A classroom community is formed when students come together as a class to work towards the common goal of learning. In such a community, students feel valued and connected to the teacher and other students in the class. Taking the time to create this type of environment takes practice but with a little effort and intention you can help your students feel included, learn important social skills, teach them about responsibility, and instill a love of learning.
Yes, You Can Still Create a Sense of Community in Distance Learning!
Classrooms may be together in different configurations this year. Classes may be split between in-person and online cohorts, with cohorts never meeting in person, but working together online every day. Other classes may be split throughout the week, coming together one or two days per week when all students are learning remotely. Even in classrooms where all children are present in person, social distancing may change how community is created and maintained. This year, it’s more than likely that distance learning will be par for the course therefore, building a sense of community must be more intentional this year than in years past. What follows are five ideas to help you as you start the new school year.
- Establish a Code of Conduct for Online Space. As you transition into virtual spaces with your new class(es), experts suggest taking the time to establish rules for the online space. Guidance such as ensuring that microphones are off when you are not speaking, when to use the raise hand feature, or appropriate uses of the chat feature can make an online place more comfortable for all participants (Dartmouth, 2020).
- Check In Every Day. One way to create and maintain a virtual community is to have daily check in meetings with your full class. Morning meetings have always been important in early elementary classrooms, but they will become useful for all students, especially when students aren’t able to see each other in person every day.
When planning for these meetings, think about your students’ schedules. In settings where your students are attending alternate half days, for example, you will want to avoid the time when they are traveling to and from school. In settings where students attend on alternate days, remember that students may be in daycare settings or otherwise not available all day on their off days. You may need to get creative when meeting as a large group. If daily meetings with the whole group are impossible, you could work with your students and their families to find some time each week to come together. If a whole group time just isn’t feasible, you could also incorporate some creative ways to get small groups together such as lunch (or breakfast) with the teacher or story time with the teacher (Shared Teaching, 2020).
- Ask for Feedback and Encourage Participation About Non-Curriculum Related Topics. During your whole group time, consider including a regular check in that you use during each class or on a regular basis. Raygoza, Leon, and Norris suggest some ideas for these checks including using an emoji to represent their feelings, a fist to five, or a high and a low. They also suggest incorporating announcements and celebrations as well as mindfulness into online meetings. This would also be a good time to work in social emotional learning activities or to include the sorts of things in-class morning meetings often discuss such as the weather, seasons, or other special things that might be happening in your students’ lives.
- Step “Outside”. Students may also enjoy virtual field trips during your whole group meetings. There are a multitude of options, including interactive tours where you can “walk around” like The Great Wall of China or the five national park tours available from Google Arts and Culture. Other options include recorded video field trips, such as the ones Discovery Education makes available to teachers. We Are Teachers has curated a list of over 25 virtual field trips that they recommend for use during virtual learning. Geogussr, an online game that lets you explore various parts of the world via Google Maps street view, is another great way to engage students in a field-trip like atmosphere.
- Read the Room. The key to maintaining community online is creating opportunities for students to interact with you for reasons other than academics. As your group dynamic solidifies, the things that appeal to your students will become clear. Some groups might do well with unstructured time, word games, or other interactions that don’t require multimedia. Other groups might do best with something that they can look at and talk about. As students become more comfortable in the online environment, they are likely to become more comfortable interacting in unstructured ways.
If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Again!
There is no one right way to maintain a sense of community. Be mindful of what works for your students and the model you are working within. The important part is to ensure that your students feel comfortable with each other and with you, and that they are creating relationships that are similar to those they would create with each other if they were all together in the classroom. This school year will look different, but students’ need for connection with you and with each other is the same as it always has been!