How Teachers Can Foster Community in Online Classrooms

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 Do

Start 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.

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