How Teachers Can Foster Community in Online Classrooms

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This article was published on Wired by Eli Reiter on September 25, 2020.

THE SCHOOL YEAR is difficult for both teachers and students, to say the least. Some districts are using a hybrid of remote and in-person learning, while others are on Zoom entirely. And that means teachers are stretched thin and unable to build community with their students, and classmates are unable to get to know their peers well. But there are some choices you can make to combat that.

Melanie Gottdenger, a New York-based seventh-grade teacher in a selective middle school, says, “Studies show that strong communities produce more holistically successful people—rather than students who can ace a test or become a doctor, education professionals are starting to understand that the humanity in us all is what makes our world better, and proves our ‘success’ as teachers.” These tools can be used in a variety of places, with your class, business, or community.What Not to Do

Some educators have resorted to Draconian tactics to be certain that their students are paying attention and doing their work. In Colorado, a Black seventh grader in Colorado was suspended and now has a record with the local sheriff after a teacher called the police because he was playing with a toy gun. Other teachers use Orwellian eye-scanning software that tracks students’ eyes to see if they’re wandering. According to The Washington Post, when schools use online proctoring companies like ProctorU, if students “look off-screen for four straight seconds more than two times in a single minute, the motion will be flagged as a suspect event—a hint that they could be referencing notes posted off-screen.”

As a teacher with many years of experience in the physical classroom, I always aim to foster community and a rapport with my students. I create an oasis of calm and trust, often an alternate universe to the storms occurring in many students’ homes and even in the school’s hallways. Children need adults they can trust, especially now, when lockdown can cause a potential increase in domestic abuse, and when unemployed parents might be stressed out.

This year I am on the other side as well, as a grad student. It feels like I’m always onstage, in a competitive environment. Information doesn’t seep in, and my eyes dart around to the dozens of little boxes onscreen. It feels lonely, like being a character in The Truman Show.What You Can DoStart Late

For a teacher with short periods, time is of the essence. We have so much work to cover in the short time we interface with students. But in an era of remote learning, dead time can be your friend. Start the lesson late so students can chat among themselves. Marco Cenabre, a high school teacher and director of content programming for Teach for America Connecticut, says, “I start class three to four minutes past the start time, but I use the time in order to have kids gather their materials, organize their workspace, and get what they need.” We might have limited time, but it’s useful to use that time for good. I open my Zoom classroom and facilitate group conversations with students. It disarms them, eases them into class, and allows them to become comfortable with this new format of learning and with each other.

Cenabre takes it a step further. “I enthusiastically ask students about their backgrounds—the color of their walls, what room it is, who is there with them.” He says, “It builds a sense of safety that nobody will be judged. Most students have siblings who are also distance learning. Many also have siblings, or nieces or nephews, who are babies or toddlers. Sometimes they pop up, and I pause and ask my student who the person is, and I say hi to them. Students always laugh or smile in these moments. I open up by talking about how even I, myself, might have my niece open my door, or all of a sudden I might go on mute to take care of something.”Set the Mood

Cenabre also has warm-up exercises. “I start class with a soft warm-up such as journaling, a mood meter, or just a fun question that gets everyone involved immediately. As soon as students all get involved, they’re inclined to stay involved.”Use Breakout Groups

Both Zoom and Cisco’s Webex have breakout groups, which let students to interact, often beyond the mood-killing presence of their teachers. (Google Hangouts doesn’t have that feature yet, but you can create concurrent hangouts and usher students into them. Google says breakout groups are in development.) They can talk among themselves and get to know each other in smaller numbers. I create smaller in-group workshops so my students can critique one another’s creative work in a friendly, warm, and supportive way. Indeed, it can even help the bottom line, especially in large class sizes.

“In my summer school class, which was entirely over Zoom, we had frequent breakout sessions and daily group projects,” says Monica Carmean, a college student at University of Chicago. “Because I was learning a language, a lot of the discussion was talking to each other about our daily lives, which are exactly the kind of conversations that are how I make friends in real life.”

In my writing classes, I can correct my students’ work with a virtual red pen, but if they hear it from their peers, they might be more receptive.Shake Things Up

Teachers should offer different modalities to help students learn, as each individual absorbs information differently. Melanie Gottdenger pointed me towards universal design for learning, UDL. It’s hard to plan a class minute by minute, she explains, especially in a diverse classroom. “You have to give students different ways to engage with the material.”

“In my class on Tuesday, I used audiovisual methods, talking, and texts. It gave my students multiple ways of accessing the material, and as long as they get the outcome in whatever way they want, whether you’re telling me or writing, then I have reached my goal. The point of the lesson is for you to understand Romanticism.”

“For direct instruction”, Cenabre says, “students are visual learners, so having a PowerPoint that matches lecture words is essential.” He suggests using Presentations paired with the app Pear Deck, which allows the material to be more interactive as well. “I project a slide that asks, ‘How are you feeling about distance learning this week, compared to last week?’ and I have everyone answer the same question.” Pear Deck allows all student answers to be projected at once—another powerful tool for community building.Use the Chat

Zoom has boxes where student can write questions or comments during the lecture.

Cenabre says, “I frequently tell students to write questions in the chat that I can get back to later, or I ask a question and have everyone share on the chat what their response is. I then have everyone read each other’s responses.” This way, they can help each other answer the question, and often if one student has a question, others do too. This makes children feel less isolated.Lean on Group Projects

This method is often maligned, as it makes it easier for individuals to shirk responsibility while a Hermione Granger-type carries the workload. But group projects are an easy way for quiet or introverted students to shine, as they may collaborate better with smaller teams. This work also keeps anxious or distracted students engaged, so that they could shine in a way that is not only nodding and listening to a webcam. Also, some students struggle retaining knowledge but can shine as they present their work to the rest of the class. There might be a budding orator or podcaster who has not yet found their calling yet, but will when given the opportunity to do so.Hold Office Hours

Teachers should find time to work with students to make sure they feel seen and heard. One-on-ones with each student offer an opportunity for young ones to share their fears or accomplishments, and for a teacher to offer reassurance and helpful tips. They can discuss potential issues and plan for work-arounds. Open communication is the key tool to staving off a potentially adversarial relationship between educator and pupil.Put a Student at the Teacher’s Desk

Another helpful method is if students are given control of the classroom time. This can take many forms. Some students would benefit from presenting their work. Others might be better facilitators. If given the opportunity, they would succeed at reading prep material and leading the discussion by offering guiding questions.

The best practice, for all these things, according to Gottdenger, is to keep pushing your students to break out of their comfort zones and believe in their abilities. “People die to get into our school, because we have a strong community.” She related a story about how she struggled with something, and her principal simply said, ‘I believe in you.’

“And she meant it. We do a lot of things that people think are silly or hokey. But if you’re super enthusiastic, it actually does work. We teach them to keep writers journals and to respond with positive feedback to each other’s work (and to their own), and they become very good writers over the course of the year. Just hearing that you do things well (regardless of what those things are—it could be a funny line or a great idea for a story—our kids are super kind to each other) makes you better at what you’re trying to do, even when you’re not good at it or don’t think you are.” Outsiders may scoff at some of their methods, but if teachers implement tools in a way that they believe in, “students see that optimism and they get excited.”

It’s no secret that we’re in a scary new place as educators, students, and community builders, but there are simple ways to blend analog tools with digital ones in the virtual space.