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5 Creative Ways to Build an Online Learning Community To Start The Year

As we begin the 2020-2021 school year, many of us (me included) have spent sleepless nights wondering how to promote the same kind of online community that we find in our classrooms at school.

At school, where we are face to face with students, community connections seem to come naturally. We circle up, play games, participate in icebreakers, and establish norms that immediately foster a shared sense of community. We know how critical these bonds are in establishing a healthy and productive learning environment for our students.

How do we create these same bonds online when the only way to see students' faces is through a computer screen?

I posed this same question to my brilliant mastermind coaching group in search for answers. Here are the five ideas they came up with:

#1: The FlipGrid Home Learning Space Exhibition

Helping students connect through their personalizing their learning spaces.

In the same way our classrooms can create the environment for productive and active learning, your students' home learning space should create an environment that helps them learn best. Pose a creative design challenge at the beginning of the year that asks them to decorate and design their learning environment. I've seen some students pitch tents and set up soft lighting, while others have layed out small rugs with personal art pieces mounted to the wall. Whatever your students create, it should reflect their learning needs. Spend a few short lessons teaching them about their multiple intelligences and ask them to include these aspects in their design. Feature a new learning space each day, or post a flipgrid video and ask students to respond, narrating how they have set up their learning space.

#2: Virtual Class Meetings
Helping students connect and form community through virtual routines.

While I sincerely hope you are not planning to spend 6 hours online every day with your students, I am hoping you will have carved out at least 30 minutes for students to touch base. Use that sacred time not for lesson delivery but instead creating the kind of social and emotional connections that your kids crave. Class meetings are a perfect platform for these bonds. Here is how to structure them:

a. Greetings: Have each student greet each other one by one. I like to run greetings like 'magic squares.' The first student starts by greeting a classmate, who then switches on his/ her camera; that student then greets another student who switches on his/her camera; until everyone in the class has been greeted.

b. Recognitions: After greetings, provide a 1 minute window for students to recognize each other for specific achievements. I like to start by recognizing a student who typically goes unnoticed. "I would like to recognize Billy for his vivid sensory details in the piece of poetry he submitted." Billy can then recognize another student, or alternatively, you can leave the floor open for anyone to make recognitions. After one minute has expired, move on to the activity.

c. Activity: The 'activity' is designed to get your students' creative juices flowing. I like doing a 'story pass.' One student begins the story with a single line; passes to a classmate who adds an additional line, with the story continuing until at least 10 students have contributed.

Another fun activity is scavenger hunts. You name an item (ie. 'something that is green'), and ask students to find a matching object in their home. First one to bring it back starts the next hunt. You can even create little teams.

d. Sharing: This is the final segment of class meeting and is generally focused around a deeper topic. I like to ensure sharing topics are in some way relevant to the learning. For example, if it's a historical study, the sharing topic might be: 'If you could travel back in time to any period of history, what would it be?'

#3: Personal Playlists:
Fostering instant community connection through music.

Our online classrooms should create the same level of connection and excitement that students feel when they step through the doors of our physical classrooms. We can create that instant connection through starter prompts, learner polls, or my favorite: 'personal playlists.'

Imagine how connected and engaged a typically disengaged Johnny will be when instead of logging on to a silent online classroom, he enters to his favorite song, 'Hells Bells,' blasting over his computer speakers!

To create your class playlist, first, find out each students' favorite song, and then compile them into a playlist using Spotify or Itunes. Feature a song at the beginning of each meeting.

#4: The Uncommon Things We Have in Common

Building community by discovering unusual characteristics you share in common.

This community building activity helps students connect with each other on a more personal level. The whole purpose is to find an unusual characteristic, preference, or secret talent that 3-4 people have in common. These can range all the way from number of siblings to shared 'pet peeves.' The more unusual the characteristic the better. (Perhaps they all know how to burp the alphabet) Split students into random groups using Zoom Breakout Rooms or Google Hangouts, and give them 5 minutes to find something they all share. Bring them back after five minutes to share with the broader community. Award a silly prize for the most unusual item!

#5: Class Name and Jobs

Building Community by sharing ownership of the online classroom.

Class names help create an immediate sense of ownership within the community. Think how excited and engaged your students would be if they were addressed not as 'Grade 6 Science,' but as 'The Superstars!' I remember one of my former classes, 'The Nightmares,' feeling so connected to their name that they created class emblems, chants, badges, and even comic strips around the story behind it. By allowing them to choose their class name, I signaled to them that it was OUR classroom, not mine.

In the same way you allow students to decide on their class name, also work together to create online class jobs. Jobs can include 'student secretary,' 'discussion starter,' 'breakout room facilitator,' and other jobs integral to running an effective virtual community. Begin by brainstorming possible roles, and then elect students to fill the first posts. Rotate the jobs every few weeks so each student has the opportunity to fill a new role.

Your First Week Set the Stage for the Whole Year

My mom used to say that there was 'never a second chance to make a first impression.' The same applies for our online classrooms. Leave a great impression during your first week and you will establish the precedent for the rest of the year.

Have other ways you build community? I would LOVE to hear them. Share in the comment section below.

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Kyle Wagner
School Transformation and Project- Based Learning Coach

I coach school leaders on how to lead change and improve student learning through simple, innovative srategies and teaming structures.

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