Thanks to COVID-19 and the resulting school closures, teachers are facing many new challenges in teaching. One of these challenges is building classroom community with distance learning. How do you build a sense of community with kids when you aren’t physically with them?
We know classroom community helps students feel comfortable and ready to learn. But, it is hard to support classroom community with distance learning – especially with young kids. We can’t read their body language as easily, can’t get down to their eye level, and can’t give a needed hug or high-five. It’s hard to decrease anxiety from a distance. But it’s hard to learn when you’re anxious…
So what’s a teacher to do?
Start by thinking about how you build classroom community at the beginning of the school year. Think about this like the beginning of a new school year. Consider modifying some of these normal routines and structures can help us to create a new distance learning community.
What do you normally do to build classroom community?
Your beginning of the year activities might include some of the following:
- morning meeting
- get-to-know-you activities
- conversations as kids arrive and during transitions
- student choices throughout the day
- common activities and celebrations
Many of these activities continue as the year goes on, supporting the sense of community we have created.
How can these translate to distance learning?
With a bit of creativity, you can use some of these same activities and routines in your distance learning plan. How you incorporate this will vary from setting to setting. A school with 1:1 devices will have a much easier time with some of these activities than a school with no school-provided devices and limited internet access. But most of these things can be adapted in one way or another.
In the classroom, this daily routine sets the tone for the school day. It is often the heart of the classroom community. Many teachers want to continue incorporating a morning meeting for this reason. Here are a few distance learning options:
- Use video conferences (examples include Zoom and Google Meet) – See every charming face as you lead your students through a virtual morning meeting. (You will want to teach them about the mute button.) Video conferences works best in a setting with lots of available devices and good internet service.
- Use SeeSaw videos – The teacher can leave a daily video (with a greeting and a sharing question) and students can type their responses in the comments. Or each student can record and post a video with their response (just not attached to the teacher’s video.) If your students are familiar with FlipGrid, this could be another non-live (asynchronous) option.
- Low tech options: It is hard to do a virtual morning meeting without technology. You may need to focus on other ways to connect with kids instead.
Get to Know You Activities:
You spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year getting to know your students. Fortunately, most of what you have learned about your students this year still holds true – you just need to apply it in a new setting.
As you adjust you may decide to share some of the following with your students:
- a photo of your new teaching space
- a photo of any children or pets that may interrupt your teaching
You might encourage your students to share the same with you, using a photo, writing or drawing. They can share where they will do their homework, or who is in their family or helping them with homework. This information might make its way into conversations more frequently in the upcoming days.
Lower tech options: You could e-mail photos to parents and encourage them to help their child send a photo back to you.
We learn so much from daily conversations with our students: how they are feeling, which tooth is loose, what they had for breakfast, etc. But without being in the same room with students, it’s harder to have these conversations. Consider these alternatives:
- Video conferences or video calls (see morning meeting)
- Phone calls – Your students will love hearing your voice. A short 3-5 minute phone call will brighten their day and help you learn more about their life at the moment.
- Written letters or notes – A brief note from the teacher can cheer a child and make a memorable keepsake. You might even get a written response in return. (As an alternative, you can send an e-mail to each child through their parents.)
Offering choices for students can be meaningful and motivating for many students. I like to offer choice to my students as often as possible during the school day, even if it is in small ways. Providing choices through distance learning may prove a bit more challenging, but here are a few options:
- Book choices – Allow students choice in their independent reading books. Students with limited book access can choose texts within Epic or Reading A-Z (free for the time being.)
- Choice boards – Some of your distance learning may need to be done sequentially, but for some lessons, sequence is less important. Allow students to choose from several similar tasks, one per day. Present this as a list, grid, or tic tac toe board.
- Optional activities – We know that family situations vary from child to child. This is even more true with sudden unemployment and unexpected illness. Provide some “extra” options for kids who want to do more – or parents who need their children productively engaged in activities. You could include craft activities, simple challenges or scavenger hunts, ideas for home maker spaces, or links to various educational (and semi-educational) websites.
Common Activities and Celebrations:
Being able to reminisce about common activities adds to the bond within a classroom. But pajama days and favorite read-aloud stories are more complicated from far away. With some creativity, they can still be accomplished. Here are a few ideas:
- Special days – You can still have pajama day, hat day, and favorite sports team day. You might have everyone post a photo on Seesaw or wear these things for your digital morning meeting.
- Low-tech option: This is harder to pull of without technology. You could coordinate as an entire school for special dress-up days. Children could at least celebrate at home with their family – knowing their classmates are doing the same thing.
- Favorite books – The access to on-line books keeps growing during this time. Take advantage of it by encouraging the class to listen to the same book – even if they do it at different times. Also, look for recordings of books that are already class favorites. Or you could read a book within a digital setting (following the publisher’s guidelines for copyright protection).
- Daily joke – Share a daily joke via e-mail, your digital morning meeting, or a Seesaw video.
Distance learning provides additional challenges for building a strong classroom community. And the reasons behind the distance learning (school closures due to COVID-19) make relationships and community all the more important. Choose a few of these ways to strengthen your classroom community as you make the shift to distance learning. Caring for social-emotional needs is just as important as caring for academic needs. Perhaps even more important at this moment in time.