Building an Online Learning Community That Fosters Relationships

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Photo by Fort George G. Meade Public Affairs Office, CC BY 2.0

At the beginning of the year, I showed my seniors a TED Talk by Rita Pierson called “Every Kid Needs a Champion.” I could tell they were instantly engaged with what Pierson had to say. A few minutes in, she describes a conversation she had with a colleague. When she told her colleague that “students don’t learn from people they don’t like,” my students responded with a loud applause. Most of us know there is tremendous power in building teacher-student relationships, but some of us struggle to create them. A welcoming and open online learning community is an often-overlooked way to create foundational relationships. Whether you use a learning management system (Google Classroom or Schoology), student blogs like edublogs, or a class website, online learning communities can be a place to build and nurture relationships that might not be so easy to create in a full class.

Be the first to be transparent.

I start each school year by giving my students a poem that I wrote in college about my childhood and my goals, but I don’t tell them it is mine. They read it and make inferences about the author based on the information given. They challenge perspectives and stereotypes. When I tell them it is my poem, they are surprised because it speaks candidly about abuses and hardships that I suffered as a child. I let them know that I will not ask them to share anything that I am not willing to share first. When they do quick writes, I write with them. When I ask their opinion, I am always willing to give mine as well. When my students create a blog, I create one too. You can view some samples of the transparency that I am talking about on my blog Students Make the Best Teachers.

You don’t have tell students your biggest or deepest secret to make an impact. In my experience, students are grateful when teachers treat them like actual people who can be trusted with personal stories. But I’m not proposing telling personal stories without any learning context. I am talking about the strategic sharing that happens when a teacher completes a task with students and interacts with them on a personal level about curriculum topics. Modeling transparency will not only help students feel comfortable opening up in their own assignments, but it will create a foundation for building future relationships.

Recognize and celebrate your students’ different perspectives.


Building relationships between students can be tricky. In order to create a positive classroom community, I need to do the impossible — get teenagers to push passed the gossip and drama that rests on campus like a fog. An online community is a great place to break down some of the barriers that exist. Discussion and blog post assignments provide opportunities for students to communicate digitally with classmates that they might not speak to in person.

I take an active role in building these new relationships. When I first assign a discussion question on Schoology, I make sure to leave comments. When students create blogs, I choose a Blog of the Day and highlight what makes that student’s blog unique. Last year, the first blog post I showcased was by a student who expressed why he thought the assignment was ridiculously useless. I read his post with a straight face, and you can imagine the look on my students’ faces. They expected me to be mad. Instead, I celebrated his perspective and courage to be honest. After a couple of weeks, students started reading each other’s posts and exchanging meaningful comments back and forth.

One student’s experience speaks volumes.

I’m sure there are some teachers that don’t buy into building relationships with students, but those teachers have probably stopped reading already. For the rest of you, I don’t have empirical data that proves students learn better from teachers with whom they have a positive relationship, but I do plenty of experiential data. Here’s one example:

“You have told me numerous times what a great writer I am. I can not be more thankful for that; having someone who believes in a raw talent I carry on a whimsy string makes me feel important. When we wrote our epics in class, you told me how proud you were of me for writing a tale about myself that was structured upon opening up to you. I walked into to class the next day after submitting that assignment and truly wondered if you understood why our first friday together was so hard, and after reading the comment you’d left on my story, I knew you not only understood but you realized we are alike in many ways. You never pitied me, or told me how sorry you were for me, and for that I am unconditionally grateful. You knew I never was seeking pity or empathy, but I was seeking a way to tell you I am not who I come off as; you saw behind the iron curtain. Your ability to share what you’ve been through with the pure intentions of letting kids know destiny is in the hands of the beholder is selfless and one of the bravest intentions I’ve ever come across. I enjoy your writing more than I enjoy most things, thank you for sharing this.” — McKenzie Lehmann