This post was written by NCTE member Danah Hashem.
As educators, each of us knows that relationships in the classroom matter. In all the classes that I’ve taught in my time as a reading and writing teacher, the most successful by far have been the ones in which my students and I worked together to create a thriving, lively, and safe sense of community.
When my students have strong, supportive relationships with one another, they are able to collaborate, discuss, and challenge with creativity, enthusiasm, and a sense of scholarly exploration. When my students trust, respect, and genuinely like me, they willingly work harder, take intellectual risks, and occasionally allow themselves to soften into the vulnerability that makes our work together important. I know I am not alone when I say that relationships are central to my classroom pedagogy; without them, I am not nearly as effective.
Now, enter a global pandemic that not only places us into a heightened state of anxiety and confusion, but also requires that teachers and students everywhere abandon their familiar physical spaces and reconvene in digital ones.
Overnight, teachers across the globe lost access to some of our most powerful relationship-building tools: classroom design, school events, casual conversation in between classes, and the ability to employ facial expressions, body language, and non-digitized voices to communicate care and trust. Suddenly and jarringly stripped of these tools, we are still responsible to help our students learn.
Having ended the year at a distance from our students, and facing the overwhelming likelihood that we will not be returning to school life as we know it in the fall, how do we go about fostering the relationships our teaching needs?
There is no doubt that relationships will not look the same in digital spaces as they do in person; however, the summer is a good time for each of us to begin assembling our toolbox of ideas for how to create classroom community in the fall with what will most likely be our remote students.
As we all undertake this daunting task, I have a few ideas that might get us started.
- Remote learning doesn’t have to mean the end of personality and spontaneity. Students manage to keep even our most ambitious lesson plans full of unplanned jokes and shenanigans. While this is often the sources of many of our headaches, it is also often where we get to play and laugh with our students. If we are intentional, we can maintain this sense of unstructured fun in our online classrooms. Share a meme, crack a joke, or invite your pet to the first few minutes of class. Let’s consider willingly sacrificing some productivity in the name of community-building shenanigans.
- Seeing each others’ faces and hearing each others’ voices reminds us that we are still a group of humans working together. Whether you’re using Zoom or some other means of remote teaching, your time with your students is probably limited. You need to share a good deal of information in a short amount of time which, in my own experience, can easily turn into a classroom of silent students with their cameras turned off watching me rattle off information into my laptop screen. Find ways to involve your students’ faces and voices in your classes. Whether this involves asking students to lead particular classes, assigning projects that require students to record themselves to share with the class, or using video programs like Flipgrid to gather feedback on particular topics, students need to see and hear one another to remember that they are part of a community.
- Create time for regular student feedback. When we’re in the same room as our students, it’s a little easier to take the pulse of their learning. When material is pushing their mental or emotional limits, we can hear sighs of frustration, see them slump in fatigue, or notice a raised eyebrow signaling confusion. When the magic is happening, we can see eyes light up, subtle nods of their heads, or excited note taking. We simply don’t have this at our disposal when working remotely, and so we will need to go out of our way to regularly check in with our students using surveys, blind emails, or even just a quick verbal poll at the end of a class. Students feel safe when they feel known, and we will have to find new ways of staying aware of how they are doing in our classroom and potentially even beyond it.
Of course each teacher builds relationships differently, and our remote classroom communities will each uniquely reflect our individual practices.
Just like our in-person classrooms, no two remote classrooms will look the same; however, this is the time for us as teachers to be intentional about the steps and mentalities we plan to adopt to unite our students and ourselves in a difficult time, doing the best we can to foster meaningful, lifelong learning in our students and in one another.
Danah Hashem teaches 10th grade world literature and AP Language at Lexington Christian Academy in Lexington, Massachusetts, where she pursues her passions for and scholarship in digital literacies, audio rhetoric, and student-centered learning. Follow her on Twitter at @DanahRHashem or via her blog, www.pencilsandpatience.wordpress.com.
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