Building a classroom community in the midst of a pandemic is far from easy, or ideal, but it is definitely possible. I believe there are 3 key components to this whole virtual learning thing. I’ve decided to name them the 3 P’s: patience, persistence, and power. When I say “power” I mean literal electricity. While I’m appreciative of technology for even getting us this far, the technical difficulties, power outages, dropped Zoom calls, and glitches… so many glitches… that come with online learning have turned more than a few of my hairs grey throughout the past 63 days. Who’s counting though?
Going into this school year, fully virtual, I really wanted to focus on building a positive, supportive, safe, classroom community with my 1st graders. Children, and most humans really, crave human interaction; we thrive off of being connected, hence the pandemic. I believe students learn better when they are able to interact with their peers, and in order to interact successfully with one another, we need to spend time getting to know one another. Doing so virtually (with 6 and 7 year olds, I might add) takes intentionality and planning.
I want to start this off with a small disclaimer: I am very proud of the classroom community we have been able to build so far. My students are handling distance learning better than I ever could have hoped or imagined and for that I am so grateful. Two weeks ago, I wanted to try a new getting to know you activity, with the intention of building relationships amongst different groups of students. We have done the show-and-tell’s, the small group meetings, lunch with the teacher, etc., so I decided I would give the old breakout rooms a try for the first time. For those who are unfamiliar, a breakout room is basically a separate virtual “room” where you can send groups of student’s to spend time… unattended.
So, I explain the breakout room process to them, and they were all so excited! I asked students to discuss a fun, light-hearted question: “what would you do if you were the teacher for one day?” I gave them a minute to think about it, and once I saw enough giggling and thumbs’ up, I opened up the rooms. I put three to four students in each group, and I was so excited to pop into the rooms and listen to them chat away. I entered Room 1; all of the students were on mute giving each other blank stares. I entered Room 2; one student was sharing how they would be like Ms. Tuthill (That’s me! Woo, shoutout, and on topic!) So, I popped into Room 3, everyone was on mute giving each other blank stares. Room 4, more blank stares. Room 5, I see a student hanging upside down off their bed. Room 6, I see a student doing an impromptu show-and-tell with their dad’s taser. So, that was that, I closed the rooms, and we concluded with a conversation about what went well and what we would do differently next time. This conversation really laid out the expectations, and set us up for success the next time around. Yes I did try it again, and yes, it did go much better! (The bar was pretty low.)
As the old saying goes, practice makes perfect. I am a firm believer in the power of trial and error. As a new teacher I make mistakes every day, but I like to practice what I preach, and remind myself that making mistakes is a GOOD thing; it’s how we learn! I also like to try most things at least a few times before I abandon the idea altogether. The moral of the story is, we are all navigating this new world of virtual learning, but it doesn’t mean we should abandon the joys of this job. Try new things. Go outside of your comfort zone. It is ok (and necessary!) to spend non-academic time just hanging out with our students. I challenge you to throw your students into a breakout room and see what happens, but remember, all good things take time. Building relationships takes time. Creating a positive classroom community takes time! And calling parents to remind them to put their taser away also takes time.