I want to share a lesson I learned from my students that I suspect your students want you to learn: Let them connect.
Building community has always been one of the cornerstones of my teaching praxis as it is essential to learning and especially learning to write. But one important lesson we have all learned from the pandemic is that community is also essential to humans for our well-being. There is a reason that isolation has always been considered such a drastic punishment. Every class I’ve taught since our last pandemic spring (summer, fall, winter terms) has built on my decades of experience with online teaching, learning, and community building. While my system is far from perfect, the gratitude of my students should be a lesson to all of you.
For the record I teach dual credit high school students, first year college writers, college students, graduate students, and practising teachers at a regional university in Eastern Kentucky. I am also the mother of a college sophomore and regularly interact with college and middle/high students who are not in my classes. Here is what I have learned from these people and my own experience.
Let Them Interact
Regular readers of my blog already know what I’m going to say, but there are two essentials when it comes to building community and you must begin with meaningful introductions. Building community involves more than simply breaking the ice on the first day or week of classes. In order to support community your classes must offer ongoing community interaction. In my classes this includes our Community Check-in where we are just social beings connecting over music, pets, and whatever else is giving us life (or dragging us down) at the moment. We are real. We are human. We laugh and we cry with each other and those connections touch all the work that we do together. How do you offer your students space to interact as humans?
Let Them Talk
There has been much debate about the number of hours any human, student or adult, should spend on Zoom (or the meeting software required by your overlords). I know I have a personal limit, but in truth the format and focus of the synchronous session can have as much (or more) impact on my ability to function as the amount of time. Most of my work with students is asynchronous to respect our individual capacity to balance life in general and other responsibilities in specific, but I like to offer optional meetings to supplement our asynchronous work and to give us the chance to actually talk to each other in real time. In those sessions we write, we talk, and we play. I work hard to keep those sessions at about an hour, focused to support our current project, and, most important, centered on the student — student writing, student ideas, student voices. We have fun, we connect as humans, and we learn together. Does your synchronous instruction time offer space for real talk?
Let Them Be Real
I have always been a full-throated supporter of building my classes around authentic writing and extending that work to include a focus on personal values has only deepened my conviction that this is important work. My students are writing about ideas that are real and connected to their lives which makes our conversations about these ideas personal and human. I give my students invitations and opportunities to write about what matters to them and that opens the door to creating real human connections – something we always need but now more than ever. Does your class offer your students the opportunity for work that matters to your students’ real lives?
Over and over I have heard from both my students and yours, that our learners miss the opportunity to meet and get to know new people, they crave learning in a connected community, and they just want to be a human connected to other humans in real authentic ways. The truth is that for many students pandemic education is failing them as humans, but these are solvable problems created by the unholy union of an already failing education system and a pandemic. If we take this opportunity to abandon the systems and structures that made up a problematic status quo and really think about our purpose then we can create authentic learning communities online or in person. How are you helping your students make connections with you, with each other, and with your course material?