Starting the school year at a distance presents new challenges for building a joyful learning community for your classes. Building this kind of community doesn’t happen in a single step, in person or online. Keep opportunities to build connections and a sense of belonging in mind from day one and try to embed them into every interaction throughout the school year.
Build connections and a sense of belonging
Think about how you’ll help students bring themselves, their unique gifts, their cultures and identities, and their diverse experiences to the classroom community. How will you get to know your students and help them build relationships with one another? How can you share who you are in ways that will help build community?
Consider starting with low-risk activities that don’t require students to reveal anything too personal—such as online scavenger hunts or team challenges that break the ice—and building up to deeper and more personal connections. Consistently attending to the classroom community allows students to feel more invested in their own learning and that of their classmates.
Create opportunities for students to make meaning together
Science learning is powerful when students are allowed to experience phenomena firsthand, wrestle though ideas with their peers, investigate their questions, and formulate models and explanations together. This might look different when everyone is in a different setting.
Think about how students might experience a phenomenon at home. Are there materials or community resources such as outdoor spaces that can be used? How can students share and build upon each others’ ideas in a generative, low-risk way? How can we leverage students’ ideas and questions to help them investigate at home or in a virtual space? How can students create shared products that demonstrate their collective thinking? Be creative about how you might create shared spaces for students to construct understanding together.
Establish structures and routines
Knowing what to expect can go a long way in helping students feel safe, especially in uncertain times. Think about how class will begin and end, how students will ask questions and share ideas, and how you will organize and support whole-class and small-group discussions. What structures and routines will be useful on a regular basis? What will the “Do Now” look like? What prompts or sentence starters could you use consistently to support discourse? How might you use group roles or shared documents to ensure accountability?
Consider asking students what they need to be successful and feel like they are contributing to the classroom community, and co-construct norms with your students that support those things. Taking time to help students internalize them will make classes more productive in the long run.
Establish and maintain relationships of trust
When students feel you know them, see them, and care about them, they will feel more embedded in the community, and you’ll be able to tailor your teaching to meet individual students’ needs. Set up ways for you and your students to communicate one-on-one with each other, then follow through.
Remember to support yourself so that you can be present for students
As a teacher, you are a crucial element of the learning environment. In order for teachers to be a solid support for students and promote positive feelings of belonging, respect, value, and trust, you need to be able to recognize early when you are feeling tired or overwhelmed. Checking in with your own family, friends, or colleagues and taking time for yourself can go a long way toward increasing your resilience. Thank you for this important work!