BY COURTNEY BROWN
For educators, creating a positive classroom climate is key to a productive school year. Even halfway through the year, we can push restart and reboot our classroom culture. However, whether we’re starting or restarting the year with blended or remote learning, the notion of building culture may feel tricky, or at least different from what we’ve experienced in our brick and mortar classrooms. And when the school year is interrupted and unpredictable, it gets even trickier.
During this period of teaching with a pandemic pedagogy, we have an abundance of challenges to face. But we also have opportunities to reflect on our practice and bring our instruction into the 21st century. We can work alongside the current generation of students — who are digital natives — to not only support them in developing academic and social-emotional skills, but also bridge technological gaps in our community and meet the future head-on. No matter how our instruction is reaching students, we need to find ways to build and maintain connections — between us and our students, and between the students themselves.
We’d like to encourage schools, teachers, and administrators to take the current challenges in our educational and civic reality as an opportunity to re-envision how we cultivate a conscious classroom culture and address our students’ social-emotional needs using 21st century digital tools, while deepening relationship-building and connectivity. Inspired by rich discussions with a range of educators from around the country on our Teaching Today podcast, we can outline some culture-building strategies that will help us build a foundation for our classrooms.
Teaching the tools
Ensuring that all students have digital access is the number one priority and starting point for equity in learning. Matt Mazzaroppi, Principal of the Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies in the Bronx, NY, reminds us that before a blended or online classroom culture can be developed, we need to ensure that getting technology into the hands of families and students is a priority in our community. In an effort to do this, Dr. Tangela Williams, Superintendent of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools District in North Carolina, began extensive efforts within her community to bring devices to students’ homes, as well as enhance local Wi-Fi offerings.
But what happens when we have access to technology, but don’t yet know how to use it? Dr. Jenan McNealy, a guidance counselor in Atlanta, attested that one of the most important factors for online school culture in a blended or remote situation has been training school communities — including all teachers and families — how to use and maximize digital platforms and educational technology. According to McNealy, increased training for online systems has made a significant difference in her school district. Now, she says, teachers, parents, and families can navigate the systems well. In turn, they are better able to support students.
As we shape the digital landscape within our school communities, we need to strategically use the digital tools available to us without overwhelming our students and their families with too many platforms.
Community & communication
Schools and districts agree that implementing strong school-wide communication is a good starting point for fostering classroom community during a turbulent time. Establishing school-wide communication tools and approaches is crucial to maintaining interactions with families and students throughout the day, as well as the entire school year.
Just as we remain flexible about our teaching environment, we need to be flexible about using multiple forms of communication within our community. For some, texting works best, for others phone calls are more helpful, while some find emails easier to manage. Identifying communication preferences can help alleviate concerns about how to reach families, and when.
Prompt communication to address lateness, absences, or missing work becomes a strong lever for maintaining community and student engagement, especially when most interactions are happening online. Students need to be acknowledged as crucial members of their classroom and community. Schools in which a teacher or guidance counselor promptly calls families and students when they don't show up for an online class have reported that it goes a long way in promoting student engagement. When students are acknowledged as critical members of their classroom and community, it can bring them back into the fold.
"Students read the teacher's energy and if the energy is real, they can relax.
If they relax, you can nurture the relationship.
Once there is a relationship, students can learn."
— Matthew Mazzaroppi, Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies
Consistent connection & compassion
If remote teaching and learning have taught us anything, it’s that we need to find ways to stay connected with students, and we need to help students connect with each other. In order to create an online culture that offers a positive learning environment for students, we’ll need to establish (and then be prepared to re-establish) norms and routines. How do we do that online?
In this unpredictable educational landscape, it is crucial to create consistent programming and predictable online routines. Matt Mazzaroppi underscores that creating consistency is a clear priority: “After clear communication comes consistency. Consistency makes everybody feel safe and if they feel safe, they're open to a new culture, new relationships, and ultimately open to learning.”
Dr. Roberta Lenger Kang explains that norms are “the things we should do versus rules, which are typically the things that we should not do.” It's the difference between the dos and the don'ts. If we believe in creating and setting a tone in any educational space, then being able to elevate expectations is important. Both online and in person, we need to create norms that offer clear expectations for student engagement, as opposed to rules with punishing consequences.
G. Faith Little offers a vision of the classroom as being “more like a garden where we plant seeds and allow our students to grow to be the flowers that they were meant to be.” She believes that, as educators, we need to listen to students and their families in order to create norms that cultivate and nurture our students. Interestingly, norms that use a garden metaphor are also aligned with high-level evaluation on the Danielson Framework.
Acknowledging each student
We can't underestimate the power of greeting our students every time they enter our classrooms. We may feel that this a missing link in our online classrooms, but is it really missing?
Many educators are finding unique ways to acknowledge students as they enter the virtual classroom everyday. Carolyn Lucey, a 10th Grade English teacher at New York City’s Charter High School for Computer Engineering and Innovation, with whom I work, greets each student as they enter her virtual classroom, explicitly takes attendance, and then throws a quick warm-up question into the chat, such as What was your favorite part of the weekend? or What word do you relate to today, and why? To model and connect, Carolyn generally offers her own responses as well. Dr. Laura Rigolosi takes attendance by asking each student in the “room” a relevant question such as, What was the best thing you did over the weekend? for a Monday class, or, related to the work at hand: What part of your project are you working on?
Connecting with our students each day as they enter our virtual classroom is a key ingredient in engagement and relationship-building. The positive impact of a simple daily acknowledgement of each students’ presence and participation helps create a sense of belonging, and helps them feel recognized as a part of their community.
Acclimating to online participation
Getting students acclimated to participating in an online classroom is crucial. Clear instructions for them to use the unmute audio feature versus the chat feature for specific purposes can help to build consistent participation. As an example, consider asking students to use the chat or survey feature for closed or yes/no responses, and respond verbally to higher order follow-up questions. Students can also be encouraged to use the chat feature to share written or “stop and jot” responses, as opposed to unmuting to add spontaneously to discussion questions, which can be difficult to manage virtually.
When questions are asked in a virtual classroom, most of us have noticed the long pauses before participants respond. Some students may not have strong WiFi connections, or may be in noisy spaces that make participation challenging. Asking students to use a “rotating chair” approach, in which they call on one another, helps develop student-to-student interactions, and can also help keep discussions moving.
Breakout rooms for small group projects also offer students a chance to increase participation, and create an opportunity for regular interaction between classmates. Developing strategic, consistent breakout groups can help add to a sense of accountability and engagement, and working together in small groups creates a sense of community.
Each class — whether synchronous or asynchronous, in-person or online — is a precious space for connection and community-building. Setting clear expectations, offering students opportunities to connect, and modeling clear communication is not wasted time. Classroom culture is everywhere. Every move we make creates classroom culture — how we speak to students, how we interact with them, even how we think about them — and each moment is an opportunity to make each member of our classroom feel seen and heard. As Matt Mazzaroppi shares, “students can read the teacher's energy, and if the energy is real, they can relax. If they relax, you can nurture the relationship. Once there is a relationship, students can learn.”