The three most important words of the semester: How are you?

At the end of each semester, I ask students to share their reflections. What will they remember most? What did they learn? How did they change or grow as a result of our time together? As this year wrapped up, and we gathered online for one of our final remote classes, I anticipated that most of their answers would focus on Zoom, the pandemic, and being apart from one another. While these did show up in their responses, repeatedly students mentioned the thing they would remember most was our daily check-ins. The “padlets”, the polls, and surveys that I began each class with, asking them quite simply — how are you?

About halfway through my 30 seniors sharing their final reflections I had to stop them — I was in shock that this answer kept coming up in their presentations. How was this silly little check-in, something that took up 5 minutes of our 90-minute long class, that contained no teaching, no real content — the most important thing they would remember?

One student responded — “you were the only professor I had all year who asked us how we were doing”. Others agreed. My surprise continued. How could this be? Surely others asked how they were doing. Another student added “most professors would just say ‘how are you all doing’ and someone would say OK or would type something in the chat and then they’d just move on. You were the only one who asked us all, every day, giving us the space to say whatever we wanted”.

This ritual was something I started early on in the giant pivot to remote quarantine crisis teaching — using anonymous polls or surveys to ask “check-in” questions to students. In the beginning, it was something I did to play with ways to engage students and test out new features or tools — a “remote teaching 101 tip”. I always embraced teaching during the pandemic for what it is. We were all in crisis, experiencing multiple pandemics, nothing was/is “normal” so to pretend otherwise was never an option. By the start of Fall 2020, I had a routine, each class started with some kind of anonymous poll — usually on Padlet where I played up the bright colors, clip art, and emojis. Sometimes the question was a simple how are you (other than tired, hungry, or OK), sometimes it was holiday-themed, something to inspire one another or a tip to share, sometimes just a random question. These were always anonymous allowing everyone the space to answer freely. After everyone had the chance to answer, I would read them back out loud. What I quickly realized was that students needed this — they needed a place where they could openly say what was on their minds without judgments. Where they could see and hear that they weren’t the only one who was depressed, who was struggling, who had anxiety, who was so excited that they finally saw a friend, who was sick and worried, who binged on Netflix, who did whatever. Sometimes that was it and we dove into the course content, sometimes their answers influenced if I changed up the order of the day, or pivoted to a different way of doing things, sometimes they led to repeated jokes and memes in the class. Every answer was valid, every answer was seen and heard.

As much as I did this for my students, I was also doing this for me. I too sometimes didn’t want to get out of bed. I too had anxiety, missed my parents, worried, cried, drank too much coffee, or not enough. If I needed someone to ask me how I was doing, surely my students did too. Our collective answers brought us together. By simply asking “how are you” and knowing you could answer “not OK”, somehow made things a little more OK.

Simultaneous with teaching college-level design courses online, I also watched my older daughter finish 1st grade, and start 2nd grade also online — grades that previous to COVID rarely touched technology for teaching and learning (or at least in our school). As I pivoted on how to workshop, brainstorm, discuss, demonstrate and critique without my usual physical classroom I inadvertently became an ethnographer watching out of the corner of my eye, eagerly listening in on the student experience of little ones some 15-ish years younger than my students. Admittedly it was my daughter’s school that introduced me to Padlet to collect responses, and just like the little ones — I too found myself excited by its bright colors and cheesy clip art. When I saw how much my daughter loved making snacks with her classmates over Zoom it made me wonder how I too might cook and share food with my students. When I watched her excitedly building robots from cardboard boxes with her classmates all doing the same in their zoom grid seen from a computer on the floor it made me want to craft and build along with my students. When her PE teacher asked if students could Zoom from outside to jump rope together it made me wonder how I too could hold class outside.

At the heart of all of these moments is simply the act of creating a shared experience — a way for people to connect — through food, through an activity, through sharing a song or joke, through telling their stories. These are small things we sometimes took for granted in our pre-social distancing lives. How often do we ask “how are you?” only to hear “good, and you?”… “good..” But no one is really “good” or “OK”. We are all something more far more complex. When students shared genuinely how they felt, and felt seen and heard in that, that too created a connection. I saw this in my daughters’ school, I saw it in my university students, and I saw this in meetings I had with colleagues — we needed a way to be vulnerable, honest, and connected. So as my students wrapped up their final presentations (moving me to tears with their reflections on the community we built together) I knew for certain that I would carry over these raw, anonymous daily check-ins when we return to in person classes.

I taught full-time entirely remotely for the past year and a half, and in that time I made pancakes with my university students on Zoom, we went for walks on Zoom, we crafted, we did yoga, we played games. While these check-ins and activities became regular musings in my classes, it certainly was not the meat of my courses. Students still got a rigorous design education. My senior design majors created impressive meaningful thesis projects, seminar students analyzed texts, wrote prompts, produced podcasts, my community-engaged learning students created collaborative real-world projects with community partners and more. In some ways, the work went deeper, stretched farther, and took on more forms than in pre-pandemic times. I can see that part of the reason students were able to achieve so much, even during this distanced-crisis-pandemic time, was because of these small moments of connections I took the time to make — seeing and knowing simply, truly, — how they are.

Design Professor at USF. Systems Thinker. Design Futures Stradegist. Editor of the Routledge Handbook of Sustainable Design. Mother of 2. Wearer of many hats.