February 13, 2022: Connection… The Key to Building Community

During intermittent remote learning from 2020-2021, I think most educators were just barely keeping their heads above water. Making sure lessons and meetings were planned, the assignments being posted worked/troubleshooting what didn’t, and simply learning the basics of remote learning to deliver some kind of content seemed to be the main priorities. In the spring when we were required to do another round of remote learning, I felt so disconnected from my students. I would prepare work packages for families to pick up, post assignments online to go along with their paperwork, and do my meetings throughout the day, but this just wasn’t enough to foster a sense of community. The kids (and myself) were missing the things that happen organically in the classroom that create opportunities for connection. I find art is such a great way to spark conversation and build a sense of community among students. They love commenting on each other’s work and just chatting while they relax and create. Having this realization, I decided to mix things up. In their work packages, I spent some of my SCC money on Dollar Store canvases, put them in their work packages, and told the students they needed it for Friday. All week, I let the anticipation build and the kids were trying to guess what the canvases were for during our informal chats. When the Friday finally arrived, my attendance was never better! I did a small art lesson with the canvas. We all stayed online to create, chat, share, and connect… It was much needed and felt a little like old times. It was such a hit, I started doing this every Friday. Some kids stopped coming to these meetings, but the ones that kept coming fared much better with the challenges of remote learning compared to the ones that didn’t attend. Unfortunately, I think some families saw this time as a waste because it didn’t appear to be “formal instruction.” Although my instruction was more fluid, this was the most memorable, joyful, and (dare I say it) educational time during remote learning. From this experience, I learned two things:

  1. Social learning is vastly underrated.
  2. Building community and making space to connect is foundational to experiencing success in virtual learning environments… I wish I figured this out sooner!

Student-Student/Student-Instructor Interaction

When making my initial plan for my course outline, I didn’t give enough consideration to students interacting online. Building community and constructing knowledge in online spaces doesn’t simply just happen. Students need to express their ideas, while also grappling with the ideas of their peers. This goes back to the theory of social constructivism and the work of Vygotsky. Essentially, this theory highlights that acquiring knowledge is more meaningful when developed through collaborative dialogues. To take this a step further in a more contemporary context, this serves as the foundation for George Siemens theory of connectivism. This theory is, “…a pedagogical approach that affords learners the ability to connect to each other via social networking or collaboration tools.” Furthermore, it presents eight main principles:

  1. Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  2. Learning is a process of connecting information sources.
  3. Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  4. Capacity to know more is more critical than what we already know.
  5. Nurturing connection is necessary to facilitate continual learning.
  6. The ability to see connections between ideas and concepts is a core skill.
  7. Up-to-date knowledge is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  8. Decision-making itself is a learning process.

In summation of connectivism, as Katia put it, “It isn’t what you know, it’s who you know.”

Screenshot from February 9, 2022

Bearing all of this in mind, I need to incorporate some form of online interaction between the students. Initially, students were going to simply meet in their book clubs and discuss. This is great for in-person meetings to have groups connect and share feedback. However, students do not get the opportunity to tune into what other groups are discussing and are missing out on opportunities to learn and engage with other groups.

Google Classroom: I plan on using Google Classroom to organize my course, but I also plan on using it for teacher feedback on assignments. However, it is important to note that this type of feedback will be text-based, as I don’t believe there is a voice option. I will also keep the commenting stream open, as this will allow students to ask questions. In addition, I could use it to post informal questions that students can choose to respond to. However, like Bates noted in Chapter 4.4, clear goals must be established in order have successful online discussions. More on that to come!

Flipgrid: This is such a wonderful tool for feedback from teachers and peers. It is easy to personalize and differentiate for each student! I have used Flipgrid before, but I’ll be needing a refresher before I implement it in my course prototype. However, the feature that I’ve used the most was the video response. Not only could I offer feedback, but the students could comment on each others’ responses. My hope is that by having students share their book club tasks on Flipgrid, everyone gets a sampling of what each group has been up to! In the article, “Using Videos to Give Students Personalized Feedback” by Lee Ferguson, he highlights the benefits of video-based feedback:

  • He refers to using the Loom plug-in installed on his Chrome browser, but Flipgrid functions similarly. After you record your feedback, a link is generated and can be passed along to a student through your communication platform. This is efficient and offers students a chance to respond as well.
  • Strengthens relationships, particularly with remote learners.
  • Students can replay videos to watch at their own pace.
  • Since these feedback recordings tend to be more efficient, students get their feedback in a timely manner.
  • Recordings add a personal touch… Something that just doesn’t come across the same on paper.

Google Meets: I wasn’t planning on doing regular Google Meets. However, this may come in handy if a student is sick or we happen to go remote again. I’ve started building my course shell on Google Classroom and there is an option to embed a link right on the homepage. Having the option for a Google Meet may not end up being useful, however, it is ready if necessary!

In-Person Peer and Teacher Meetings: Since students will get the main portion of their instruction outside of school, as I am following a flipped model, this frees up time to meet with groups and check-in. The group of students that I am planning this course for is very diverse, with a variety of learning needs. These in-person meetings provide opportunities to fill in the gaps where needed and make adjustments to meet the needs of my learners. Some students do well with online feedback, while others prefer in-person. I wanted students to have both options when completing their book club assignments.

