Friday, August 14, 2020

Remote Teaching - the community edition

 I just finished remotely teaching two one-week courses for rising 9th graders in which at least half the class was brand new to the school. Each group met for 3 hours every morning for a week and I had the luxury of creating my own curriculum that didn't have to cover any particular topics, but did need to be fun, engaging for students with a variety of math backgrounds, introduce new students to how we teach math at my school and how to learn math remotely, and most importantly, foster a sense of community.

Fortunately, Michael Pershan shared some words of wisdom about the need to build student-student connections over student-teacher connections in a remote space and this helped me rethink my original plan for each week.

Based on his experiences with a virtual math camp this summer, I did a few things that I think helped students get to know each other and feel safer sharing and discussing than they would have otherwise. Here are some things that seemed to go well (at the end, I'll post some things that didn't go as well, not to worry).

  • Low stakes whole class interactivity

I started the week with an activity in which students had to drag their name somewhere on a set of axes so we could learn about each other. 

I asked some chill follow-up questions about each set of axes as kids dragged their names, which they could answer in the chat or out-loud (almost everyone opted for the chat).

I then had kids drag their names somewhere onto an oval and go around the oval, saying their name out loud and answering another easy icebreaker question, the goal being - everyone knows how to unmute their mics, everyone gets to hear how each student wants their name pronounced. 

Every morning started with a low-stakes interactive component. We did a "Which One Doesn't Belong" with kids dragging their names into a quadrant and typing their reason for that choice into the chat box. We did a "Contemplate then Calculate," with kids typing their numerical expression into the chat box. We did an "Estimation 180" task, where kids typed their "too low/too high/best guess" into the chat box. Just something small and relatively low-stakes where every kid interacted with the whole class. As the week went on, kids were more likely to use their mics voluntarily to participate, especially if I sent them into breakout rooms for a few minutes to pair-share first. The chat box is maybe the best feature of teaching remotely though - getting kids comfortable using it and setting the norm that it's basically a backchannel for classroom discussions, where kids can type questions and ideas and respond to those of their classmates was a huge component of building community for my students. 

  • Breakout rooms

Breakout rooms was where most of the community building happened though. I'm no remote teaching expert, but in my limited time doing this (spring + summer), kids are approximately 1500% more likely to talk out-loud in a breakout room than in a whole class setting. Each day, I created visibly random breakout rooms that stayed together for most of the day's activities. They started with an icebreaker here too. The first day, I used "personality coordinates" shared by Dan Meyer a while back, which translated really well to a remote space.

Each breakout room worked on one slide in the slideshow, putting their names next to the dots first, and then coming up with variables that could be placed on the axes to make this graph true for their group. Kids had a great time with this activity and came up with some clever and hilarious variables for their groups that we then shared out in the whole class. Following days had more traditional ice breakers, but I also had every student bring in a photo of something meaningful to them and add it to their group's slide and share about that photo, something I likely wouldn't have done in-person. That was another favorite.

  • Games

Games are another low-stakes way for strangers to interact and build some familiarity and trust. I mostly used two-person games, borrowed from this list by Ben Orlin. Fortunately for me, Mike Flynn had already created online templates for two of the games (Black Hole and Ultimate Tic Tac Toe) and I made one for Magical Squares so we had a variety of games to play. I think games like Sprout, Nim, and Hex would translate well to remote space if you want more ideas. After students played a game against an opponent, I asked them to share out possible strategies and things they noticed in the whole group and got kids to participate who were quiet otherwise. 

  • Norms

 Throughout these activities, but especially at the start, I was very explicit about the ways that I wanted students to engage with each other. The first time that students went into breakout rooms, I assigned a group leader and gave that person several tasks.

Each day, I had students reflect on how they supported each other, had students name peers who supported them along with what they did that was supportive, and asked students to share out strategies that were helpful in promoting effective collaboration. This was mostly done in a Google doc journal that students wrote in at the end of each day, but I also asked students to share out some of these things in breakout rooms at the start of the day. I frequently reminded them of our norms and why they were there. 

  • Choice

My last hot-tip for building community remotely is about giving kids choice for how they interact with each other. While I really wanted kids to work together, I also gave them opportunities to work on their own, if they wanted to do so, or to pick specific peers to work with rather than be randomly assigned. Knowing that some of the time, they would have choice for how they worked and who they worked with seemed to increase buy-in and willingness to work with new peers during the times that I asked kids to collaborate with strangers. I also tried to give kids different ways to participate - even though the norms asked for participation, we talked about different ways that this could happen, whether by typing in the chat box, asking others questions, affirming or pushing back on ideas, writing out the group's work on a shared virtual whiteboard, or using nonverbal cues if their camera was on, like looking at the speaker, nodding along, giving a thumbs up. I didn't require kids to have their cameras on, but tried to make it a safe space to do so and where there would be a reason to be seen and heard by others.

This is not to say that everything was amazing and the students are now life-long friends. Creating a community virtually is going to be a challenge, even with all the tricks and best intentions because it's a weird, awkward space that's not conducive to vulnerability and intimacy. For example, the last hour of the last day was a choice project, and the majority of the new students chose to work on their own. I didn't force the issue, but I would have loved to see them choosing more collaboration. Something that I plan do differently in a few weeks when I meet my year-long classes is to have more opportunities for substantive sharing. I feel like we didn't really get past the easy icebreaker stage, and partly that's due to only being together for a week, and partly it's because I wasn't sure how much to push kids to share. I did have students share a Google doc with me in which they wrote a reflection at the end of every day, and those were much more substantive and raw. I'd like to have kids feel comfortable sharing those types of written reflections with each other and not just with me. With a class that I will have for longer, I'd also like to spend more time having students model and practice participation norms. 

I'd also love to hear your ideas of how you plan to foster community in your classes remotely this fall. Please reach out on Twitter or in comments to this blog!


  1. Thank you for sharing Anna. I applaud you and am inspired by your fearlessness. (And your thoughtfulness)
    Do you remember the my favorite I did at Harvey Mudd that was my favorite ice breaker? I think that could do a lot to build community. Must come up with a favorite movie, favorite book and favorite game. Then list all the ways positive and negative they worked to achieve the commonalities.

    1. Awesome, Amy! I think icebreakers that help students feel connected to others are going to be key this year. Great suggestion.

    2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Here’s a question: did you make a google side/ share then cast your screen for the WODNB and graph yourself activities? Love the idea that they put themselves into a circle!!

    1. I just made my Google slideshow editable by anyone with the link and made a for it that I shared with students. They had zoom open as well as the slideshow so they could just interact with the slides directly during class. If you're not into sharing your entire slideshow with students, this could also work well with - put each student's name on a sticky note, share the link to the jamboard with them, and have them drag the notes into a circle.

  3. I love the whole class graphing activity! Did you just manually make text boxes and add all of their names to Google slides?

  4. Yep! Exactly. Just had a bunch of text boxes alphabetically listed on the side of each slide that they could drag around.

  5. I'm really excited to try some of these strategies as I start remote teaching! Thank you for sharing.

  6. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  7. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.