Both teachers and students understand the importance of building community in the classroom. Many teachers have developed different methods to assist in building a classroom community, however, virtual learning has called for these methods to be tweaked. The norm is teaching in the classroom five days a week for seven hours, face-to-face. Now that we are communicating through our screens for far less than seven hours a day, we have to find new and alternative ways to build a virtual community. It takes some trial and error, but it is not an impossible task.
Get to Know Each Other
While this seems like a given, it’s easy to get lost in cutting to the chase and pushing academics. Teachers still have standards to teach and our time with our students is more limited- not to mention that attention spans are much shorter in this virtual setting. Set aside some time to get to know your students through community-building classroom activities.
A tool that has assisted me in getting to know my students is Google Forms. In the first week of school I created a seven-question activity, asking students questions that ranged from what their goals are to what their favorite movie is. It helped me get to know my students despite the lack of one-on-one time I had with them. I was then able to make an effort later to discuss their responses with them and make connections. Now I ask weekly questions in order to keep the “getting to know you” process going.
Virtual field trips are also great in the area of building a classroom community since you can share an experience with your students. Field trips create many opportunities for learning, so you can kill two birds with one stone – build community and focus on academics. Free e signatures are easy to obtain when it comes to filling out virtual permission slips as well, ha ha!
Show and tell is an additional activity that works well in a virtual setting. Since most students are in their homes, they can show off things in their house that might be difficult to bring into the traditional classroom setting (pets are an especially popular pick for show and tell). Show and tell also allows students to make connections with one another as they can see what they have in common.
Another activity is virtually watching a show or a movie together. This can be academic or just for fun – for example, you can stream a movie from your computer during lunch and students can have the option to tune in. Depending on the movie, you may need parent permission, but obtaining a free e signature is not a difficult task. There are many student-friendly movies available online on streaming sites with a subscription or even for free.
Set Classroom Norms
Norms are essential for any classroom setting- virtual or in person. In the long run, norms, rules, and routines help make your classroom community stronger. It is easy for the virtual classroom to lose structure: students talking over each other, a classroom chat going off task, and technical difficulties throwing off a meticulously planned lesson. While some hiccups are inevitable, it is important to set up classroom norms and remind students of these norms daily.
One norm that has been immensely helpful is keeping microphones on mute unless it is one’s turn to talk. This eliminates background noise and out-of-turn talking. Of course, this requires some practice with learning how to mute and unmute, but it is definitely worth it. Norms should also be set up when it comes to the chat feature on different video chatting applications. The chat is a great tool for students who are normally more shy or don’t want to interrupt, but students can easily become off task, making it more of a distraction than a tool. Enforcing classroom norms will assure that the chat options on Zoom, Teams, etc. stays productive.
Positive reinforcement is crucial especially during distance learning. Students might feel isolated or struggle with the nature of distance learning, so rewarding ideal behaviors is immensely helpful. In person, I normally reward above and beyond behavior; however, in the virtual classroom setting, I even reward students for simply turning in their work sometimes.
Communicate with Parents
Parents, although they aren’t always in the classroom (or maybe they are in this virtual setting), are an important part of the classroom community. More than ever, I am taking the time to keep parents informed on what we are focusing on in class, as well as their child’s behavior and well-being.
Communication with parents also helps with assuring that assignments are being tracked. Virtual learning is new for everyone, so keeping everyone informed is essential. Oftentimes, students are not avoiding assignments intentionally; they might not be aware that the assignments exist or they might not feel confident enough to complete them. Parents can assist in this regard.
As stated before, this is a time of uncertainty. We feel the uncertainty as teachers, but we must remember that parents feel the same way. Frequent emails, phone calls- any type of update- are usually appreciated and help ease some of the anxieties that go hand-in-hand with virtual learning. My three main means of communication are posts in my google classroom, emails, and personal phone calls.
Keeping your virtual classroom running smoothly is not the easiest task, but working with parents as a team helps immensely.
Finally, Be Understanding
We haven’t experienced anything like this before and neither have our students. While we are being pressured to continue teaching, grading, and testing as usual, it’s hard not to fall victim to feeling a sense of frustration. Just remember that we’re all in the same boat! Students haven’t been in a virtual classroom either – it’s like attending school for the first time when you’re five years old. Students must adapt their learning styles and norms they were once accustomed to, and it takes time just like it takes time for teachers to get used to planning virtual lessons.
Both you and your students will feel better and more comfortable in your community when you carry a sense of understanding with you.
While most people think of permission slips with school, the reality is that there are a number of children groups that benefit from our digital permission slip service: Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Daycares, Boys and Girl Clubs of America, Church Youth groups, After School or Summer Camps, and so many more.
Field trips require a lot of preparation and organization from the teacher. There are logistics to figure out with buses or rideshares, paperwork and permission slips, managing student behaviors. Finding ways to involve the students in planning for the field trip makes for a much more manageable experience for the teacher and the kids.
Now we’re all aware that middle schoolers change their minds many, MANY times as to their post-secondary education and career choices, but suddenly something that is more of an idea or even a pipe dream for some becomes real and interactive when they first step foot on a college campus.