Most of my experience building classroom communities stems from my work with young children and families. In early childhood settings, we are often a child and family’s first experience in an educational system, so it is imperative that we start with a strong classroom community—that includes both children and families. An article from the National Association for the Education of Young Children describes classroom communities this way, “Strong communities have members who have shared goals and experiences, who feel empowered to contribute, who trust in one another, and who feel understood and capable as individuals. These attributes enable teamwork, cooperation, a willingness to negotiate, and the ability to draw on one another’s skills” (Kane, 2016). While intended for audiences that teach young children, I argue that this description is relevant across learning communities of all ages.
Foundational to this reciprocal and iterative process of community building is in the way I show up in courses. I start by communicating that I am also human and have faults, and that over the course of the semester I am likely to make mistakes, and I am okay with that. I try to explicitly step down from the role of ultimate authority to one of a co-learner. This begins to shift the dynamic from being a place of right and wrong to a place of accepting ambiguity and appreciating one another’s contributions to the learning process. This work of relationship building and showing up as fully human, seems especially important in online spaces. As Robin DeRosa articulated, “When we think of distance as an invitation to explore our relationality to others, we invite ourselves into a learning community, and this is a precious resource and an opportunity.”
Another part of this work of us all showing up as fully human in online spaces is intentionally embedding opportunities for students to know myself and one another in and out of the content of the course. Opportunities I try to embed to encourage these relationships sometimes include Flipgrid videos to invite everyone to share something about themselves, and other times it includes opportunities for personal connections to readings and resources.
To further humanize and begin to build community in online courses, I start each week with a video about the module-- sometimes focusing on the “nuts and bolts” of a new technology, other times focusing on an aspect of the content within the module. As part of these videos, I intentionally plan what I will say, but I don’t rehearse it or write a script. The outcome is that I generally say “ummm” several times, or a pet or child might make a cameo; but for me, the messiness is part of what makes me a real person. Students are responsive to these-- I think it helps them build a connection to me as a human, and gives them permission to show up as themselves, too.
Outside of courses, I hold weekly office hours via Zoom. For a couple semesters these were not well attended, and to be honest, feeling a bit defeated, I stopped holding them for a bit. When COVID-19 hit, I decided it would be good to start them again, and several students show up each week to be in community with one another. There is never an agenda, it is just a time to be with each other.
As I write this, I realize that I don’t have any magic formula that makes community happen. For me, it’s showing up as myself, and giving space for students to do the same. In many ways, it has been by intentionally showing up as my true self that community building begins.