Last week, my class of teacher candidates explored the topic of building an online learning community. We talked about the importance of nurturing a learning community over time and providing regular opportunities for students to engage with each other to build relationships. We also discussed the challenges of building community when learning is happening in part, or exclusively, online.

As teachers in a blended or online learning landscape, it’s our responsibility to help students to develop their social presence or the ability to assert their social and emotional selves online. The social presence is composed of three behaviors–a) expressing feelings, beliefs, and values, b) engaging in open and productive conversations, and c) feeling connected to the other members of the learning community. The development of a social presence in a class has been shown to positively impact both engagement and learning outcomes (Richardson, Maeda, Lv & Caskurlu, 2017; Swan, 2019).

This work developing the social presence in our courses and helping students feel valued as members of a learning community must be ongoing. If students are not participating in discussion or group work in breakout rooms, that may indicate that they are not feeling comfortable asserting themselves online. They may not feel that they know their peers well enough to take risks or be vulnerable. So, what can we do?

#1 Set Agreements as a Class

Students often receive rules or expectations instead of being invited to co-create them. If they feel teachers are imposing rules on them, students may be less inclined to abide by them. Dedicating class time to asking a few simple questions can make a big difference in the way students show up in a class.

  • What do you value in your relationships with others?
  • What behaviors or norms would make you feel comfortable engaging in conversation and collaborative work? What would make our work together feel respectful and supportive?
  • What behaviors might make you uncomfortable or unwilling to engage in conversations or collaborative work? What might make you feel disrespected or unsafe in our work together?
  • What can we agree to try to do as a class? What will we try to avoid?
  • What should we do if someone violates the safe space in our classroom? How should we handle those missteps online?

Students know what has felt good and what has hurt them in past interactions with friends, classmates, and teachers. That prior experience can help students successfully articulate class agreements they think will cultivate a safe online space.

Giving students a voice in the process validates their experience and gives them ownership over the process. Once the class has established agreements, it is important to be flexible and revisit those agreements to ensure they are working well.

#2 Start Class with Community Building Conversations

Most of the teachers I know feel spread thin and short on time. As a result, it is easy to neglect community-building activities that help students get to know one another and identify commonalities. Teaching online has made building community even more challenging, so I suggest starting each class with a check-in activity or a fun question. The goal is to get each student to unmute and share their answer to break the ice and get them comfortable speaking during a video conference.

Start Class with Community Building Conversations [Slide Deck]

Depending on the number of students a teacher is working with online, this may work best as a small group check-in or chat in breakout rooms. Any time students are working together in a breakout room to complete an academic task (e.g., discussion of a text or collaborative assignment), I suggest teachers begin with a fun warm-up question to break the ice.

#3 Go Deeper with a Dialogic Interview Format

I love the dialogic interview format! I learned about it when I attended the Deeper Learning Conference at High Tech High several years ago. It’s such a versatile strategy. I rely on the dialogic interview format as a blended learning coach. I also use it with my students to help them form meaningful relationships quickly.

Unlike a traditional conversation that bounces back and forth like a tennis ball over a net, the dialogic interview requires that one person ask the questions for a specified amount of time (e.g., 10 minutes). The questioner’s job is to listen (really listen). They must avoid inserting their own stories or opinions. Instead, the goal is to let the responder speak uninterrupted. This is hard to do! But, the result is nothing short of magical.

As the interview continues, the person responding to the questions realizes they will not be interrupted and naturally begin to go deeper with their answers. At the end of the specified time, the students switch roles. The person who started asking the questions now responds.

I did this on the first night of class with my new crop of students. I randomly assigned pairs to breakout rooms, provided a link to the dialogic interview document, and gave them 20 minutes to engage in these conversations.

When we regrouped to debrief and discuss this strategy, my students shared that they were shocked by how much they learned about each other in such a short period of time. One student shared that he had worked with his partner on a project for another class the previous semester and felt like he learned more about his partner in this 20-minute conversation than in the two weeks they worked together on that project. It was an affirmation of how powerful this technique can be.

I know dedicating time to these conversations will feel like a big ask for teachers who feel spread thin, but I believe the benefits are worth the investment. If students feel comfortable with each other, they are more likely to lean into the learning experiences we are designing for them. If we invest time and energy in developing our learning community, students are more likely to feel seen, respected, and supported by their peers. That can have a powerful impact on their willingness to engage online.

18 Responses

  1. Thank you for the inspiration and the strategies to build a safe and productive learning community in a time when relationship building is most important.

    All the best,
    Lynbrook, NY

  2. Thank you so much for this. Your work has been a life raft for me this school year. I have learned so much about being a better teacher with your work, from your blended learning playlists to these awesome suggestions for community building. I am grateful, Kari Mann

  3. Loved the slide show! Great SEL reminders. I had to slow it down and pause for a few screen shots to share with my students.😊 It’s Friday, and I think I’m going w/ the high-low for this week. Thank you! Have a fantastic weekend! @ladylanguage411

  4. Thank you so much, Catlin!
    I have read other articles from you before and I really appreciate every word and resource you share with us. I’ve created my own google doc so I can go slowly, one activity at a time, specially with the Community Building conversations and going deeper with the Dialogic Interview Format. I am thinking to modify it reducing the time, giving each participant just 5 minutes but in the target language I teach.

    • Absolutely! I encourage you to modify this to work for your students, Maria! If you think 10 minutes each is too long, experiment with 5. I often hear comments like, “Wow, time flew!” so you may want to ask students how the timing worked for them.

      Take care.

  5. Catlin,
    Thanks so much for this thought provoking post. I feel like you were reading my mind when you wrote this. I am currently starting my second semester teaching virtually due to COVID-19, and I and struggling to build a community with my new set of students. My new students are coming in to already established classes mostly from a self paced online academy. They have been schooling without a community for the first 18 weeks of school. It has been hard to create a new community that includes them. I really like the concept of a class agreement. I think that I could implement this with the classes to give the new students an opportunity to be part of something new. I am also only seeing kids every other day due to a modified block schedule so i think this agreement could help to establish norms for out class and how it functions. This agreement would also help me to get a feeling for my new students comfort level. I haven’t had the time to get to know them, but by reading their additions to the agreement it would almost server as a window into who they are as a person not just a student.

    I really like to concept of the interview as well. I was wondering if you had any suggestions with how to do this with high school students in a zoom meeting. I have large classes some with 40 students as I am a vocal music teacher. Many of these students I have never worked with in person to learn more about their behavior and character. I am nervous to put some of them in a breakout room as I can not be in all of them at the same time to supervise and make sure that they are remaining on task and behaving appropriately. I would love to give theses kids a chance to talk uninterrupted but want to make sure that I am doing it safely and responsibly.

    Thanks so much for your suggestions and guide during this very unique time in education.

    • Hi Melanie,

      That sounds like a tough situation integrating the new students who have not been participating in a learning community before joining your class. I agree that co-constructing agreements will make them feel included in the process. I LOVE the dialogic interview. When I used it with my teacher candidates or model it in training sessions with teachers, I create enough breakout rooms so everyone has a partner. I partner with someone if we have an odd number of participants. You definitely cannot monitor or be in every breakout room, which is why spending time on the agreements and expectations in advance is critical. You might also ask students to complete a short Google Form reflection on the experience as an exit ticket to get a read on how successful the strategy was from their perspective. That way, you can decide if you want to use it again.

      I’m so glad these suggestions have been helpful to you as you navigate this unique year!

      Take care.

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