By: Nicole Hamilton

To make an online learning program effective, we need great teachers, engaged students, and supportive families and administrators — as well as strong, thriving school communities, where every student has a voice, and every member feels supported and respected.

As schools have had to shift to online learning, school communities have been fundamentally altered. As a teacher in both a brick-and-mortar and an online school, I wanted to share some ways we incorporate digital elements and strategies to help sustain our thriving school community. We focus on the 3 Cs: Communication, Collaboration, and Competition.

Communication:

Clear, consistent communication between administrators, teachers, students, and parents can help foster a sense of community – but what does that look like when everyone is already over-stressed and over-stretched? In my experience, it means:

  • Office hours: Yes, even with online classes, we host office hours. I turn on my Zoom classroom, mute my camera and microphone, and busy myself while I wait for the ding to announce a student has “entered.” Those are often the times I connect most with a student!
  • e-Newsletters: With multiple newsletters targeting members of our school community and an open-submission policy, we incentivize readers in both tangible ways (announcing winners for our Teacher Appreciation raffles!) and emotional ways (making the information in them so compelling that we foster a sense of FOMO).
  • Phone (not Zoom!) check-ins: When school is online, it’s easy to default to online communications. But there are pressures involved with video chats – am I dressed appropriately? What if I don’t want anyone to see where I am? – and a lack of intimacy with text-based communications. There’s something about including the option of a voice-only method of communication that can center our conversations, and enable us to truly listen.
  • Family involvement: We all agree that parents must partner with their child’s school in order to foster success; for us, that means we involve parents in the communications we send to our students as well as many of the events we host. Now that we teachers are in our students’ homes, this partnership has become even more sacred.

Collaboration

A commitment to intentional collaboration can improve the relationships between teachers and students, and have a ripple effect on improving school community. We intentionally collaborate with:

  • Community-wide service projects: One of the most pervasive myths of online learning is that it happens in isolation. But teaching in an online school has shown me how the opposite is true: students are eager to connect with each other. Recently, Dwight faculty and students launched a mask-making initiative in response to our community’s needs. This will have a lasting impact on our school culture.
  • Student-to-student collaboration: Kids need to connect with their peers now more than ever. We employ lots of small-group project work, and we make it fun! One of my favorite methods is speed dating. I assign each student a word problem; they have to solve their own, but then they “move” from peer to peer, circling around our virtual Zoom room, to explain their problems and cross-solve them.
  • Teacher-to-teacher collaboration: Dwight prioritizes information sharing, and we teachers swap tips and schedule “unconference”-style PD days. And peer observation is much easier now in the age of remote learning!
  • Teacher-to-student collaboration: Student clubs and associations are one of the easiest and most effective ways for teachers and students to work together towards a shared goal and get to know each other outside of their virtual classroom.

Competition:

A little friendly, low-stakes competition is a surefire way for students to bond. We like to tap into people’s competitive spirit in fun, fresh ways:

  • Schoolhouses: Dwight Global has four houses – yes, like Hogwarts! – and points are awarded for contests (like “Dress up as your favorite author” day) and student participation. By building smaller communities within the larger school community, we’re highlighting camaraderie and modeling good sportsmanship.
  • School-wide games: Trivia, Bingo events, board games – we try to reach every member of our school community. Sometimes prizes are involved, but often, it’s just bragging rights – including announcing winners in external communications, which help students and teachers feel acknowledged.

The Final C: Change

As school teams plan for an unknowable fall, we should all continue to expect change. (We should all also take a break. Teachers and students need to rest and reset!)

But change happens best when school members feel supported and respected, and a strong community can go a long way. This summer:

  • Focus on fun: Talent shows, fitness classes, book clubs, “Meet My Pet” sessions — get students connecting about anything and everything. All of these things can be done online and can serve as a much-needed touchstone to familiar people and routines.
  • Turn off the cameras: Host a Zumba class…where only the instructor’s camera is on. Create a summer concert series for students…where the music is the focus. Turning off the cameras makes a lot of the pressures of an online program dissolve.
  • Rethink the regular. Several components of your school might need to be reimagined. This is an opportunity to visualize what’s most important to you and your students, and to create new ways of teaching that capture the spirit of your intentions.
  • Make it optional. With the exception of students needing mandatory classes to fulfil their requirements, all summer offerings should be optional. For some students, these options will be a way of connecting with an adult figure who cares about them, and possibly the only time they “see” their peers.

Vibrant school communities are a critical factor in the success of online learning. Let’s use this opportunity to make sure any long-term school changes made are in service of students, and that, no matter what form our teaching takes, it’s bolstered by healthy, sustainable school communities.

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Nicole Hamilton is the Head of Mathematics at the Dwight Global Online School.

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