January represents a time of renewal. A time to look to the New Year and start fresh and build new habits. This calendar change, the world seems more then ready to put 2020 to rest. The new year brings us hope. As we start second semester on this optimistic note, many of us will start the second semester remotely. While we may not have ever opted to teach remotely, we have gained some wisdom. And we not only find this wisdom from other teachers, but in how many sectors in society have pivoted to working and socializing remotely. My husband was a man ahead of his time. He worked with a team remotely in another country. They were standoffish and it took time and patience for his team to warm up to him, but in time they did. So, let’s look at how some teachers create a sense of camaraderie and community online.
See how many cameras you can coax on. Schools often can’t mandate student camera use. But you can encourage. Some teachers report good success when they point-blank invite students to ask students to turn on cameras. In Zoom you can use the “Ask to Start Video” option. As the host, you can invite participants to turn on their cameras by clicking the participant’s black screen; then click the horizontal “…” and select “Ask to Start Video.” Some students are self conscious so you might suggest they turn off self view to help them. You can also private message in chat with the request. You can also encourage them to point the camera at their artwork.
My own child is 100% remote this year. Of course, I knew to have the conversations with her about turning on the camera. Do your student’s parents know to have these conversations with their children? Of course, there can be good reasons for a student not to, and that can be explored privately, but the more we succeed in encouraging cameras on the better.
Create activities to get to know and interact with each other. One teacher told us how she sometimes posts a poll as students “arrive” to class. She might ask in the poll to “name their favorite fast food” or “best Netflix series.” She says this often gets them chatting before class starts. Sometimes at the end of the lesson she shares the results of the poll. Another art teacher shared that they, “started the year by having students share their favorite t-shirt and the story behind that t-shirt. Learned a lot about each other during that sharing.”
Encourage the chat functions. Zoom, Google Meet, etc all have chat features built in. In brick and mortar school we can feel the energy of all our students talking at once. We may have struggled to quiet that energy but I am certain many teachers long for those days now. Inherently digital teaching has little student to student communication. That’s where the chat feature comes in. Middle and high school age students are used to communicating via text so the immediacy of chat should be natural segue . Students can use the chat to link resources as well. This creates an environment of lively classroom chatter that, rather than being distracting, is the closest approximation to the dynamic of in-person discussion and camaraderie.
Use the break out rooms. Remember the days of dividing students into groups? The digital equivalent to this is breakout rooms. If your school allows them, they can be a powerful tool. One art teacher reported, “I’m using breakout rooms in Zoom so students can work on their projects alongside each other for 30-40 minute sessions. I’m trying to emulate the experience of sitting at tables in physical school. My plan is to go from group to group to check progress.” Hey a pro tip, did you know you can play music
A middle school teacher used a different strategy with her breakout rooms. “I have a teacher help room, a quiet work by myself room, a talking room and in one class a Spanish room. Next time I am also adding a music room for kids who want to play music for each other. I also make enough that kids who want it can have a private room. Last week I had a make up assignment room and I put the kids in there that owed me a big project and they could be ‘released’ to another room once they turned in that project.”
Have some play time. One teacher shared how she hosted online video game sessions with students. “I learned SO much about my students just by playing games with them…I found out who has natural leadership capabilities, who needs a sense of justice and equity and fairness and how that looks to them, I found out who can see and execute strategic thinking, who has an overwhelming sense of fun and social ease that doesn’t get to show that as a strength in class sometimes, and I found who my teachers and helpers are, just because I was new at playing their game.”
Check ins. Many teachers have been doing wellness check-ins during virtual learning. What might this look like? It might look like this quick art history wellness scale (download available here).
It can also be a quick questionnaire or a break out room where you ask them. “How are you managing distance learning?” You might also ask about a particular topic like, “How are you feeling about our new drawing project?” FlipGrid can be another tool where you can ask a question and students can respond with an emoji or a short video. You can also use the breakout rooms for one-to-one conversations or small groups. If you have office hours that aren’t being utilized, you can utilize these times as well.