By: Erin Gohl and Kristen Thorson

The beginning of the school year is a time for building friendships, establishing rules and routines, looking forward to exciting experiences, and settling into new surroundings. In schools across the country, there is common, palpable energy that fills hallways and classrooms and unites students and teachers. These shared experiences and feelings work to set the context for building relationships among students and teachers and provide the foundation for learning and growth in the year to come.

During normal circumstances, these connections are developed through in-person ice breakers, getting-to-know-you games at circle time, and, most importantly, organic, informal interactions at recess, lunch, and within the classroom. But this year, school communities participating in distance learning cannot rely on these experiences to support the development of a strong school and classroom community.

Given the current context of social distancing and new learning modalities, educators must work to explicitly foster community-building among and with their students in order for students to be ready to engage in learning. Though these circumstances create new challenges and require nontraditional approaches, they also allow for the possibility to connect with students in unique and deeper ways.

To get started, help students get used to the modalities that will be used during distance learning and work to develop rules and routines. Ensure that the instruction is developmentally appropriate and repeat and review as necessary. This is important so that technology is not a barrier to participating in learning. During the first days of school, establish the community rules that will help structure and guide the distance learning. Just as you would in a classroom, it is important to invite student collaboration and input as you develop these classroom rules and routines in order for students to feel invested in the community.

  • Establish and share rules that are important for communication and collaboration. You might teach students to mute their microphones if they are not talking to eliminate background noise. You might share the rules of messaging during class conversations. You might develop rules around virtual backgrounds. You might teach students how to make sure their first name shows on their screen. Because routines and expectations differed among classrooms in the spring, it is important not to assume any shared or common experiences.
  • As a class, discuss how you might show that you are actively listening to one another during virtual learning. You might learn and practice silent cheers, find ways to show agreement using hand signs, or talk about how to use whiteboards to share feedback. Students might also benefit from explicit teaching on how to be an active listener with appropriate facial expressions and head nodding.
  • Think through and communicate how students and families can connect with you for support and help. Is it best for students to use chat options? Should families email or communicate through a classroom communication app?  Make sure to share with students and families, through multiple communication channels, how this process will work.

Spend time helping your students get to know you and one another. Unlike the transition to distance learning in the spring, when there were pre-established relationships from the classroom, most students will have a brand new teacher and set of classmates. Therefore, it is especially important to take time to get to know one another as these relationships are built. Utilize the unique context of students interacting from their homes to get to know one another on an even more personal level. Keep in mind that any game or activity that requires items or guests from home should be communicated out to families well ahead of time and through multiple communication channels.

  • Invite students to share a family picture and tell the class about the members of their family. Early in the year, videoconferencing can feel overwhelming. Having children share something familiar provides a comfortable on-ramp for connecting with others.
  • Invite your students to make cards that say Yes and No. Ask yes or no questions to students about their hobbies, interests, and experiences and invite them to simultaneously show their responses. This is a quick way for students to see who shares common interests and to learn about their peers. This is also a great way for students to connect their classmates’ faces and names in a fun, low-pressure scenario.
  • Consider playing Show and Tell. Students of all ages often enjoy sharing things that are special to them. You might invite them to share a pet, a special gift they received, or a favorite stuffed animal. Be sure to share your Show and Tell item as well!

Find creative ways to establish a virtual classroom culture. A large part of creating a classroom culture is collectively participating in shared experiences. These experiences help to connect students on a social-emotional level. Though students are physically apart, it is both possible and important to find ways to do this in order to build camaraderie and help them to learn and grow together.

  • Hold a class design challenge. Invite your students to design some kind of structure (e.g., roller coaster, boat, or playground) offline. Have them use anything they would like, from Legos to blocks to drawing tools, to create their structure. Then, have them share their creation on a videoconference. During the discussion, you might encourage the class to share compliments for each student’s design.
  • To add an element of joy and celebration to distance learning or as a reward for a week of hard work, invite students to participate in a dress-up or theme day. Students might vote to have a hat day, pajama day, sports day, or fancy dress day. Again, to ensure that everyone has the opportunity to participate, give ample notice, and share information with families through multiple modalities. It is also important to make sure the special theme is accessible for all families.
  • Remember to be active and allow for brain breaks. You might have a two-minute dance party and play some upbeat music. If your students need more guidance for movement activities, you might lead some stretching or yoga. These spontaneous breaks can provide a needed release of energy or a quick infusion of laughter.

Seeing Opportunity in the Challenges of Distance Learning

It is human nature to focus on the limitations that come with distance learning and the barriers it creates for a normal beginning-of-the-year routine. But, reframing our thinking around these circumstances has the potential to actually strengthen classroom community-building and relationships with and among students.

When teachers facilitate explicit engagement activities, combined with the more personal contributions from students enabled by virtual instruction, the classroom community is more inclusive. The explicit instruction gives students models for positive communication and collaboration with one another; and connecting with students from their home environments builds a bridge between families and schools. The resulting classroom community is built on stronger and deeper relationships, setting a solid foundation for learning and growth throughout the school year, whether it continues online or transitions to in-person teaching and learning.

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