Believe it or not, you can take steps to establish the same sense of community and belonging online as you do in a brick-and-mortar classroom. In this article, you will learn five actionable steps you can take to build a strong online classroom community between yourself, your students, and their families.
- Step One: Give students an opportunity to get to know each other.
- Step Two: Establish clear lines of communication between the teacher and students.
- Step Three: Plan for regular, ongoing community-building activities.
- Step Four: Implement cooperative learning activities.
- Step Five: Keep parents involved.
Let’s look at each of the five steps closer.
Step One: Give students an opportunity to get to know each other.
Whether is it day one of an online class, or whether you have transitioned from an existing classroom to online learning, plan for some fun “getting-to-know-you” activities. This could be as simple as a class wide Zoom meeting or Google Hangout where everyone takes a minute or so to introduce themselves. You might supply some age-appropriate prompts if needed such as:
- Tell us two truths and one lie about yourself and we will guess which one is untrue.
- Tell us who makes up your family.
- Tell us your favorite and least favorite subjects in school and why.
- Tell us three interesting facts about yourself.
If you cannot participate in a whole class videoconference because of technology limitations or privacy concerns, use an online tool such as Padlet or Flipgrid. With Padlet, students can write a post to include on a virtual bulletin board. These posts can include photos as well so you could encourage students to share a selfie so that students can put faces with names. Flipgrid is a video sharing platform where students can record and share their introduction video, and the other students can view them and write comments. This part is key to building community….make sure your students interact with each other, whether it is live during a video-conference, or through leaving comments on a video or written post. Encourage your students to make personal connections with each other!
Step Two: Establish clear lines of communication between the teacher and students.
Your students need to feel comfortable reaching out to you and know the best way to get in contact with you. If this is an entirely new groups of students for you, take the time to begin the online learning experience with phone calls to each student. These can be brief and done through Google Hangout so you are not sharing your own phone number with them, but they will love the opportunity to hear your voice. Just a quick call to let them know you are excited about seeing them online is enough to have a great impact. Beyond that initial phone call, though, make sure they know how to reach you with questions. Whether it is email, designated office hours when you are in an open conference video/call, or through a message board, let students know how to reach you, and how quickly they can expect a reply. And once you have set those guidelines, stick to them. Consistency is key to building trust and a strong a sense of community.
Step Three: Plan for regular, ongoing community-building activities.
Don’t stop your community building after those initial interactions. Keep the momentum going with regularly scheduled activities. Maybe you institute a “Student of the Week” where each week, a different student is showcased, and they get to show off all about themselves. This could be through a slideshow or some form of media presentation they create and share, or maybe a teacher to student interview done via video for the class to watch, or even just a simple Q&A form that students submit questions for and the Student of the Week responds to each one. Another thing you can try is giving students a chance to share good news with the class on a regular basis. If you do live video-conferencing, set aside the first 5 minutes of each day and choose 2 or 3 students to share something positive. If you don’t teach synchronous lessons, have a “Good News Message Board” where students can share their good news when its convenient for them. Once again, make sure you encourage interaction here and ask students to respond to each other’s post with kind and encouraging words. Even though you might have to require it at first, it will eventually become second nature as they get excited about sharing in their friends’ excitement. A third example of ongoing community building is a shared read aloud. For younger students, this might be a picture book, but for older kids (and yes, even middle school and high school kids will enjoy being read to if you choose the right book!) this could be a chapter a day from a novel. You can read it aloud live through a video conference and encourage feedback from your students, or simply record it for students to listen to at their convenience, and then set up a message board where students can share their thoughts, connections, and predictions. This is particularly impactful if you read a book with a lot of suspense, and leave the class hanging on a Friday afternoon, wondering what happens next! These are just three ideas for you to consider. Take some time to think about what might interest your students!
Step Four: Implement cooperative learning activities.
You can have students engage in cooperative learning activities, even in an online setting. This could be a simple as a discussion board for students to ask each other questions, or having two students collaborate on a writing piece or presentation through a shared document or slide deck. You can also pair readers of similar ability levels to be reading partners and encourage weekly check-ins with each other. A slightly more complex option, and probably geared towards 4th grade or older, would be to establish study groups or book clubs that meet virtually to prepare for an exam, or discuss a common novel being read. As you plan your own lessons, think about ways you can ensure that students have the opportunity to work together and learn from each other.
Step Five: Keep parents involved.
The final step to building a strong classroom community is to keep the families of the students involved. Make sure they are up-to-date on what is going on in class and also know how to contact you. Maybe you share this information through a weekly email, or perhaps you keep a class website that you update each week. You may even find it beneficial to survey your parents to find out about their careers, hobbies, and passions. You may find that a parent has an interest in a topic that you know your students will be fascinated by and could invite them as a special guest to share that interest. Parents can even volunteer virtually to read to a younger class or give a lecture about their career to older students. Just let them know you value their expertise, and truly see them as a partner in their child’s learning. That will go a long way towards building strong relationships.
In conclusion, learning online does not have to be an isolating experience with no human interactions. With the proper planning, and regular follow-through, you can build just as strong of a community online as you would in an actual classroom!