Stay Connected: How to Build a Classroom Community Online
It's safe to assume that students need an internet connection during distance learning. That connection makes accessing assignments and communicating with teachers easier. However, perhaps the connection they really need is a strong sense of belonging among their classmates and knowing that they are valued by their teachers. Research has shown that students who have good relationships with their teachers are far more likely to succeed in school and life than those who don't. Without the daily high fives and laughter on the playground, how can teachers build that sense of community online?
Make the First Few Moments Count
Think back on how you used to begin your in-class instruction. Did you greet students at the door? Did you play nice music in the background? Did you have your favorite air freshener plugged in and ready to hide the midday post-recess sweaty-student smell? Do your best to replicate those practices online. The initial moments when students enter your room, whether on campus or online, set the stage for building community.
A Warm Welcome
Just as you would welcome students walking through your door, be sure to be intentional about welcoming students by name as they enter your online classroom. If, in the past, your students would enter, sit, and begin some type of bell work or warmup activity, try to replicate that with a Padlet to foster collaboration or daily journal prompt. Perhaps they are expected to jump into their favorite pages of their review and challenge workbook while they wait for the rest of their classmates to arrive. Regardless of the specific details, make sure there is a morning routine in place so that the students feel welcome and secure the second they sign on.
An icebreaker is a great way to foster a sense of community and encourage the feeling of connectedness. These exercises do not need to be long, but their effects will be long-lasting. Using an icebreaker to start your online session can urge students to be active participants in the day's session. Icebreakers remind students that their thoughts, opinions, feelings, and presence matter when they begin their school day, knowing that they are more likely to participate and succeed.
Make Connections with Students and Parents
Some of the strategies you often use in the classroom will work well as you strive to create your online community. Teachers are brilliant! One of your many superpowers is the ability to see a need and brainstorm a way to solve it. While you will not be able to add any more hours to the current 24 hours you have each day-yes, you must sleep-there are a handful of easy old-school ways that can help you with just a little tweak in tradition.
Send Notes Home
You might not be able to tuck a note into a student's folder or backpack, but you can drop a quick postcard in the mail praising a student's effort. Those small gestures will go a long way in this season. You can print postcards to mail home or email a quick ecard to one of the student's parents. Even a few simple lines that acknowledge something their child is doing well or attempting to master will speak volumes to a parent during these trying times.
Virtual Parent-Teacher Conferences
The traditional parent-teacher conference is a great time for both teachers and parents to learn about one another. You can still hold virtual parent-teacher conferences and learn about your new students' passions and hobbies. You can use this time to forge a stronger connection with the parents in your classroom and discuss their children's progress and expectations for the rest of the year. Online conferences are actually quite convenient. Parents don't have to leave work for a mid-afternoon meeting or arrange for childcare for other children. You have the flexibility of scheduling the appointments when they work for you and don't have to be stuck on campus until late at night, trying to cram all of the back-to-back sessions in. Who knows? Virtual parent-teacher conferences may continue long after distance learning ends!
Breakout Rooms for Small Group Interactions
Some students, especially the most vulnerable or introverted ones, will have a hard time speaking up during whole-group online instruction. As a teacher, you can no longer walk by those students' desks, tap them on the shoulder and check in with them as the rest of their classmates work on individual projects. It will be easy for these students to get lost or left behind, and it is crucial that teachers are mindful of this and prevent it from happening. Many online learning and conferencing platforms now offer breakout rooms. Consider using these for small group projects or to conference with students one-on-one while the rest of the class is in session in the main room. These smaller groups will allow all students an opportunity to play a role in the class and, more importantly, in the community.
Virtual Lunch Bunch
Create a schedule and invite a few students at a time to join you for a virtual lunch bunch. While whole-group synchronous instruction has its perks, it can be hard to connect with students one-on-one if the interaction always involves the entire class. Creating opportunities to connect and visit with just a few students at a time will continue to foster a sense of belonging. You can grab your lunch, find a cozy place around your home or outside to eat, and enjoy a round of "Would You Rather." These non-threatening questions will give you a chance to get to know your students' personalities and help them get to know one another.
Make Time for Fun
The stress of hours spent online, trying to cover vast amounts of content, and assessing student understanding is a real thing! You have now transitioned from full-time (plus!) teacher to full-time teacher and full-time tech support. It's a heavy load to bear even for the most tech-savvy educators. In the midst of all of the "need-to-dos," don't forget to make time for fun. Having fun as a class will help to build a sense of community.
Invite your students to "play" together during virtual recess. Have them grab their favorite ball, jump rope, or hula hoop and get up and move during a learning break. Playworks, a non-profit California-based company, has created a series of virtual recess videos on YouTube to help ensure students get up and move during their at-home school day.
Virtual Dance Party
Your students have moves, and they are dying to show them! Crank up the kid-friendly tunes and let your students dance it out! If you are feeling so inclined, let them see you wiggle too. Most students get a real kick out of seeing their teachers try to bust a move. Not only will the dancing give you a much-needed break from sitting, but being silly as a group reminds your students that it's ok to be vulnerable. If you can cut loose, be silly, and (possibly) look a little goofy, students learn that it's okay for them to take risks and try a new task even if there's a chance they may look a little silly, too.
Virtual Scavenger Hunts
A scavenger hunt can be a great way to engage your students in person or online. The hustle in the hunt keeps students excited as they scurry around the house looking for items. There are many virtual scavenger hunt item lists found online. Some include silly, common household items. Others require more thought as students will search for meaningful items or create things with their family members.
Virtual Spirit Days
Spirit Days or Theme Weeks always bring a bit of excitement to campus. Why not replicate that at home during distance learning? This spring, several schools found that their spirit days for distance learning kept students engaged and gave them something to look forward to as they anticipated the next day's session.
This school year is certain to bring ever-changing agendas, locations, and learning situations. One thing that won't change, however, is your students. Your students are still looking to you to be their safe haven. They are looking to you as they gauge what their response to all this uncertainty should be. Whether you spend the entire year teaching online or are able to return to in-person instruction at some point is yet to be determined. In the meantime, do your best to foster that deep sense of community so that your students, wherever they are, know that they are seen, cared for, and valued. That connection is one that can't be lost!