Community Building in the Virtual Classroom

by Sue Khalaieff, Illinois Democracy Schools Network Manager

Since spring—in sharing sessions, meetings and emails—we have heard from our Democracy Schools Network members that the most challenging aspect of remote learning was building and sustaining a sense of community in virtual classrooms. In response, this August we offered two opportunities for network members to explore this challenge further. The first was “Circle Up,” a restorative circle series presented by Sarah-Bess Dworin, for Democracy Schools Network team leaders. The second was, “Building Community in a Virtual Space,” presented by Alternatives, Inc. Attendees learned about, participated in, and discussed how to create an environment in a digital space that was safe, receptive and trusting.

In the Circle Up sessions, participants learned about Circles, an indigenous and contemporary Restorative Practice that can make online meetings and classes more relational, intentional, and meaningful. Through these sessions, participants learned about key elements of Circles, including roles and routines that foster accountability and equity. One of the participants shared, “I enjoyed the enthusiasm and practical use and demonstration of the Circle Up technique.” 

Attendees also gained appreciation for how Circles can foster meaningful relationships and understanding, especially as our educators and students continue to navigate teaching and learning in the midst of a pandemic. Another teacher reflected, “A highlight for me was seeing the technique in Zoom and how the breakout rooms can build little ‘campfires’ to have mini talks.”

In the Alternatives workshop, participants gained practical strategies and tools for utilization in remote learning. Vital to establishing an accessible learning space is acknowledging the presence of each student. This is easily addressed by virtual check-in activities, such as a Mood Meter or Needs chart. In addition to “breaking the ice,” these activities also give the teacher a sense of where the group is, and an opportunity to respond to any emerging concerns.
Andrea Seipp (Belleville East High School) offered the following reflection in attending the session: “Each day I do Google Meets, I have tried a different ice-breaker for the students to participate in before we get to the school work we need to discuss. It tends to relax the students and encourages them to engage with each other.”

Beyond setting a positive and engaging climate at the beginning of class, other strategies focus on empowering students and facilitating connections and relationships: creating group agreements about how the class might operate (“how do we want to treat each other in this space?”); designing new roles of student leadership (determine question of the day, facilitate class check-out); and devising creative class projects (Group Poems or Class Zines). Linda Becker (Westinghouse High School, Chicago) noted, “One valuable takeaway was the variety of ways you can get students to turn on their cameras and engage with their peers. Students really need to see each other in the midst of the pandemic and find connection.”
Andrea Seipp also recommended that teachers provide both visual and audio feedback. “The students need to see and hear us; they really want to be back in the classroom. So, we need to do as much as we can to support them through our virtual presence.”

For further suggestions on “Community Building in the Remote Classroom,” please see Remote Learning Toolkit. What community building strategies have been working for you a few weeks into the new school year?


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