Creating Spaces for Meaningful Interactions and Assessment

During remote learning, I turned off the student commenting feature on Google Classroom. Not because I didn’t want students connecting with each other, but I wasn’t sure if we were ready for this kind of responsibility. I have found in previous Google Classroom streams, students use the commenting feature for silly, irrelevant comments that clog the feed. As a result, legitimate questions and comments get lost in a sea of commenting chaos! If I were to develop a full course, I would need to ensure I include a component on digital citizenship and spending some time showing students how to make productive, relevant comments on each other’s work. Last year, I knew at some point we would be going remote. In retrospect, I wish I would have started my year teaching digital citizenship and discussing how to comment on Google Classroom much earlier! Teachers must provide clear guidelines and expectations for online discussions. Beyond that, I think it is also important to evaluate examples of productive comments versus unproductive comments. Bates listed some guidelines when fostering online discussions. The following are the ones that resonated with me:

  • Clear goals: Students must understand the topic of discussion.
  • Clear learner roles and expectations: Students need to understand what their posts should look like and how often they should be posting. A checklist or rubric would be helpful for students to self-assess and keep track of their posts. I’ve actually created a checklist to document how many times I’ve posted/commented for this class to keep me accountable!
  • Choice of appropriate topics for assessment: Teachers must always be keeping assessment in mind by ensuring topics are relevant and allow students to demonstrate their knowledge.
  • Teacher presence: Teachers must also monitor discussions to encourage students to continue making meaningful contributions and to redirect/support students who may be struggling with this.

In terms of assessment, I think the most valuable thing I can offer my students is ongoing feedback and encouragement. Interacting in online spaces can be difficult and uncharted territory, especially for students between 9-11 years old. It is easy to forego formative assessment and focus on the summative pieces, as these are usually graded. However, it is about the process and we are teaching more than academic skills. We are teaching digital literacy and citizenship skills, which will ultimately impact the students as they grow.

Final Thoughts…

As I conclude this post, I am also beginning to re-think parts of my course design… and I’ve barely even started! As always, I’m wondering…

  • How do you troubleshoot students making irrelevant/unproductive comments in online spaces? I try to be as proactive as possible, but there are always some hiccups along the way!
  • How do you plan on fostering community in your course design or implementing student-student/student-teacher interactions?
  • What types of community-building exercises have you done in the classroom or virtually? I love adding new ideas to my instructional practices!

Here’s to embracing the process!

Until next time,

Leigh

14 thoughts on “February 13, 2022: Connection… The Key to Building Community

  1. Hi Leigh, great post. I like you never thought of the connectiveness for students to student and teacher to teacher before the class last week. I know understand how important this connection should be to feel like you are a part of the class. With so many options available it is hard to decide on what would be best to meet the needs of all learners. A work in progress for sure..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Lindsey! The amount of options is honestly overwhelming. However, now is a great time to start exploring various tools!

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  2. Hi Leigh, thanks for your insightful post. Your opening paragraph made me reflect a lot about those initial four months of remote learning. I, like you and many others, found connection an extremely difficult task. While much of the instruction was informal in nature, I agree with your point that students that did make an effort to connect fared much better than their counterparts that did not connect. As a teacher, I felt very disconnected during this time and it felt very discouraging to have a barrier between me and my students. Many days, I would log on to my Google Meet and have no students show up. I appreciate your engaging art activity to build interest and get a good turn out. I also really enjoyed your final thoughts as you posed questions that I am considering as I move forward. I am really interested to hear if you have any ideas to reduce the number of irrelevant posts from students.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment! I think a lot of teaching around digital citizenship and proper use of technology is probably the best way to go… More proactive the better! However, it isn’t always easy to avoid. When I’ve had these conversations before, we actually check out social media accounts of local businesses or even my own Twitter for examples of productive vs unproductive comment threads.

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  3. Hi Leigh! I really like how you described the strengths to the programs that you are utilizing in your course. This is cool to read because it is not simply you describing how the program will work in your course, but how the program will fit your needs because of what it offers.

    I think what I am trying to do is offering choice for comments in my course. Allowing students how they want to create a reflective piece then also allows for students choice to how they respond to their peers. I like this idea, but I am not quite exactly sure how it would turn out.
    I really like how Bates reiterated the role and presence of the instructor in these comments and in the space. That is certainly something I have valued in past courses and hearing their perspective.

    Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment Chris! I like the idea of making commenting more choice based. I think that will reduce the amount of irrelevant comments, as students will be responding with genuine interest. I think it will turn out based on your students… My guess is that it may vary from class to class!

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    1. Thanks for the comment, Myla! YES. I don’t really get to understand my colleagues as people outside of teaching without staff room chats or seeing each other in different environments. Interacting more informally solidifies relationships and establishes a level of trust.

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  4. This is a great post Leigh – very well thought out and reflective. The time you have planned with your students in your classroom will be amazing. I did book studies a couple of years ago and took the time to meet with students. The conversations that we had were amazing, and the students really looked forward to our ties. If I had to reschedule one, boy did I hear about it LOL.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the comment, Chris! I actually started doing this with my current novel study and the kids have been really enjoying it. It is nice to hear what the students think and create some dialogue around a topic everyone in the class can relate to!

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  5. I really like your idea of video feedback. When we have students at a variety of reading levels, our feedback can be lost in print. I am planning my course for grade 1-3 students who are struggling readers. Video or oral feedback would be best for them. Thank you for sharing that idea. I also loved your art project Fridays. What a great way to engage and create community.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thanks for the comments Scott and Laurie! Video feedback is also more personal, making it meaningful. Art on Fridays was also fun when I could tie it into something else we were learning about, such as a novel study!

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