Teaching and learning is grounded in relationships. It is the foundation of nearly everything that happens in our classrooms, and it is often the bond that keeps students (and teachers) coming back. In times of distance learning, staying connected is more important than ever, and while it may look a little different, there are ways to establish and maintain relationships while we are physically apart.
A safe and trusting virtual community doesn’t just happen by chance. It must be intentionally established and cultivated for it to thrive. Once you have established your online community, you are not finished. You still need to consciously work on maintaining both your classroom community and the personal connections you have created with your students.
Be intentional about finding opportunities to connect on both an academic as well as personal level. In fact, maintaining that personal connection is one of the best ways to keep your students coming back. If students feel connected to you and your classroom, they will not only work harder academically, but they will also be healthier personally. Connecting is going to be important, especially for those students and families who are most negatively impacted by the current situation. It is always important to remember that as humans, we rely on social connections, and live virtual learning sessions allow a space for this to happen.
9 Community-Building Strategies For Live Virtual-Learning Sessions
Your community will thrive only if students feel safe. It is important to create a safe virtual environment and routine when everything else around students and families is likely changing.
- Acknowledge that we didn’t choose to have our schools closed and that you miss your students.
- Allow time for discussion around the current situation and acknowledge feelings about it.
- As with your face-to-face classroom, be sure to set up clear protocols and expectations at the start of your live virtual learning experience. The Heart and Brain Feedback protocol is one great example.
- Consider getting input from your students, so they have a voice in designing sessions. Ownership can lead to more buy-in.
- Model the behavior you wish to see in your students. This might be the most powerful strategy of all.
- Provide resources, such as sentence stems, to help guide students as they get started with communicating digitally.
Introductions, mixers, and routines may come in many formats. They can be video introductions, discussions in the chat, posts to a virtual bulletin board, breakout rooms, and more. The key is to provide safe and inviting ways for students to share about themselves and get to know their classmates and teacher. And yes, you should take an active part. Let your students get to know you!
- Look for ways to continue classroom routines in a virtual live learning environment. For example, if you previously had a morning meeting or a quick check-in, continue to do those things in a virtual way.
- Consider communicating and creating new virtual classroom routines, like digital show-and-tell or virtual Spirit Weeks.
- Provide sentence stems to help guide students as they get started communicating.
Ideas for mixer prompts include:
- Introduce yourself to the class.
- Respond to a question of the day.
- What is your favorite _____?
- Make a prediction.
- Ask a question and have others respond.
- Ask a “Would you rather…?” question. (“Would you rather _____ or _____?”)
- Reply to a silly prompt to make fun connections. (“If I were a superhero, I’d want to be _____.”)
- Respond as a character in a story.
- Convert campfire games into video responses.
- Tell a telephone story.
- Share something for which you are grateful.
- Fist-to-Five: Students can share how they are feeling by showing a fist, one, two, three, four, or five fingers. A fist represents a very low feeling, and a five shows that they are feeling great.
When you begin your self-paced class, you will need to teach your students how to function in a digital classroom.
- Make the first week or so about learning processes and tools; this is a perfect time for community building.
- Have students practice using the tools and processes of your course with community-building prompts (rather than academic content).
- Have students introduce themselves and reply to others using established protocols.
As the teacher, you have the most influential voice in the classroom, and your students want to hear from you.
- Live virtual learning sessions allow you to communicate with students in real time.
- By seeing your face and hearing your voice, students will feel more connected.
- Think about having both full-class and small-group live virtual learning sessions.
Find a way to make a personal connection each day (or at least each week). Although you will be conducting live virtual learning sessions, think about ways you can engage with students more frequently, possibly in an asynchronous environment.
- Offer virtual “office hours” or check-in times, in addition to your whole-class or small-group live virtual learning sessions.
- Post a daily prompt for students to answer (a class question of the day or an icebreaker). Then, talk about the answers during your live virtual learning session.
- Post a “How are you feeling today?” prompt. This can alert you to students who you may need to reach out to individually.
- Public questions for the class can be posted as Padlet posts, Flipgrid recordings, or other quick online polls. Prompts about personal feelings could be sent via a private poll or online form.
Think of this like the bulletin board in your physical classroom. It’s a place for you to post as the teacher, but you can also empower students to share in this space, too. It’s perfect for celebrating birthdays, holidays, and student accomplishments.
- You can share the bulletin board at the beginning or end of a session to build relational capacity.
- Students can be encouraged to post items on the class bulletin board that represent themselves; this is a great way to personalize an online learning space.
- Think about ways you can make this a fun, engaging space.
This is similar to a parking lot poster that you would use in your classroom. It’s a place for students to post questions or share ideas with their teacher and classmates.
- Have participants use the chat.
- Post a link to a shared “Parking Lot” document.
- Create a “Parking Lot” Padlet.
- If sharing Google Slides, you can utilize the Q and A feature.
Community building can happen in small chunks of time, even as short as a minute or two.
- Consider weaving these into your materials, like you would for a brain break.
- Combine an academic activity with a personal connection. Students can work with a chat partner, use the class chat, utilize breakout rooms with small groups, or share out with the whole class.
Think of this as a gradual release of responsibility in an online classroom. While you will likely start with mostly teacher-led activities early on, you will want to transition to partner and group activities once your students get more comfortable in the live virtual learning environment.
- Pair students up to have private chats or conversations around the topic.
- Use breakout rooms, if they are available, for partner and group work.
- Group sizes can be expanded gradually until students can work collaboratively in larger groups.
- Build in individual accountability, as well as group interdependence, and be thoughtful about how you group your students. This is a great way for students to develop collaborative work skills while staying socially connected to their peers.
Before you are able to empower your students, you first need to empower yourself. Just as we hear at the beginning of every flight, you need to first put on your own oxygen mask before you can help others. When trying something out for the first time, or second, or tenth, be kind to yourself and be flexible. Figure out the tools and routines that are going to work best for you and your students. We can’t control what has happened, but we can control how we respond to it. Before ever having a live virtual learning session with students and/or families, make a plan using some of the tips pointed out within the previous live session teaching tips.
Ask yourself how you can help empower your students:
- How might you help students recognize their own emotions?
- What types of tools can you empower students with to support them in managing their own emotions?
- How might you empower students to engage and express themselves in the live virtual learning session using multiple modalities (emojis, music, chat, breakout sessions, etc.).
- How might you empower students to be successful without overwhelming them and/or their families?
- How might you empower students to have a more active role (such as planning an activity or even a whole session) in the live virtual learning session?
Plan and design with equity in mind:
- Collaborate with your colleagues so that you are not all offering live virtual sessions at the same time. This is especially important in most secondary settings when students have multiple classes and are meeting with multiple teachers.
- Think about staggering the time when you have your live virtual session because some students may be sharing one device with multiple people. They may not be able to have access to the session at a particular time.
- Make sure to communicate how participants can join. Some students may only be able to join with a phone and will need that information given to them in an accessible way.
- Think about providing some live virtual sessions for students and families just to check in or have open “office hours” where you are available to have real-time conversations.
Provide coping strategies:
- Provide support contacts.
- Do your students know how and when they can reach out to you for help?
- Give them clear directions. (“I will be on Zoom to answer questions between 9:00 and 10:00 a.m., Monday through Friday.”)
- Consider pairing students up with a support buddy.
- Provide virtual calming corners.
- Listen to relaxing sounds.
- View a visual relaxation video.
- Search online for mindfulness activities that you can do with your participants during your live virtual learning session and then students can try them on their own.