Inside: There’s no secret ingredient to building a virtual classroom community. Every teacher will find approaches that work best for his or her own personality and teaching style. Hopefully, these practical ideas will help you get started.
If your school is starting in person (or with a blended approach), it will be a little bit (masks and social distancing are still a challenge!) easier to incorporate regular routines to help establish an uplifting, welcoming classroom community. But, if you’re starting school 100% online, it will be interesting.
Normally, I’d use things like reading conferences and conversations in order to build relationships with students. In this new (and hopefully temporary) environment, we need to be innovative and creative. Relationships and community are at the heart of what we do. So, how can we build a strong virtual classroom community?
ROUTINES & NORMS
We can create a safe, structured space for students when we are consistent with our virtual classroom routines. Think about your first time teaching or anytime you’ve switched school districts. It’s hard to truly feel like part of the community until you learn how that school operates…expectations, daily routines, bell schedules, office locations. School (even virtual school!) feels more like “home” with routines and norms in place that we understand at that magnify our learning and friendships.
- Where should students check for updates from you, and how often?
- When students have questions, how should they ask them?
- Is there a certain location or way you want all work to be submitted?
- Will there be a regularly scheduled daily or weekly synchronous meeting students can look forward to?
- Can you use virtual agenda or weekly planning slides to help students get organized?
Having students participate in helping to create classroom norms for virtual meetings, late work, and organization is a way to give them a voice, thereby pulling them more uniquely into your classroom community. Let students know in advance of your Google Meet or Zoom meeting what you’ll want their input on so they can give it some thought. This can also be done through a Google Form, but not to the same effect.
Once these routines and norms are set, it’s important that we check in with students regularly to see how things are going. Are they clear? Are the routines working for them? You can read more about online routines and getting organized virtually in this post.
I know not all students attend virtual office hours, but providing the opportunity for students to connect with us remotely is invaluable.
In college, I was always a student who utilized office hours. Generally, I had a lot of questions, and knowing that office hours were available on Friday from 10-12 alleviated a lot of anxiety. Students can feel that same way remotely. It can be anxiety-inducing to feel all alone, like the best you can do if you have a question is send an email out into cyberspace.
I’ll be a teacher coordinator for our middle school students who chose 100% remote learning students this year, and one of my priorities is offering them a Google Meet time every day. It won’t be required, but I’ll have the link open during one of my two prep periods just in case any of them pop in with questions or just want to say hello.
When students do not log on for office hours voluntarily (and we really want to make sure to see them), we can try to schedule appointments that span a certain period of time. Meeting with students in small groups can help to boost confidence. Every student wants to be seen…to be known and understood by his her her teacher, even if they don’t act like it.
I have run classroom meetings in person, and they are an excellent community builder. Certainly, we can do similar online. Often, a classroom meeting consists of some announcements, a social emotional check-in with students, answering questions, and goal setting.
- How are you today? (Have students draw a picture response and show it in the camera.)
- Show me (on a scale from one to ten) your level of preparation for class today.
- How much time did it take you to complete our eLearning lesson (today, yesterday, etc.)?
- What’s an area of online learning that is frustrating for you right now that we might be able to problem solve?
And, have students help to create questions you can discuss! A virtual question box (Google Form) they can fill out whenever they think of something meaningful for a classroom meeting will keep things interesting.
Define the purpose…
Our classroom meetings will be more productive if we identify the goals for the time we share together. Students want us to SEE THEM (not just on the screen) and engage them. We can do that by identifying possible goals for our time together, and then asking students to weigh in on what they think would help most (answering questions, talking with one another, getting organized).
Online, we can use games like fact or fiction, charades, and even big kid show and tell. This time makes up for some of those “down time” moments we have in class with students where we are just sitting, talking, laughing, and getting to know one another more. If we can make students smile during a classroom meeting online, I would consider that a success.
Middle and high school teachers often have too many sections to host daily classroom meetings with everyone, but we can still create a schedule students can look forward to. Perhaps we meet with one class period each day of the week, or maybe Mondays are devoted to a motivational kick-off for the week. Or, Wednesdays could be a mid-week check-in meeting.
VIRTUAL CLASSROOM JOBS
We can also develop a virtual classroom community by creating online student jobs…ways for students who are helpers to contribute. They can be voluntary roles, and not all students would have to take a job, but we could at least make sure the jobs are offered to all students at some point.
