Six Ways to Build Community in Online Classrooms

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.”

After brainstorming on Padlet, Leah Calote’s English and theater students created community agreements to establish class norms.

Throughout the pandemic, policies around on-camera participation have stoked debate among teachers. According to Education Week, more than three quarters of educators require students to turn on cameras during live instruction. Calote is not in that majority. “Sometimes people just aren’t in a talkative mood, which is fine,” she said. Inspired by an idea from instructional designer Esther Park, Calote creates breakout rooms for her English classes based on communication style. Students choose whether to join a room that will use cameras and microphones, microphones only, or type chat only.

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.”

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.

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.

In her opening slides with her classes, Calote listed five commitments to her students: 

  1. I care about you.
  2. Safety matters.
  3. Comfort counts.
  4. I value personality.
  5. Basic needs are important.
Rancho Campana High School teacher Leah Calote opened her 2020-21 classes with these promises to students. She said the list was adapted from one shared by another teacher on Twitter last summer.

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.