Teaching Virtually? Here's How to Make Your Remote Classroom More Personal
5 creative solutions I’ve found to foster empowerment, validation, and community while online.
Photo by Tim Marshall on Unsplash
Getting student buy-in is a fundamental step to uncovering the inspired learner within. The most well-known way to do this is to create a classroom community built upon empowerment, validation, and belonging. In the classroom, there are countless ways to do this: direct eye contact, physical proximity, a momentary conference as the classroom spins around you, a welcoming sticky note first thing in the morning, a hand-written “Amazing!” on the top of a homework page — the list goes on.
Most of these rich opportunities evaporate when the internet becomes host to your meetings. You don’t share a physical space, you can’t have one-on-one conversations with the same spontaneity — You don’t even make eye contact like before, as the camera has replaced the most human part of our interactions!
But necessity is the mother of invention, and in 2020, student buy-in is positively necessary. Here are some creative solutions I’ve found to foster empowerment, validation, belonging, and creating a classroom community while we all sit down in our respective homes.
1. A handwritten note
I used to sporadically (but always with a pragmatic eye) leave sticky notes on the desks of a handful of students before their morning arrival. Each personalized, one would warmly commend a student for their all-star answer during yesterday’s math lesson (to the kid who was often too inhibited to share); another would say that I’m really excited to read their next writing assignment (to the student who had worked particularly hard on the last one); a third would simply say that I’m happy they’re a part of the class and I’m happy to see them today (to the student with the rough home life).
Google Doodle lets you “handwrite” whatever you’d like on your computer, and leave it where you like in a document. It works best if you’ve got a touch screen with a stylus or a finger tip, but if you’ve got an extra moment to use your trackpad, you’ll be glad you did. Write a personalized note to point out strong efforts, compelling answers, or just the value of their presence, and enter it into your student’s document the same way you would a handwritten note on a work page or the corner of a desk. If all else is chaos that day, your student still knows you’ve taken a moment to see and acknowledge them.
2. Send an e-mail
Admittedly less onerous than a Google Doodle, you can also send an email at any hour of the day. And with so many junk mail alerts making false promises of interpersonal communication, who among us doesn’t love a real email from a real person? If your kids are sufficiently tech-savvy for it, send them a little personalized email — just before or after class. The content of the note can be the same as would be the Google Doodle. A little “I hope you had a great weekend, see you in a few minutes!” or “I’m glad you came to class today, your math ideas were awesome!” can make all the difference.
3. Trail behind
Right now, my students work in a shared document, each with their own section to show their work. As the creator of the document, I can click on each learner’s icon to find where they’re working, and watch them in live time. When one of mine finishes a problem or displays a particularly strong work ethic, I enter my cursor below theirs and type, “Nice work! You’re on exactly the right track!” I Liken it to doing a tour around the classroom and throwing a thumbs-up their way when you’ve seen their concerted efforts.
In the same spirit, I also use this technique to show kids I’m holding them accountable for quality work. If an answer has shown up without care, I enter my cursor underneath to say, “Double back and check out your verb conjugation. Think third person plural — or use our other document.” Accountability and redirection is a magic combination to push a kid towards their full potential. Just make sure that you double back afterwards, to reward the renewed effort.
4. Start a private chat
If you have the luxury of sitting with a remote class full of calm and focused students, it’s a prime time to pull up the private chat feature on Zoom (or if you use another platform, tell me about it!). Remember that the objective of these strategies is to build a classroom community — You can use the chat to redirect learning, but it may also be the perfect opportunity to quietly ask about exciting weekend plans, share a mutually-appreciated idea, or follow up on a comment they made earlier. Without being disruptive, the side conversation can remind your student that you see them, you hear them, and you’re happy to have them onboard during a roller coaster time.
5. Stay after
I frequently tell my students (time permitting) after wrapping up a lesson, “If you have no other questions or comments, you can drop off. I’ll stay on if any of you want to chat.” This presentation leaves the impression that though the time is up, you’re not hurried to be rid of your class.
If the moment is right, I’ll sometimes invite a kid to stay on momentarily, with little to no agenda. Even if it’s just a moment to say, “Hey! You did great today! I’m super impressed with your math expertise since we’ve moved online,” It can be the passing moment that turns the learning pod from a dreaded chore to an hour that’s warmly anticipated.
You’ve probably noticed a trend. Whether by text or chat, spontaneous or planned, all of these personalized strategies are designed to make your students at a feel more seen, more heard, and more motivated to engage in their learning from a distance. It’s hard to teach effectively to a classroom that lacks community. But with enough student buy-in, the toughest teaching often does itself.
Passionate educator writing insights on remote learning, early education, and social justice. Founder of Heads Up Learning, K-12 educator, blogger, and ☕️ addict.