Five faces in Zoom boxes smiling as they collaborate to create this post.
Five faces in individual Zoom boxes, smiling as they collaborate to create this post

To the Reader:

This is the first in a series of three blog posts about building community in the classroom (here are the posts about community in the Middle and End of the session). We accept as a given the value of community to learning. Here is some of the research that supports our stance:

Sharla Berry, “Teaching to Connect: Community Building Strategies for the [Synchronous] Virtual Classroom

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress and Teaching Community

Kimberlee Ratliffe, “Building Rapport and Creating a Sense of Community: Are Relationships Important in the Online Classroom?

Sobonfu Somé, Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient Teachings in the Ways of Relationships

As with other aspects of course design, planning for community building must consider issues of accessibility and equity that are grounded in the contexts of student population, campus, and locality. Community activities should not force students to reveal their protected class information, their trauma, or their disabilities. Prepare to make mistakes. How will you respond when someone in class reports that an activity hurt them?

Consider also how you can link your assignments in a progression that requires each participant to seek out the knowledge of another.

These suggestions and the linked resources are not a definitive list. And not all of these ideas will work in every classroom. We hope that our ideas inspire you to create rituals of community that suit you and your students on your (virtual) campus.

Ideas for the Beginning of the Semester

  • Send a letter before the start of the semester.  This tweet acknowledges the moment of pandemic and the challenges students may be facing.

  • Address the students as colleagues. In composition courses, start letters to the class with “Dear Writers,” in world literature, “Dear Fellow Readers” or “Dear World Travelers.”

  • Create a collaborative collage that represents both the members of the groups and the group as a whole. Watch this video for an example! Participants each create their own symbol made of felt as a representation of them as an educator/learner and include a brief description of how their felt symbol represents what they bring to the class community. In a digital environment, students could draw on a shared white board or add sticky notes to a JamBoard or Padlet. The contents of the stickies could be emojis or doodles or text.

  • Structure community building over multiple activities.

For example: in one discussion ask a simpler question that elicits a shorter response, “Share one thing that represents who you are. The thing might be a quote, poem, song, place, image.” In a separate discussion the next day/week, ask a more in-depth question that elicits a longer response, “Share five things that tell us something about you. What would you like this community to know?” These questions are well suited to an asynchronous discussion so that students have some time to think before responding.

The questions in an activity like this one should be open-ended and allow students agency in choosing what kinds of information and how much they share with the class.

  • Challenge students to find 10 Things We Have In Common. They might start in small groups of 3-5 and then as a whole class. Students should avoid obvious things like body parts (we all have a nose!) or things like attending the same school.

  • Invite students to post a picture to a #whatIbring to a Twitter thread or Slack Channel Post.

  • Connect the idea of community to the content of the course.
    Example: in a writing class, we learn by sharing and responding to each other’s work. Writing, though, is an intensely personal kind of work. Taking time to build community up front helps us to engage with one another’s work throughout the course. In the face-to-face classroom, building this kind of community happens in the unscripted interactions in the room. In the online classroom, we have to be more intentional about connecting with each other.

  • Create a Community Agreement that will guide interactions with one another in the shared classroom space. The University of Toronto offers some resources about doing this.
“During one of your first classes together, invite students to think about what they need in order to make the class environment safer, equitable, and productive for learning: What would help us work best together? You can do this through individual writing prompts, a think-pair-share, or another active learning strategy.”

Plan for ways to revisit this Community Agreement throughout the course. Commit to revisiting and revising the Community Agreement until the class reaches consensus.

  • Create a poem to introduce members of the group to each other in their roles.  This example shows an “I Am an Educator” poem. This is about belonging and how we might introduce ourselves.

  • Share a short selection from bell hooks (or another author) whose critical pedagogy you are trying to implement in the class. Explain directly why you are trying to build community in the class as a central part of the learning. Ask students to reflect on how they’ve been a part of classroom communities (or not) in the past. The point here would be to make explicit why there are so many community-building activities, to explain how they fit into the overall goal of the course.

  • Plan how much of yourself you want to reveal and be that person. The instructor sets the tone for intimacy and community. Is it okay for pets and kids to show up on screen? Have you told students something similar? Is it ok for them to eat or drink during the class? Have you said so?

  • Make explicit how students might use the chat function in video conference meetings. Model that as well.

  • Identify resources in the neighborhood, which include campus and community resources. Ensure you know how to connect your students to them when necessary. For example QPR training for suicide prevention, wellness checks (if offered by your campus), TRIO programs. Don’t be the center of the needs just know who helps and refer through relationships you have built. If these resources don’t exist, advocate for their necessity now.

A note about authorship:
This series of posts is the culminating project of the Digital Pedagogy Lab 2020 course in Community & Connectedness in a Digital World, led by La Shonda Lipscomb. Rachel Gross, Jenna Ledford, Kate Koppy, Maryam Darbeheshti, La Shonda Lipscomb, and Sarah Stanley contributed directly to these three posts, drawing on the conversation among all of the participants in the course and in the Digital Pedagogy Lab more broadly.