As a longtime theater and English teacher, Leah Calote is intentional about cultivating an environment where students can take risks. “Doing artistic things is so vulnerable,” she said. “You can't really feel comfortable creating things in a space that you don't feel safe.” But creating that space remotely is new territory. Since the coronavirus outbreak began last spring, Calote has studied the work of theater companies and literature teachers, engaged with other educators on Twitter and taken online improv classes herself — all in search of ideas to help her students connect. “I knew that that was going to be important online, especially since we haven't seen each other in so long and we're not used to socializing in this medium,” said Calote, who teaches at Rancho Campana High School in Camarillo, California.
In a year that no one would describe as easy, she said the closeness of her classes, which range in size from about 35 to 50 students, has surprised her. Students have worked creatively around the constraints of distance learning, dived into difficult topics, and formed bonds that go beyond school hours. In interviews during her school’s first and second trimesters, Calote shared six ways she’s succeeded at building community in an online classroom.
Invest in relationships right away
Calote devoted the first two weeks of each trimester to rapport-building activities, such as creating and sharing digital collages. For some teachers, such exercises can feel expendable, especially in a year when learning loss is a looming concern. Calote gets that. Depending on the class, she sees students for only one or two trimesters, which is not a lot of time. But the up-front investment into relationships is “incredibly worth it,” she said. When her English students dig into discussions about poems related to their identities, for example, “they're able to do that because they know who's in the class and they feel comfortable.”
Those relationships also pay off during collaborative projects. Faced with logistical challenges of working together from afar, Calote said her students have risen to the occasion. In a project recreating iconic film scenes, for example, one pair of students produced a Star Wars battle from separate homes. “It's been really cool to see the wide range of imaginative things that they've done and to see their storytelling skills evolve,” Calote said.
Establish group norms
Calote also started the year with an activity to establish group norms. In one class period, students responded individually to Padlet questions about what kind of learning environment they wanted. Breakout groups discussed trends in the responses and added them to a slideshow during a subsequent class. Then the whole class used those trends to draft community agreements about how they would engage with one another.
Beyond behavioral expectations, Calote found other ways to unify students across a virtual space. She invited students to add songs to a collaborative Spotify playlist that she plays as they log in. She also chats casually with students during that time, as many teachers would in school hallways. The welcoming vibe has created an environment where classes have developed inside jokes, freshmen have taught her slang, and students have planned after-class Among Us parties.
It also has made it possible for Calote’s classes to address stressful political events openly and empathetically. After the recent insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, Calote gave a presentation about the events and facilitated structured discussions about students' reactions. With her classes that had only been together for a couple of weeks in the new trimester, she had to turn off the chat box during her slides, “because emotions were really high.” That wasn’t the case with classes that were entering their second trimester together: “I knew that if they were going to bring something up in the chat separate from what was being presented on screen, it wasn't going to be off topic and it wasn't going to be superficial or jokey or inflammatory.”
While some teachers feel frustrated by “teaching into the void,” Calote said it’s important to recognize that off-camera students are, in fact, participating. “It's just not the way that you're used to. It's a different medium.”
Encourage peer feedback
When Calote took an online class with Impro Theatre last year, each session ended with performers giving each other shoutouts on their work. After seeing how the practice grounded and connected participants, Calote adopted it for her own classes at Rancho Campana. For students on the receiving end, “to hear that someone noticed that you did something that they admired, it is very validating,” she said. Calote encourages students to be specific with their compliments, going beyond “that was great.” A self-assessment form that students use for note-taking has helped. The form is primarily as a launch pad for self-reflection, but it also gives them a starting point for peer feedback, Calote said.
Connect with students one-on-one
In addition to fostering relationships among students, Calote was conscious about the role that student-teacher familiarity plays in learning. About halfway through the first trimester in her English class, she created an extra breakout room while groups were discussing poetry. Over two class periods, she used that room to check in with all 38 class members individually. She asked about their experiences so far, how other classes were going and what else was happening in their lives. The conversations were “illuminating,” she said, allowing her to find out, for example, which students were working jobs to support their families or moving between multiple households to care for younger relatives.
Calote also shares parts of her own life with students. For instance, she set up an inexpensive document camera where her cat, Zoya, sleeps and sometimes turns it on for students to watch. “I think if you put in the time and are a little bit vulnerable yourself and generous yourself with students, it helps make them feel safe to do the same,” she said.
Prioritize a culture of care
In her opening slides with her classes, Calote listed five commitments to her students:
I care about you.
I value personality.
Basic needs are important.
They weren’t empty promises. During stressful periods, Calote took class time for guided breathing exercises and to walk students through how to access mental health resources online. Calote also sent postcards to students for their birthdays and found other ways to offer support, like being flexible when a student missed class or dropping off a stress ball to a student who had a tough week.
Despite the challenges of distance learning amid a global pandemic, Calote said her students have impressed her with their resilience and empathy. “Yes, it's not like teaching in person, but it's pretty great for teaching this way. You still feel a part of a community where people are putting forth their best effort to be human together.”
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