10 Tips for Moving Your Classroom Community Online

As schools and districts shift to online learning in response to the coronavirus, we educators need to create supportive and caring classroom communities in this new virtual environment. Here are ten tips for doing it.

As the Covid-19 virus continues to spread, schools around the country have shut their doors. With little to no time to prepare, educators everywhere are scrambling to transition to distance learning.  For some this means migrating lessons and homework assignments to the web. The tips below will help you create or recreate a caring and supportive learning community, online, during this outbreak.

At the same time, we want to recognize that 30 percent of American families with school-age children lack access to the high-speed internet needed for most learning-from-home programs.  Nearly one in five K-12 students do not have computers or high-speed internet connections, according to the Pew Research Center. This gap disproportionately plagues low-income families and people of color, notes the Washington Post. A New Jersey English teacher told USA Today that only 11 of her 30 students have a cellphone: “Many are new to the country and don’t have access to a computer outside of school or the public library.”

So while the tips and pointers below are intended to help teachers who are transitioning to the multitude of online platforms on offer, we don’t want to forget about students who will need to get their class assignments in the mail.  Here some specific pointers about reaching out to our students who are harder to connect with.


1.  Be prepared and set a calming tone. 

In this time of upheaval, fear and anxiety, it is important that, as the teacher, facilitator, and host, we set a calming tone when students gather online.  This means preparing ourselves socially and emotionally to be present and available as well as technologically. We need to think about how to best use virtual platforms in this time of physical social distancing, and plan accordingly. Ask yourself ahead of time how things might look different when using an online platform, video, or communication system.  Consider what supports students will need accessing and using the new technology? If your school has tech support staff to draw on, that’s great. If not, assess and pool your tech resources—remember to draw on student know-how. More about this in point 2 below.

2. Be transparent about challenges and ask for help. 

Remember that change is hard for many of us. Don’t pretend otherwise.  Be transparent about the fact that you too are impacted, by letting students know, perhaps, that you’re no expert in online facilitation.  This gives us as well as our students permission to make mistakes, lessening all of our stress levels while opening us up to learning.  Model asking for help, as you build this virtual new learning space together. Consider having a colleague or student help with the technology so that you can be present and focus on other needs the group may have.

3. Create a welcoming space where students feel seen and heard. 

As students log on, welcome them by name. Show enthusiasm for them having joined the virtual space you’ve prepared for them. Check in with them and ask how they’re doing. Allow time students to greet each other and reconnect, while also opening space for thoughts and feelings connected to where students are at.  Acknowledging what’s going on for students can help them put some of their worries aside temporarily to focus on other things, like academics.

4. Provide norms and structures. 

At times of upheaval and change it is especially important to provide structure. This is as true in a virtual space as it is in real life. Create a schedule, stick to it as best you can, and translate your classroom norms to a virtual space. This can provide some comfort and reassurance for students to hold onto when they feel shaken.  More about this in point 5 below.

5. Build your online space collaboratively. 

If you don’t already have a set of classroom norms (guidelines for how you and your students will work and treat each other), engage students to develop such guidelines or tweak the ones you already have to be relevant in a virtual space.*  Post new norms, and/or share them with students via email. Refer to them on a regular basis as you come together in your virtual classroom, especially when first starting out. Recognize that while many of your students have likely spent much time in online communities, virtual education is new for many of us. Acknowledge the wisdom and resources everyone brings to the space. Bring what you can, as the adult, but also draw on them as young people, their knowledge and online wisdom, to structure how information, questions, thoughts, and feelings are shared in this space.

* Morningside Center staff came together for a check in meeting via Zoom and came up with these guidelines, which you might consider as an example. 

6. Establish goals and expectations and invite student input.  

You’ll likely need to make decisions about what academic content to focus on and what to postpone or give up on, as you familiarize yourself with online teaching.  Teaching will be different and likely more time-consuming than usual.  Share with students your plan, goals, and expectations for the foreseeable future. The less uncertainty and stress we introduce to students’ lives at an already uncertain and stressful time, the better.  Make sure to ask for student input, as you’re all getting used to new ways of being and learning together. Listen and respond to the input.

7. Use different modalities and invite student feedback. 

Just like in the academic classroom, different modalities are key to engaging students in a virtual space.  Recognize that different online platforms have different capabilities. Consider the role poetry, video, images, and social media can play. Is it possible to have break-out “rooms” for small-group work?  Ask for student feedback so you can assess the quality of your online teaching. Is it clear? Is it engaging?  What are their takeaways?  What are the strengths and weaknesses of your lessons?  We’re all in this together and need to draw on each other to make the best of this challenging situation. 

8. Provide additional support via email, text, individual chats and/or office hours. 

Consider these the online alternative to the one-on-one conversations you might have with students in the physical classroom, to check-in, clarify, redirect, problem solve and/or encourage students to get (back) to work. At the same time, remind students to stay focused.  Too many side-texts and individual chats between students can take away from being present with one another in the virtual classroom.

9. Encourage communication among students.

Ask open-ended questions. Encourage students to respond to each other (not just you the teacher) and make connections. Try not to be too heavy-handed in your facilitation, opening up space for students to use the online tools to engage with each other to deepen their thinking and responses.  A pause in the virtual classroom can be as important as it is in the physical classroom.  At the same time, you might also be the person needing to keep the conversation alive when there is a lull in the interaction.  Acknowledgements like “that’s an interesting idea” or “that’s one example” with a follow up question for additional examples or connections can keep students engaged, as do follow-up questions to deepen student thoughts and interactions. 

10. Agree what non-verbal communication tools to use.  

Some platforms have the capacity to enable participants to virtually raise their hand, applaud, etc.  Consider other signals that might be useful, such as to show agreement or disagreement, or to signal support and concern for another person.