Online classroom jobs are best when they enhance what we are already doing but when they are not completely essential to the way the class runs. Because! Kids can forget. A few other things to consider…
- How will you assign the jobs?
- How long will students have them?
- Where will you display the jobs?
For example, maybe a classroom librarian helps to organize the digital classroom bookshelf. A motivation leader could post weekly inspiration for the class on your daily agenda or learning management system. A discussion director could help to keep conversations building productively. A book talker could share first lines or snippets from high-interest books during classroom meetings. A vocabulary master could be in charge of making sure at least one of the week’s vocabulary words is used in conversation.
Think about things you would ideally like to do, but if they don’t get done, the world won’t end. Things that would enhance learning and extend students’ leadership or academic skills.
Sharing reading and writing is one of my favorite ways to build classroom community – in every subject area! Can we do this virtually? I think so! It won’t be the same, of course, as face-to-face, but it can still be meaningful.
A few ideas…
- Offer read alouds (live and/or recorded)
- Have students share what they are reading or offer some of your own favorite high-interest text suggestions … this resource can help you organize and link everything
- Ask students to share their writing with peers (even if it’s just a few of their favorite sentences)
- Introduce texts students are not as familiar with but that are ideal for online learning (like podcasts and infographics)
- Chunk writing projects into smaller bites that are less overwhelming (build confidence and give yourself some time to provide meaningful feedback)
It’s important that we prioritize virtual reading and writing mini lessons with think alouds – even with older students. We need to show them that thought process that we would normally model in person. How does a reader check comprehension? How does text structure help us as readers? What does the writing process look like at home?
It’s not that we can’t have reading conferences with students virtually, but it will take more time. Schedule students in small groups based on the type of book they are interested in reading or the reading skill they are working on developing.
CHOICE AND INTEREST
Our students feel seen and understood when we take time to learn about them…when we remember details about their likes and dislikes! We can use reading interest inventories to start that process virtually. This digital middle and high school reading survey has a plethora of questions to get to know our readers…and a bonus Would You Rather survey that is great for synchronous class meeting community building conversations.
We can do the same with a writing survey. Giving students an authentic audience with writing can help, too. If we have them write about their favorite author, why not send those essays or letters to the author’s fan club page? If we teach them email etiquette, ask students to send an email to a real person to practice their skills.
Beyond virtual conversations and surveys, offering students some choice and flexibility will help them to build their interests into our class work. Students can practice reading and writing skills with a variety of texts and topics.
If you work with students who enjoy more freedom, try this: Introduce them to the learning standard. Teach your mini lesson to make sure they get it. Then, say to them, “You need to be able to show me that you can _____. I want you to decide how you are going to do that! If you get stuck and need some ideas, here are a couple places to start…”
The more we give students a voice, the more positive associations they will have with our class.
PERSONALIZE YOUR TEACHING
In a classroom community, students know their teacher. In person, it’s easier to learn about someone, but there are some things we can do virtually as well.
It comes down to inserting your personality in everything you do. I used to teach with a girl who had a very strange pen collection. She loved them. She named them. Her pens sat in a cup on her desk with their neon fluffy hair and their google eyes, and once in a while, she would pull one of those pens out and add it to her lesson.
What’s your “thing”? Do you like popsicle puns? Picture books? Cats? Coffee? Add your quirks, your interests, your personality to live and recorded lessons. Make sure students can see part of YOU in your learning management system. Whether you’re personalizing with a memorable quote, a GIF, self-created memes, candy, or Bitmoji classrooms, your students will feel more connected to you if they know something about who you really are.
We can also let students ask us questions! What do you want to know about me? Fill out this Google Form, and I’ll be answering one or two questions each week! Or, if you want to get them used to your learning management system, create a virtual scavenger hunt where they have to look in different places for clues about you (hyperlinked videos or docs, the updates stream, posted questions, discussion threads, FlipGrid posts, etcetera).
When we take time to do something kind for someone else, it helps us to deal with any pain we are currently experiencing. Loneliness, depression, anxiety – during COVID-19, people are experiencing a wide range of emotions. When we don’t regularly interact with other people in person, it can leave a void.
