we believe that stories can be used as a platform that can help the readers (in this case, our students) express their emotions and feelings.
The first thing that we decided upon was to choose the story for the students to read. We chose a book that was very much related to how to deal with emotion. So, we came across a storybook entitled “The Sad Book” by Michael Rosen. Both of us read the story and we felt that the story would suffice. The story tells about Rosen’s struggles in dealing with the loss of his son and his mother and how he tries to free himself from it.
Despite its deep meaning, the story engulfs positivity and acceptance, which we feel that these types of stories can give some insights and consolation to our students. After choosing the story, we allocated around 2 meetings within the 16 meetings in one semester to conduct the literature circle. We agreed to stop giving the students online lectures and online academic assignments within those 2 meetings and let the students breathe and read the story as much as they want in their own time.
In the first week, we gave the students two questions that will be used in the literature circle. The questions that we chose were not comprehension questions. On the contrary, the chosen questions were easy yet reflective questions. The questions were: 1) Which image/illustration that you feel connected with? Why?; 2) In your opinion, what is sadness?
We asked the students to read the story and answer the given questions individually. We also asked them to fill out a google form containing the two questions for the sake of documentation, since we would not be able to follow the online discussion in all of the breakout rooms.
After a week of reading and preparing the literature circle activity, we met with the students via Zoom application in the following week. We only gave them a simple instruction: Make use of the 60 minutes to share your answers with your friends in the assigned breakout room. They were also allowed to use their native language should they have problems in expressing their ideas. This was an important aspect to ensure the success of the discussion because the main purpose of this activity was to share their feelings and not to assess their English language proficiency. Since they’ve been together as classmates since 2019, they would feel comfortable in sharing their answers.
Talking about Sadness through online literature circle
Honestly, our main purpose was purely to give our students time to breathe and enjoy reading the story since reading and talking about the story would benefit them in their effort to increase their English language proficiency. We were hopeful that this activity can benefit the students from an emotional standpoint, but at the same time, we were vigilant since this activity has never been done virtually before.
However, the discussion turned out more than expected. We were thrilled that students gave positive responses to this activity. These were shown from the in-depth discussions that they did in the breakout rooms. The first question was aimed to help students get to know the content of the book better, pay attention to the details, and be in tune with the story’s atmosphere. As a response to the first question (Which image/illustration that you feel connected with? Why?), some of the answers were as follows:
A female student who is far from home and couldn’t return to her hometown at the moment chose a picture from the book page 16. The picture in this page illustrated a girl sitting on her bed in her bedroom with a sad face, hugging her legs and put her chin between her knees. Her bedroom was cluttered with books, papers, food wraps and empty soda cans. Underneath the image, Rosen wrote: “Who is sad? Sad is anyone. It comes along and finds you.” She chose this picture because it is:
“…the reflection of myself when I was sad. This picture really represents what sadness is in my opinion. Being sad is being alone in my room, all the things are messed up, everything is not good. When I was sad, I sat on the bed, and thought about what just happened in my life, wondering why it was too hard for me to pass it (with a sad emoji at the end).”
A male student who had just lost one of his family members due to COVID chose a picture found on page 2. The picture illustrated Rosen’s grinning face. Underneath the picture, Rosen wrote: “This is me being sad. Maybe you think I’m being happy in this picture. Really I’m being sad but pretending I’m being happy. I’m doing that because I think people won’t like me if I look sad”. Our student admitted that he could see himself through the illustration and description. He said:
“A smile is one of the expressions that can express the pain of losing someone. Lately, I tried to put on my best smile even though I felt really really sad and pain… I learn that we should be more open-minded about sadness and depression. And we should tell children and adults to accept sadness and how to deal with it.”
A female student chose a picture on page 12. The picture depicts Rosen’s loneliness even though he was walking in the streets among the crowds. Underneath the picture, Rosen wrote, “Sometimes I’m sad and I don’t know why. It’s just a cloud that comes along and covers me up. It’s not because Eddie’s gone. It’s not because my mum’s gone. It’s just because.” The female student responded to this picture and Rosen’s expressions like this:
“This picture hits me. Lately, I am fully aware that I can’t express my sadness, my anger, and my disappointment. Weird, right? I can hardly cry. I felt the sadness, but I just can’t cry. How do I cope with sadness?”
The second question was related to how the students define sadness. The aim of the second question is to help students to define what sadness is. Since each person has different interpretations on what sadness is, this activity can be a platform for students to share their version of the meaning of sadness. As expected, we encountered rich and touching definitions on sadness. Here are some of the examples.
One female student used the picture from the story on page 2 where Rosen’s caricature grinning with eyes wide open as her bridge to define what sadness was. She said that, “This picture reminds me that life is not always happy, but there is sadness also, and this is a part of life. There is always sadness and happiness that comes to our lives.” Another male student chose a picture that illustrated Rosen sitting on his bed looking disheveled and unhappy. The picture was also in monochrome which depicted his inner feelings. This male student expressed his frustration on how sometimes society can be very unfair when it comes to expressing emotions. He wrote:
“In my opinion, this [picture] expresses sadness perfectly. When I’m sad and alone in my bedroom, I feel like everything is dark and all I can do is just cry. It’s not taboo for women to cry, but it’s still taboo for men to cry or express sadness. It’s frustrating.”
A female student did not provide a definition of sadness since she felt she couldn’t find the appropriate words. However, she chose one picture found at the end of book where Rosen was sitting on his work desk with a pen in his right hand, and a piece of paper on the desk. He put his head on his left hand. In front of him were a lit candle and a picture frame facing him. His expression was calm, serene, but with a hint of sadness. She said:
“The reason I chose this picture was because I think that the picture represents that nothing lasts forever…Reading this book makes me think about the things I’ve been through, the people I love that have passed, and my family, too. So I can relate with how he feels, too.”
Those two weeks had been an eye-opening experience for the both of us. Firstly, by giving the students time to breathe, relax, and talk about what they were experiencing at that time, students became more relaxed and more open with us. Secondly, both of us realized that teachers also need this kind of activity. We were also able to share our struggles to our students, and thus we somehow had a mutual understanding towards each other’s struggles.
Furthermore, books and the activities could be a good way to connect students and minimize the feeling of isolation. The conversations during the literature circle make them become more reflective and less anxious, knowing that they were not alone. Through what we do, we finally realized that social connectedness matters greatly especially in remote learning (Becker, 2021).
However, we want to highlight several important points if other teachers want to adopt what we do. We learned that the positive response from the students relied on the choice of story book, the type of discussion questions, and the good amount of time and space for the students to share and talk.
Bishop, R.S. (1990). Windows and mirrors: Children’s books and parallel cultures. Perspectives (6), 11 – 19.
Gillet-Swan, J. (2017). The challenges of online learning: Supporting and engaging isolated learner. Journal of Learning Design, 10(1), 20-30.
Roberts, S.K., & Crawford, P.A. (2013). Real life calls for real books: Literature to help children cope with family stressors. Beyond the Journal: National Association for the Education for Young Children, 1 – 8.
Wilkinson, A., Bowen, L., Gustavsson, E., Littleton, N., Thompson, M., Mulligan, H. (2019). Maintenance and development of social connection by people with long-term conditions: A qualitative study. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 16, 1-11.
More like this story