Teacher to Teacher: Building Community in a Virtual Setting
by Lynne R. Dorfman
In the beginning of the new school year, establishing a strong class culture is our first priority, whether we are face-to-face or virtual. We cannot assume that this culture exists, even if many of the students have had other shared classroom experiences. Last year, we started online classes in March or shortly thereafter. Students and teachers had to make big adjustments in how they navigated a school day.
In a traditional classroom, there are practices that most teachers use to build a classroom community. In shifting to online learning, things are going to look different, but a community of learners can be built in the online setting based on the same core values of a traditional classroom setting: trust, respect, human kindness, and responsibility. It is possible to stir excitement and fun into our virtual classroom, and we can begin with opportunities to build personal relationships with our students and help them to get to know each other as well.
One thing you should try to do as a teacher is to get to know your students’ names as quickly as possible and something about them that will help you make a connection with each and every student in your classroom. If it is possible, ask students to send you a photo with a sentence or two about what they love to do in school and at home. You could create a slide deck in Google Slides with space for your students to upload images of themselves, their pets, and things they enjoy doing. Visuals are a great way for students to connect with classroom members in your virtual classroom community. Your school may be able to provide you with a picture file, or you can take a screenshot of each student with a good camera, but either way, you’ll want to find out what your students are interested in.
Take a quick survey. Ask students to fill out an online interest survey. If they are young, spend a week to highlight five or six students every day and ask them two or three questions to give you some information. You might ask them about their reading interests, their favorite foods if they have siblings or pets, and something about them, their favorite school subject, their favorite game (indoor and/or outdoor). What would they like to learn about this school year? Be sure to model with your own responses to the interest survey you are giving your students.
It’s important to continue to assess your online environment, so you need to ask yourself some hard questions. Are your students showing up for the virtual sessions when you are teaching and perhaps conferring with students and offering feedback in breakout rooms? Is there evidence that they are reading the texts and thinking about the assigned projects and written assignments when they are working independently? Are they making use of the discussion board, time to chat with you when you are available on Zoom or another venue, engaged during synchronous learning by asking questions and collaborating freely with their peers?
Are you using the workshop model? The reading/writing workshop routines of mini-lesson independent reading/writing time, share, and reflection can be established during the first month. Through modeling, students understand that you take risks as a reader and a writer. Perhaps you share a reading timeline that shows what you’ve read over the summer months, the authors, and the genres. As you talk about your timeline, you might notice that you’ve only been reading fiction. So you might tell your students that you have chosen several nonfiction selections including His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope by Jon Meacham (released Aug 25, 2020) for your fall reads. If you would prefer a visual such as a book stack, that is something your students can do and upload to the slide deck or to the class website. Sometimes, it is a mix of age levels and genres. This one is mostly YA (7 – 12) literature, but sometimes I do stacks of picture books or one genre. What would your yearlong stack look like? Mine would look like the leaning Tower of Pisa!
Switching up partners and flexible groups in September and October and throughout the year allows students to work with all of their classmates and creates opportunities for deeper learning. Cultivating a culture of trust in the shared virtual space involves building relationships. Building trust involves daily contact, via a phone call, email, Zoom meetings to confer and offer feedback, discussion boards for response and feedback, and time to ask questions during synchronous learning (in whole group or through the chat in Zoom, for example). Everyone has equal access to the learning experience (Everyone has camera on, or no one has camera on). Remember, one of the drawbacks to synchronous learning in an online setting is that students may feel they are not receiving the individual attention they need. You could schedule small-group conference sessions every so often with 3 – 6 students to fulfill that need.
The virtual classroom should look like, sound like, and feel like a safe place. Video response tools like Flipgrid are excellent for students to answer questions about non-content-related topics to build trust. For example, “What is your best quality/character trait? What is something you are proud of? What is something you enjoy doing? Who is your everyday hero? Why? Nearpod is another tool tool that fosters collaboration through an interactive slideshow. Parlay is a great tool to make discussion a central part of your classroom. Seesaw: The Learning Journal is a digital portfolio that appeals to everyone: teachers, students, and their parents.
Remember that asynchronous learning still allows the opportunity for feedback. Students are free to share thoughts and questions with you and their peers, though they may not receive an immediate response. Pre-recorded video lessons, blog posts on a classroom website, discussion boards, and emails are ways to respond and receive feedback.
How do you create a supportive virtual classroom charged with enthusiasm and commitment to learning? How do you build a community of learners?
Lynne R. Dorfman is a 1989 Writing Project fellow. Lynne is currently an adjunct professor at Arcadia University and a Stenhouse author. She is co-president of her local reading council, KSLA Brandywine Valley Forge, and co-secretary for the Eta chapter of Alpha Delta Kappa. Lynne loves to write poetry, read mysteries and memoir, take walks with her three Welsh Corgis, and vacation in Maine and Niagara on the Lake. She enjoys the precious time with her three goddaughters and their husbands whenever possible.
Lynne, you shared so many valuable ideas. There is so much uncertainty for teachers now, and no easy answers, but sharing resources and strategies is a great way for teachers to support each other. I agree with your suggestions to create a space that is as safe as possible, and to continually assess the online environment to see what’s working and what can be improved.