During most of my 36 years of being a teacher, I have found that there has been something almost magical about being physically in a classroom with my students. The traditional classroom always seemed to be a place where we could quickly get to know each other. It seemed easy to remember someone’s smile or look of eager curiosity as they sat among students. In contrast, it is more challenging when my 25 students literally appear to be the size of a postage stamp (I actually call them my little postage stamps!) on our 5×5 virtual classroom grid! Since many of us have moved to online teaching, I wondered how to bridge that gap and have come up with a few ideas. To provide a sense of belonging in distance learning classes, these are a few things that seem to work for me that you may wish to try to help build a sense of community:
An early email greeting
Before the semester begins, send out an announcement asking that they each email you (using your school email address) about one of their interests and a strength and weakness they may have regarding your class. This helps you get to know them and provides a quick link to their email for future correspondences. Here, they might write something personal that could impact their performance in the classroom, such as medical conditions (one of my students currently has epilepsy, so she may miss class due to her seizures) or accommodations they may need. If a student is hearing impaired, I will make certain that any pictures I include on handouts have specific descriptions that may be stated aloud by a digital reader. This allows for you to correspond before you first meet. Write each student’s name at the top of a separate index card (that they will never see) and jot down a few notes about the students on the front of the card.
Ensuring everyone knows everyone