10 ways to create a community of learning in a virtual setting

When students take an active role in their learning, they feel a sense of belonging and learning outcomes improve. With the seismic shifts that are occurring in response to the events of 2020, we know that many of our learners’ patterns of school life and ties to a school learning community have changed dramatically. For many of our students, returning to familiar processes as well as communities of learning is more important than ever.

Despite the challenges of a virtual or hybrid setting, we still want students to collaborate and to share interpersonal connections. We still want students to feel empowered in their learning. Establishing a classroom community and familiar patterns of learning in a virtual or hybrid setting may look different and feel challenging, but it is possible.

Here are 10 ways you can make sure students feel welcome and experience learning as a team remotely. You might find that these ideas work well in face-to-face settings as well!

1. Surveys

Starting the year with a survey or student inventory is an effective way to get to know your students and have them self-reflect as learners early in the school year. How do your students see themselves as ELA learners or mathematicians?

This self-reflection can help students tap into their funds of knowledge, which initiates student agency. The article “How to use funds of knowledge in your classroom and create better connections” defines funds of knowledge as “collections of knowledge based in cultural practices that are a part of families’ inner culture, work experience, or their daily routine. It is the knowledge and expertise that students and their family members have because of their roles in their families, communities, and culture.” By helping students explore their funds of knowledge, you honor who they are as well as make them aware of the other kinds of learning that occur in families and neighborhoods.

Students’ survey responses also give you the opportunity to learn about their hobbies and interests outside school. For instance, knowing that you have several students who play video games allows you the opportunity to create a group based on that common interest to help them build relationships. Knowing that you have a student who feels their strength is in reading and is challenged by math allows you to plan support for the student, which can include utilizing their strength as a peer tutor in work groups.

Digital tools to support this strategy: Google Forms, Microsoft Forms, SurveyMonkey

2. Morning meetings

A morning meeting can help create structure for students in a virtual setting. It provides a good time to share your class motto or exchange positive affirmations with each other. If you have access to breakout rooms, students can have a one-minute check-in with peers around an academic or non-academic question. For example, you could ask students to tell their partner one thing they remember from the previous day’s science lesson. Or they could share one thing that recently made them smile.

For early childhood grades, this can be an optional time to sing a good-morning song, review the days of the week or months of the year, dance to a silly song, or read a picture book. However you fill the time, spending this daily time together not only brings consistency, but also helps to build positive relationships.

Digital tools to support this strategy: Google Meet, Zoom

3. Study groups and peer tutors

Consider creating a shared space for students to take ownership of their study groups. In shared digital spaces, students can generate ideas, sign up for times to meet virtually, and work collaboratively on assignments. These spaces can also be used to set up a virtual peer-tutor or peer-coaching system.

Digital tools to support this strategy: IdeaBoardz, Google Docs, Padlet

4. Virtual office hours

Build virtual office hours into your schedule to provide a space for students (and their families) to come to you with questions, if needed. Setting aside at least an hour each week will let students know a consistent time that you are available to answer questions, help with technical issues, or even just say hello. You can set up a recurring meeting at a set time each week, sending out the link ahead of time so both students and their families know where and when to get support.

Digital tools to support this strategy: Google Meet, Zoom

5. Virtual jobs

Engage students in class meetings with virtual classroom jobs. Classes can have a meeting greeter, a joke or quote reader, a questioner, a chat moderator, an attendance taker, a brain-break leader, and a meeting closer, just to name a few. Virtual jobs keep students engaged during meetings while also creating a classroom community and sense of purpose. The tools listed below can help you keep track of everyone’s job and ensure students know what they’re responsible for, too.

Digital tools to support this strategy: Google Docs, Google Sheets

6. Lunch bunch

Schedule a time to eat lunch together on camera. It’s a great way to informally get to know your class and provides an opportunity for relationship building between students, too.

There’s no need to have an agenda for lunch, but you can definitely use this time to facilitate a whole-class discussion or have breakout rooms for smaller discussions. Having focus questions can spark conversations. Ask your students: Who is your favorite book character and why? What is something you would really like to do this year? This could also be a time to discuss traditional dishes for different cultures or try out fun virtual backgrounds. (Our MAP® Accelerator™ partner, Khan Academy, has some terrific new kid-friendly backgrounds your younger students might like.)

Digital tools to support this strategy: Google Meet, Zoom

7. Formative assessment with Think-Pair-Share

Think-Pair-Share is one of more than two dozen in-person formative assessment strategies that can work really well online. With Think-Pair-Share, students mix up their regular seating arrangement, pair up with a classmate, and share based on a topic or idea. This can be done in a virtual setting as well, utilizing breakout rooms.

Students can be randomly mixed and paired, and you can give them a minute (or longer, based on the question you ask them) to share their answer to an academic or non-academic question. In math, the pair could have this time to solve a problem. In reading, they could answer questions related to text. These could be team-building questions as well, to help students get to know each other. Future Learn has a great example of how to make this formative assessment strategy come to life online.

Digital tools to support this strategy: Google Meet and Zoom for meeting with students; Google Forms for documenting Think-Pair-Share questions and answers

8. One-on-one meetings

Taking the time to set up conferences with your students one on one is important. Conferences can be a way to check in and see how they are doing academically as well as emotionally, especially given the challenges of virtual or hybrid learning amid a pandemic. This is the time to hear students’ successes and challenges. This is also an opportunity to cocreate and check in about a plan that will support students in meeting academic and social-emotional goals.

Digital tools to support this strategy: Google Meet and Zoom for meeting with students; Google Docs, Google Sheets, and MAP® Growth™ Goal Explorer for documenting goals

9. Virtual spirit days

Host a virtual spirit day with your class. Dress-up and theme days can be a fun way to allow students to represent themselves in the virtual environment. Hat day, favorite color day, pajama day, and favorite book character day are just a few ideas of themes you can set for your students. You can also have students come to meetings with their favorite snack, toy, or book.

Digital tools to support this strategy: Google Meet, Zoom

10. Collaboration without cameras

Collaboration without live video is still possible, even though it may feel a little trickier. Students can record themselves, engaging in asynchronous video exchanges. You can also record your lessons and have virtual discussion boards to spark collaboration. Some students might love a phone call from you, too, so don’t rule that out.

Digital tools to support this strategy: Flipgrid, Screencastify

Embrace the new normal

School is a place of routine and stability for many students. As anxious as you may be for this virtual adventure, students are just as anxious and need to feel welcome and valued. Time spent building your virtual community and relationships is time well spent. As teacher and blogger Melissa Kruse explains in her post with more ideas on community building, “Building a virtual classroom community comes back to purposeful routines and instructional strategies that make students feel seen, included, and understood.”

I encourage you to think more about this topic in the coming weeks. The following discussion questions can help.

Questions for teachers

  • How do you currently engage students in the learning process?
  • What strategies are you currently using to create a community of learning?
  • What one or two strategies in this post could you implement as a team? What additional training or resources would be needed?

Questions for leaders

  • What support or training can be provided to staff to utilize these strategies?
  • How can you model these strategies with your staff?

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