How Can I Connect with Students and Build a Classroom Community From a Distance?

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Many once-in-a-generation challenges await educators this fall. With that in mind, the blog will be a little different this summer. It will still have a writing instruction focus, but it will also focus a great deal on how we might continue to have relationship-based, workshop-style instruction in classrooms that, if COVID cases aren’t significantly lowered, are looking increasingly likely to be somewhat or completely distanced or socially distanced for those of us in the United States.

Much of this thinking will be a lot more conceptual than I normally publish. This is because most of us have so little idea of what our classes will be like beyond the fact that they will undoubtedly be very, very different. Still, even though the horizon is filled with question marks, there exist many established voices and best practices that can potentially be of use in lighting our way down the twisting and uncertain paths ahead.

The organizational structure for the blog this summer is that each week I will pose a question that I and the writing teachers I know are grappling with and then go in search of answers to that question. Also, if you have questions you are struggling with, I encourage you to send them to me here.

This week’s question is based around something I’ve been thinking about since school ended, which is that the pandemic hit near the end of the school year, at a time when most teachers have firmly established relationships with their students. The same will not be true this upcoming year–many of us will have entirely new students–which has me wondering and worrying about the following:

How can I Connect with students and Build a CLassroom community if most or all learning is Distanced or Socially Distanced?

As writing teachers, our connections with students and the overall community of our classroom are so essential to the work we do. For many of us, maintaining those relationships and that community remotely in the spring was often really hard, and I harbor no doubts that that building brand new relationships and community over a distance will be a whole other level of difficulty, if we are asked to do that. How do you build close connections with students if you only see each other once or twice a week? How do you build relationships without those essential moments before or after class or the quick organic check-ins when a student’s face betrays that she is confused? And how do you build community if the students have never even sat in a room together?

I don’t have all the answers for these questions in the same way that I have no idea what form school will take when it starts in six short weeks. That being said, there are some suggestions from various online/blended/relationship experts that I think might prove effective at helping us to improve class community and connections, regardless of whether school is in-person, blended, or online. Here are some of the best I’ve seen:

  • Lead with and Lean into Community and Connections: In a recent Cult of Pedagogy Article, “9 Ways Online Teaching Should Be Different Than Face-to-Face,” online learning specialist Melanie Kitchen argues that if we are online or blended we should “resist the temptation to dive right into curriculum at the start of the school year. Things will go more smoothly if you devote the early weeks to building community so students feel connected.” While most teachers likely already do a fair amount of community and connection building in those early weeks, it makes a lot of sense that we should probably engage in even more conscious community building if our communities are spread out by distance and time. 
  • Burn Five Minutes: In Not Light, but Fire, Matthew Kay talks about how one of his main relationship building tools is something he calls Burn Five Minutes. The idea is that before class starts, he sits on a stool and starts engaging in informal conversation with the students as they walk in the room. A question about a popular show or song here, a comment about some piece of news or some upcoming event there. The idea is to get everyone in the room seeing that everyone else in the room (teachers and students) are thinking, feeling, multi-dimensional fellow humans with things to say. Kay argues for the value of this when he says, “It all lasts five minutes. Occasionally three, or seven, or ten. I try not to check my watch. This time commitment is minimal, until one steps back and considers that five minutes a day becomes nearly two hours of informal chatter over the course of a month. This banking of conversational democracy buttresses all other classroom dialogue—students can take more risks, and our classroom culture can survive more mistakes, because students are less likely to consider our respect for their opinions either disingenuous or capricious. We build with them every day, and not just about things that they will eventually be graded on.” Considering the likely pressures we will face this fall, it might be easy to forget about the little comments and questions, but as Kay points out, these little moments have a major impact on our ability to connect with, teach, and inspire our students to great heights, and so this year I plan to Burn Five Minutes regardless of whether it is me in a mask or me on Zoom.
  • Create Pods: Zoom meetings with dozens of people are often the antithesis of community and connection, even when run by a skilled facilitator. This is likely why nearly every article and talk by online and blended learning specialists I have found recommends having lots of breakout rooms where students can become active learners instead of passive observers. This isn’t just a remote learning hack either. Matthew Kay does this in his classes too. He puts his students into Pods (he calls them Pods because he finds so many kids dislike “group work”) that stay together the entire marking period and talk regularly about the content of class. The idea is to build a home-base of sorts where students can refine ideas and feel connection before venturing into whole-class discussions. It also ironically offers a venue for them to occasionally get a little off-task as they chat, gossip, and philosophize away from the teacher’s gaze. These might seem like bad things, but Kay makes the case that little snippets of off-task behavior, so long as they don’t become big snippets, are key to building camaraderie and connection in the groups and classroom, and my own experience as a student and teacher indeed points to this being true. Last spring I experimented with Pods when our school shut, and I really enjoyed the stability and community it added during an unstable and distanced time. This fall I plan to go deeper with this idea regardless of how I will be teaching.
  • Write Letters: Regular readers will know that letter writing was a huge part of my strategy to maintain connection with my students when the school shut down. It was also, in my opinion, my biggest success of the spring by a large margin. Students were grateful to have a venue to vent their worries, express their thoughts, and generally be heard. Ironically, the letters even helped me to connect more with some students than I’d been able to do in the six months of in-person instruction before that. With this in mind, I hope to have monthly letter writing play a key part of my fall instructional strategy.
  • Use Voice and/or Video Apps: I have long been lukewarm on the suggestion that pops up from time to time of using voice and video apps for feedback. I don’t know of any research that points to audio/video feedback having higher efficacy or efficiency (though if you know of some, send it along), and I fear that video/voice feedback is often used as more of a gimmick, a gimmick that might potentially add more time to giving feedback and/or detract from the student learning. Given the distanced nature of the spring though, I decided to experiment with voice and video, and I had particular success with a blended approach where most feedback was written but the summary was given by a voice app called Mote, which is a plugin that syncs automatically with Google Classroom. The students seemed to really appreciate the human touch it added, and if we are remote or blended (or maybe even in person), I plan to keep using it.
  • Use Lots of Flash Feedback: Blended learning expert Catlin Tucker explains in a recent blog post that, “In the absence of face-to-face classes, teachers can communicate that they care about their students’ progress by providing them with feedback on their work.” She is right. Quality feedback shows students that you care and you are playing attention–two things that many students might not be feeling without regular personal contact. I always use a lot of Flash Feedback (for more on what it is, click here)–heck, I wrote a book with that as the title–but if we are not fully in-person this fall, I plan to use more than I ever had before for exactly the reason Catlin gives.

One final change that I am making to the blog this summer is that I am strongly encouraging readers to weigh-in on the questions posed each week, either in the comments section on the blog or by sending me a note. There are a lot of big questions, but there are also a lot of really innovative answers, and the more we teachers share with each other now, before the pressures the fall will likely bring, the better. If I get enough answers, I’m even hoping to (with permission) share them back out on the next week’s post too.

Stay healthy and safe, and thanks for reading!


If you liked this…

Join my mailing list and I will send you a thoughtful post about finding balance and success as a writing teacher and a list of curated reading suggestions each week. Also, as a thank you for signing up, you will also receive a short ebook on how to cut feedback time without cutting feedback quality that is adapted from my newly released book Flash Feedback: Responding to Student Writing Better and Faster – Without Burning Out from Corwin Literacy.

7 responses to “How Can I Connect with Students and Build a Classroom Community From a Distance?”

  1. […] challenges, I have begun to realize that it also represents a significant opportunity. Last week I wrote about how important it will be to focus on building community and connection if we are teaching from a distance, and I feel that workshop might be the single most effective […]


  2. […] plan to take a more Disney-like approach and think closely about each touchpoint, both as a way to further connect with all students and as a way to offer another layer of support to my students who have […]


  3. […] the other posts in this series of questions, I don’t have all the answers, but I wanted to share the voices […]


  4. […] kids wanted to do Good News,** they wanted to do High Grade Compliments,*** they wanted to do the informal talk in Burn Five. That stuff was one of the few things that actually translated smoothly into a virtual […]


  5. […] plan to use the introductory letters the students will write as the base for these conferences, and my goal, in the words of Dr. Jaxon […]


  6. […] summer, based on how the spring went, I wrote about how creating purposeful touch points between students and teachers will likely be critical given how many of the normal points of […]


  7. […] for how to get students to listen to each other and how I use Chris Lehmann and Matthew Kay’s Burn Five to build camaraderie. These things have been critical tools for building and maintaining classroom […]


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