In order to build a virtual classroom community and lift some spirits, we can pose kindness challenges. Students can complete these via email, during meetings, or on the learning management system. Schoology, Seesaw, Google Classroom, and many other technology platforms have features that allow students to post and view content asynchronously.
Simple places to start…
- compliment a classmate
- write a thank you letter or email
- add kindness notes to a class Padlet
- share an inspirational quote or uplifting paragraph from a book
- smile and laugh during synchronous meetings – it’s contagious!
- contribute an idea that will help solve a problem or make eLearning more efficient
- make Play-Doh presents (have students mold a gift they would give to their peers if they could see them in person)
PICTURES AND NAMES
In a strong virtual classroom community, students know one another’s names and use them frequently.
Shaun, can I help you with that? Lily, do you want to join our group? Jordan, where did you get those cool shoes?
It seems simple, but students learn one another’s names and faces by interacting with one another regularly. Virtually, we have to prioritize it. We can spend time during each synchronous meeting with get to know you activities, arrange for regular small group interactions, or assign asynchronous “learn about your classmates” activities.
And, it is helpful to put together an online class yearbook page (whether each student has his or her own page in a Slide deck or we use Padlet or another online program to organize everyone’s names and faces). Include each student’s name, picture, and a random fact. This type of reference will be so helpful for students, and it will reduce that awkward feeling of working with someone and not wanting to ask his or her name for the third time.
My first year as an instructional coach, I used FlipGrid to create monthly staff challenges. The purpose of these challenges was to help me build relationships with teachers. Over the year, more and more teachers began to participate (even those who were originally uncomfortable doing so!), and those who chose not to generally logged onto the grid at least to watch some of their friends’ clips.
We can do this same fun FlipGrid type of challenge with our students if it’s in our comfort zone. I wouldn’t make it required, and it can be completed without students having to share their faces (although it’s harder to build community without that personal touch). Consider posing challenges (you can call them something else, if you wish), like…
- What was the best thing (and worst part) about remote learning in the spring?
- Share your favorite thing in your room or house.
- Tell us one thing that you love and one thing you strongly dislike.
- Wearing a silly outfit, impersonate your favorite celebrity.
- Make your favorite meal, take a picture of it, and tell us all about it!
Of course, we have to set guidelines and norms so that students understand what they post has to be school appropriate. However, we can adjust settings on grids so that posts need teacher approval before they go live. I always encourage participants to watch others’ videos and respond to them.
A virtual classroom community is healthier when parents are involved. We want parents to be our partners, our cheerleaders, and our reinforcers. Including parents in the learning process doesn’t have to be hard!
- Using a program like Remind, Class Dojo, or Seesaw in which parents can create an account and see all of the assignments, due dates, and notifications from you.
- Sending home a weekly newsletter or posting updates on your website so that parents are aware of the big learning goals and executive functioning tasks for the week.
- Inviting parents to listen to recorded or synchronous lessons so they can help their children at home.
- Asking parents to be guest speakers (if they want!) to talk about how they use reading and/or writing in the workplace.
- Send home a Google Form with questions that will help to give parents a voice in their child’s learning process.
Of course, some students don’t have parents at home who have time to be a large part of their child’s educational experience. So, whatever we do to include parents, we need to be mindful of those students who don’t have unlimited support at home as well as those parents who are already stretched thin and can’t add another thing onto their plates.
When all else fails, play games! I’m an advocate for social learning. Whether we play games as a whole class, in small groups, or asynchronously, games can add an element of fun to our virtual classroom community. Truth or Dare is one of my favorites! I’ve created games for figurative language, grammar, and vocabulary.
Bamboozle is a fun website that has games for a variety of learners about grammar, idioms, and vocabulary. You can find ideas for games like Fact or Opinion?, Give Me Five, Would You Rather, and Have You Ever? in addition to many more. Some of the games are geared for elementary, but many can be adapted for older students to play synchronously in small groups or as a whole class.
Quizlet Live is another engaging platform older students enjoy playing with classmates.
Ultimately, a healthy virtual classroom community is not something that can be purchased. We can’t buy information about students, the time it will take us to converse with them, or the empathy and patience needed to do this job well. Of course, we can purchase tools to help us get organized and make technology more of a bridge than a barrier. But, ultimately, building a virtual classroom community comes back to purposeful routines and instructional strategies that make students feel seen, included, and understood.