Call-and-response, virtual handshakes

Before remote learning, one of my most beloved rituals was the handshakes I had with my students. I’ve created dozens over the last couple of years. We did them in the doorway of the classroom where I waited to receive them for class each day and anywhere else we crossed paths. Each student’s handshake was unique to them and based on some sort of connection we had. They were incredibly versatile. They’re also really fun and creative. One ended with the Heisman pose. Another included a game of rock, paper, scissors. And then there was one where the student and I pretended opening a book to read.

There were so many. They were a salient, reoccurring highlight of my day, a physical act that required me to be fully present and acknowledge the individuality of my students. It was one small way to let my students know that I see them. Each handshake served as public affirmation observable to anyone, but was inherently private and special because of the personal meaning it held for the two of us who did it. Being naturally reciprocal, our handshakes also symbolized the mutuality that I strive for with my students. I need them and they need me. No handshake can be done alone.

This fall, as remote learning drove its stake into the ground, my customary handshake was obviously not possible. But, more than ever, I still found myself craving the unique connection that a handshake provides. I needed to find an alternative.

It took a while, but I think I’ve found something. With my students I refer to it as a ‘virtual handshake,’ but it’s essentially a call-and-response that can happen verbally or through text. Here’s how it works. Suppose I have a student, Safiya. After identifying an interesting tidbit about her or something I find pretty cool, together we come up with a phrase or statement that captures it. Let’s say she loves mocha frappes from McDonald’s (I do too). Our statement could simply be “Mocha Frappe.” After we decide on our phrase, we agree where to split the phrase into two parts. With “Mocha Frappe” the split is easy because it’s only two words: part 1 would be “Mocha” and part 2 would be “Frappe.”

Now, anytime Safiya enters Zoom, one of us initiates the the virtual handshake by saying or typing into the chat box part 1 of our phrase, “Mocha.” Whenever that happens, the other person simply replies with “Frappe.” The handshake is complete.

So far, after a few weeks of creating them, I have 8 virtual handshakes — and counting. In addition to “Mocha Frappe,” which is an actual handshake I have with a student, others include:

Part 1: Tic Tac
Part 2: Toe

Part 1: Salut
Part 2: Comment allez-vous

Part 1: She likes the way I dance
Part 2: She likes the way I move

They’re getting more detailed and creative by the day, which is starting to incorporate the symmetry of how we do them. For example, if I include ellipsis (…) or an exclamation point (!) at the end of part 1, I’m imploring my students to return the favor in their response. What’s cool is that, in addition to Zoom, I’ve also been doing them over email and through messages on Classroom. In this asynchronous form of the handshake, I type part 1 at the end of my message. Students reply with part 2.

So while they’re definitely not the same as their physical counterparts, they are helping to dampen the blow of distance learning and close the distance between my students and I…at least minimally. Like my old handshakes, they draw from the personal connection we share, work to affirm each other in distinct ways that are both public and private, and embody reciprocity. I’d also like to think that they let my students know that I see them — even when their camera is never on.


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