When we first made the decision to run Dynamo Girl classes virtually, I was terrified. I am not a tech savvy person – not even a little bit. I am a people person and much prefer face to face interactions. When I am coaching Dynamo Girl classes in person, the girls’ body language and facial expressions are the way I can tell if an activity is going well. Many of the girls are not going to bluntly tell me that they hate something (although some of them do!) but they will let me know by crossing their arms over their chests or looking down at the floor instead of at me while I’m explaining an activity. When I see laughter and smiles and a body that is in motion and fluid I know they are enjoying the activity and that I am doing my job well.
Coaching online gives me virtually none of those clues. No pun intended. If a girl is laying on her floor watching me through her iPad, is she tired? Is she bored? Or is it simply the best position in which to see the screen in her house? I have no prior experience with reading facial expressions and body language through a screen and the first virtual class I coached felt to me like an epic failure. Some of the girls had their video off, some were playing with their dogs while I was giving instructions and some were having conversations with people in their homes instead of participating in class. My internet connection was spotty, my audio wasn’t loud enough and I had no way of knowing if the activities I had planned were actually working. The perfectionist in me was freaking out. How in the world was I going to find the same energy and spirit that makes an in-person Dynamo Girl class so special?
It has taken 6 weeks, a lot of trial and error, tons of sleepless nights and a willingness to let go of my perfectionism to get me to a place where I feel satisfied with our virtual efforts. The learning curve has been steep and every day I’m faced with a new challenge, but I’m learning to roll with the punches more and more. I am finally confident we are giving the girls who come to our virtual classes a positive, meaningful experience, something I never imagined we could do. The most important lesson I have learned is that it doesn’t really matter WHAT we are doing in our classes but HOW we are doing it that matters. If we show up to every class with a joyful attitude and a willingness to make mistakes, then that is enough. That is what we ask of our Dynamo Girls, in person and virtually, and that is what I’ve learned to ask of myself as we venture into the virtual unknown. With that being said, I have learned some valuable lessons along the way that now inform my ongoing approach to coaching our virtual Dynamo Girl classes that can be applied to virtual experiences in a broader sense. They will continue to guide my work and hopefully will help your families as we all navigate the new reality of virtual learning on all fronts.
- Set clear expectations and establish regular rituals. In our in-person Dynamo Girl classes we always start our class with the Dynamo Girl cheer and end with the Dynamo Girl pledge. We have adapted those rituals to an online setting, providing the girls with some familiar routines, gives them comfort that not everything is different, building community across screens for girls and coaches alike and creating an opening and closing framework that grounds the girls’ experience while they’re online with us.
- Be patient with kids’ different virtual personalities. Some girls are not going to feel comfortable using the video feature. While it can be difficult to coach to some blank screens, it is important not to force the girls to show themselves or make them feel ashamed about where their comfort level lies. I was surprised to find that some of the girls who are most vocal and willing to participate in my in-person classes, are the girls who are the most uncomfortable and shy online. I am patient with them and try to include them in the activities as best I can — if I have a second coach or teacher with me, I ask that coach to be responsible for checking in with them and including them in the class so I am not responsible for both running the activities and ensuring that girls on the edges are participating.
- Use the chat feature wisely. The chat feature is extremely tempting to emoji-loving, socializing-hungry kids. It’s only natural! I have learned to set expectations up front about how adults and kids will be utilizing the chat function. I make it clear that the chat is not for having side conversations with other girls and it is not for posting emojis. We walk a fine line in our classes because we don’t want to discourage the girls from being silly, but if we don’t set clear boundaries things can very easily get out of hand. I’ve learned that there is also a real upside for the chat function, particularly as we try to reach all different kinds of learners through multimodal instruction. So for instance, chat can be used as a place for the girls to ask clarifying questions about an activity or to answer a question the coach asked without having to speak out loud to the group. The coaches can also use this tool to write down the instructions for activities in case a child missed them or learns better through written instructions. In some ways, it can help us reach girls that might feel less engaged during an in-person class.
- Recognize what kids did all day before I see them. Just like we have learned to be understanding when our kindergartners need to lie on the floor for a few minutes at the start of our Friday afternoon in-person classes, so too have we learned to appreciate the demands that virtual learning places on the girls. We start our virtual classes between 3 and 4pm every day — the girls have already been in online school all day and may be exhausted from staring at a screen for hours. We quickly realized, if a girl wants to watch class but not participate, that is ok. If a girl wants to shut off her video for a while and just listen, that is ok. If she just wants to join us for freeze dance and then smile through the other activities, that is ok. I have come to appreciate that sometimes It is enough that she is there, we see her and she sees us.
- Different groups of girls, different strategies for building community. I coach some classes where the girls have been doing Dynamo Girl for years. They already have an established relationship with other girls in the class and with me. On the other hand, I have some classes where the girls are newer to Dynamo Girl and not familiar with the other girls in the class. There is a HUGE difference in the way I approach these two classes. For the girls who are Dynamo Girl pros, I allow for more fluidity and less structure. I let them lead activities and elicit their feedback on how things are going. They want to have a part in this new Dynamo Girl experience and they contributed in a major way to how I have shaped the current curriculum. For the newer girls, I tighten the structure and include more “get to know you” games and activities to facilitate the girls’ building community with each other and me. I let them gradually open up and allow them some space to feel more comfortable as the weeks go on. Building new relationships virtually is more challenging but not impossible!
- When all else fails, have a dance party! When I can’t tell if I’m engaging the kids or energy starts to wane, I put on some music and dance! Somehow, things that are not fun without music become super fun with music. Planking with music — fun! Squats with music — fun! And there is nothing that makes everyone laugh and be silly more than seeing a coach do the running man!
You can subscribe to the Dynamo Girl Newsletter here.