Community during COVID?

How do we maintain community in a virtual classroom?

In the midst of teaching virtually during COVID-19, this question repeatedly lingers in my mind. Before 2020, we may have taken for granted the ability to work together on a (physical) whiteboard, make small talk before class, or communicate nonverbally. I switched to a virtual classroom in the spring 2020 semester and often found myself terrified as I wondered how my students were connecting to class material and others. Once the semester ended, I thought it may be impossible to manage a supportive community online. Fortunately, I have had some time to reflect on some simple ways to actively engage with students while teaching online.

The first day of class.

In previous years, my first day has always been syllabus day. This year, my priorities have changed. I wanted to spend this time getting to know my students and discussing on how we can all best interact in this format. We did this through two team building activities.

The week before class, I emailed my students and asked them to bring one item from home to share during our first Zoom lecture. We had no problem grabbing something from our desks, living rooms, or kitchens before logging in to discuss. I shared my item first: yogurt and granola. Initially, this seemed like an odd choice to everyone. But I further explained that I had made both the granola and yogurt myself, as well how I love cooking and knowing what’s in the food I consume. I think it was crucial for my students to see that I am not just a math teacher, but also someone with interests and health concerns. As a result, every student excitedly presented their own object, and we learned so much about each other! The audiophiles showed off their instruments, concert shirts, and even a record player. We learned all about each others’ pets and the plants they are growing. The sports fans told us the story of how they got an autographed puck during the playoffs, and we saw the artwork of both students and their families.

Overall, this exercise was a great way to break the ice in our virtual classroom. We rarely get to know our classmates, teachers, or students outside of class. This exercise was a valuable way to briefly introduce everyone, and let their personalities shine.

In the second half of class, I asked students a question to reflect on:

What are common features of an inclusive and welcoming community?

Students first had three minutes for self reflection on the welcoming (and unwelcoming) communities they had been in previously. We then split up into six small breakout rooms. Each group had a shared Google document to work on and brainstorm the first question. After some time, our google document described a welcoming community in the following way.

What great words to describe a welcoming community! We finished by listing some guidelines for how we should all behave with others when participating in our learning community:

  1. Everyone should communicate clearly.
  2. Everyone is responsible for supporting others. This includes checking in with others from time to time.
  3. A positive attitude should be maintained by all.
  4. Everyone should listen to others and remain open minded
  5. The community should be welcoming and strive to form genuine connections between individuals.
  6. Each member should encourage the best from others.
  7. The community may have a common goal they are working towards.
  8. Everyone should have a role to play.
  9. Everyone should be invited to participate, and any new member should be openly welcomed.

I am so proud and grateful to be working with these thoughtful and eager students. They have shown that we are on our way to achieving what I thought was impossible: a way to maintain a supportive and welcoming online community this semester.