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Enhancing Human Connection in the Classroom Through Technology

Mar 20, 2020 2020-03-20

By Elizabeth O. Crawford

“What do you remember most about elementary school?”

While preparing for an international conference presentation in Finland on quality education, I reached out to my former 5th grade students (who are now in their mid-20s) with this question via social media. I anticipated typical responses like friendships, sports, and field trips.

Instead, their responses left me speechless.

“Our French pen pals! I still tell my wife about how you taught us French in 5th grade and agreed to take us to France after we graduated. The stories you told still have one of the biggest impacts on our lives!”

Some of my students have kept their pen pal letters in a scrapbook all these years later.

What does this example suggest about the enduring power of human connection?

I taught elementary school before the advent of Skype in the Classroom, ePals, or Flipgrid. Having lived in France, I relied on my contacts there to establish global collaborative projects between our students. I supplemented lessons about diverse people and places with children’s literature, maps, and VHS tapes I checked out from the local library. As many of my students had never traveled outside their state, I strove to bring the world into the classroom using authentic, engaging materials. Now as a teacher educator, I have the same commitment—only my approach has been amplified thanks to the vast array of high-quality technology tools and resources available. In this blog post, I will share a few of my favorites.

Integrating Social-Emotional Learning
Humans are born with the need and desire to connect with others. Healthy social and emotional development is critical as it lays a foundation for later learning, physical and physiological well-being, and the ability to thrive in the future. Social-emotional learning is comprised of interrelated competencies, including self-awareness (e.g., recognizing one's emotions, strengths, and interests) and social awareness (e.g., being able to take another’s perspective and to empathize with others from diverse cultures and backgrounds).

Fostering Self-Awareness Using Mindfulness and Gratitude Practice
Positive interactions with others—in the classroom and beyond—begins with an understanding of oneself. To that end, I use mindfulness and gratitude practices throughout course sessions to help my students to develop self-compassion and to strengthen their mind-body connection. Having enrolled in Mindful Schools’ “Mindfulness Fundamentals” ecourse a few years ago, I am keen to integrate their videos and other resources in my teaching. More recently, I attended a three-day Yoga and Mindfulness training via Little Flower Yoga (LFY) in Iceland where I learned how to integrate their framework of connect, breathe, move, focus, and relax throughout the curriculum. Using LFY's Mindful Mondays, a web app program that includes multimedia content and practical tools, I integrate mindfulness practices like Heart and Belly Breathing in every course session. Not only do these practices have the potential to build self-awareness and reduce stress, they can also enhance neuroplasticity.

Little Flower Yoga’s Heart and Belly Breathing

Connected to mindfulness practice, giving and expressing gratitude to others has been found to increase happiness, strengthen relationships and life satisfaction, build self-esteem, and reduce stress and anxiety. Such outcomes can foster a healthy sense of identity, connections to others, and result in a positive school climate. GiveThx is a digital app and curriculum that affords a structured way for teachers and students to give and receive messages of gratitude and to reflect on their own identity development and learning. Through GiveThx, my students use evidence-based gratitude practices like 3 Good Things and Strengths Inventory. Not only has this simple tool enhanced students’ self-awareness, it has also built a positive culture in my courses. One student recently commented that “GiveThx is the healthiest app out there. When we are having a hard time shifting perspective, gratitude can lead us to a better place.”

Nurturing Social Awareness Using Authentic Human Stories
Once students recognize their unique identities and perspectives, they are better poised to take the perspectives of others and to empathize with them. Authentic human stories shared via documentary film can be powerful teaching tools with both educational and social-emotional benefits. For example, Lyfta, an online interactive platform using “immersive storyworlds,” depicts a revolutionary pedagogical approach combining virtual reality and augmented reality, transforming one’s experiences and abilities to connect more readily with other people. My students become engrossed when experiencing these storyworlds.

UNCW student exploring the Lyfta Awra Amba Storyworld
“I can’t say enough how of an impact this resource can be in a classroom. Being able to see villages and schools in 3D. Being able to navigate and listen to stories.”
UNCW student about Lyfta

Likewise, Global Oneness Project offers cost-free award-winning films, photo essays, and articles with accompanying curriculum and discussion guides on a variety of human and environmental issues. Whether one is studying the impacts of climate change in Louisiana, indigenous language preservation in California, or deforestation in Ethiopia, the films depict our shared humanity.

As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wisely stated, single stories create stereotypes because they are incomplete. It is important that educators incorporate many stories in their classroom, including those shared between students about their lives and those they incorporate from diverse cultures and places. Technology has the potential to do both: to bring us together and to enhance human connection.

Elizabeth O. Crawford is an Associate Professor of Elementary Education at the University North Carolina Wilmington where she teaches courses in instructional design, social studies methods, and global education. She is passionate about collaborating with others on shared efforts to promote a more peaceful, just, and sustainable world through the Sustainable Development Goals and HundrED, a Finnish nonprofit that identifies and helps to spread education innovations around the world. Elizabeth has a PhD in Educational Policy, Planning, and Leadership from the College of William and Mary. She is a former classroom teacher and current teacher advocate. Follow her on Twitter @TeachGlobalEd.

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