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Creating Classroom Community Remotely: My Best Strategy

This post was written by NCTE member Kim Essenburg and is reprinted with permission from her blog Learn, Unlearn, & Relearn. 

 

photo of a Japanese gate
Questions can be gateways into students’ lives—even in a remotely-taught classroom!

 

Mrs. Essenburg, can we do the question?

It was a couple minutes before the online class was supposed to start, but about half of the students were already in the Google Meet. “The question” was what I’d been asking as an “attendance question”—once I started recording the meeting to post for students who couldn’t attend live, I’d ask a question for everyone to answer in the chat column. Then I could go back and check the transcript to see who was there. It was a different question every day.

The added benefit was what we learned about each other. I was so excited that the student was so eager to answer the question and see her classmates’ answers (forget the attendance benefit) I went ahead and asked “the question”: “What are you looking forward to being able to do again after the Covid-19 emergency is over?” Answers ranged from the predictable (getting together with friends) to the unique (riding horses) to the unexpected (nothing—I love having the excuse to stay home and play computer games all day).

This is such a simple but powerful practice. I started out with standard, nonthreatening questions. “What is a food you like?” (Hint: Try to avoid asking “-est” questions. I’ve known students—a daughter and myself included—who can be paralyzed by having to choose the color, food, book, or whatever that they like “best.”) But “the question” can do many things like . . .

  • Set up the lesson. (“What is an animal you like?” before we read Carl Sandburg’s poem “Fog” personifying fog as a cat, and then writing our own personification of a natural phenomenon).
  • Offer insight into health and self-care. (“What did you have for breakfast today?” or “What did you do for fun over the weekend?”)
  • Lead to deeper discussions. (“What is a good thing that happened to you yesterday?” “Nothing.” Yes, that lead to a discussion of 1st world problems. . . . )

Yesterday’s question was, “What are you afraid of?” I modeled, “Snakes and spiders,” in the chat. Though I added by voice that I’m not afraid of snakes I know are not poisonous—I’ve held them and they feel really dry and smooth and muscular. But when I nearly step on one, without identifying it, I naturally recoil with adrenaline coursing through my body.

Some students followed my lead: “snakes, frogs, and anything ugly.” I responded by telling a story about the time I learned the difference between a personal preference and a true phobia. A friend told me she was afraid of earthworms, so I thought it would be cute to make her a birthday cake that had gummy worms on top. It was not a joke—she truly did not like it. I felt really bad. One student responded, “Woah!” I think he got it. Other students responded “death” (serious) or “not being noticed” (double deep).

And that is its own conclusion. There are a lot of things I miss about not being able to observe and interact with students in physical proximity. Computer screens ARE limiting. But consider something as simple as asking an initial question . . . especially in this distanced environment where we can sometimes be more vulnerable than if we were actually physically present with one another. I will continue doing it now and will experiment with continuing to do it even into whatever becomes our “new normal.”

As I run out of questions, there are oodles of blog lists out there, and I’ve begun adding them to my Pinterest board on SEL (Social and Emotional Learning):

50 Questions to Ask Your Kids: Get to Know Them Better Today
How to Launch More Meaningful Conversations with 29 Big-Hearted Questions
The Family Dinner Project (so many lists here!)

What is a great way you have discovered for building classroom community remotely?

 

Kim Essenburg has taught in international Christian schools in Japan since 1987. She loves to read, write, play volleyball, and go out for coffee with friends, and recently read her own poetry at her first open mic! Essenburg loves to help students discover their love of reading and writing, and to help teachers discover ways to even better engage students in learning. She has two daughters and three grandchildren, and blogs at kimessenburg.blogspot.com.