Building Community in Digital Spaces

Earlier this month, I co-led a Conversation to Build Capacity, titled: Building Community in Digital Spaces with Garry Smolyansky, @gar_small, for @TheMentoree.

There were seven of us in the conversation and during the one hour session we started to build a community of adult learners on Zoom.

How did that happen, you ask?

I think we set this in mention because we agreed to adhere to a few norms of participation that allowed all members opportunities to have their voices heard. That’s why we intentionally keep these conversations to no more than 10 participants, not counting the presenter(s).

This intentional design allows everyone to speak up and be heard. The presenters guide the conversation based on a limited number of carefully crafted questions that invite participants to actively engage in the discussion, whether through the chat, unmuting your mic, adding comments to a jamboard, or by sharing the link to the presentation and inviting the participants to respond to questions or prompts by writing directly on the slides. Although I would have never thought to do that, my creative co-presenter made it it work allowing everyone to have a new way to join in on the conversation.

As I listened to the voices in the Zoom meeting, my most important takeaway was this: the way to create community in online spaces is to remember our humanity.

Sounds simple, but it requires a particular mindset. It means that we teachers need to let go of negative biases about what would happen if we opened up online spaces so that ALL our students are included.

Let the kids share their pets.

Let them stretch and turn off their cameras.

Let the occasional sibling into the classroom.

Let them use the chat!

Let them show you a piece of their lives. And, make sure you share something of yourself, too.

My students have said they want time to talk to their friends. Who doesn’t?

Building community is about getting to know each other, making connections, discovering commonalities and learning how we are different and celebrating those differences in meaningful ways. That does not change when in a virtual space. It’s just a little harder and takes more time, but it’s doable.

So, I log in to our Google Meet a few minutes before each class so kids can chat with each other. They can also come in to the drop-in times to chat with their friends then.

I always ask if they need to talk to me first. If not, I am just a presence in the room. I keep my headphones and my camera on. My mic is muted. I listen in. And my students chat about the stuff that 9 and 10-year-olds like to chat about. Unless someone needs to talk with me, I use the time to work in the background. If I need to talk with a student who is present, I ask them if it’s OK to do that with everyone there. Usually that’s not a problem and the other kids are treated to vicarious learning by eavesdropping.

Connections matter. The more the kids connect with each other by cementing previous friendships and starting new ones – my students come from three different schools in two different areas of the city – the more likely they will be to engage in learning and the more they will be willing to support each other throughout our time together.

Admittedly, a highly contested aspect of our class online experience has been the use and misuse of the CHAT. Although we are struggling and learning together, I am adamant (obsessed might be a better word) that we figure it out together. I will be writing more about that in another blog post.

I don’t have all the answers, or even most of the answers, to how to build community in an online space. I am observing, reading, chatting about it here and there. So, I invite you to continue this conversation with me.

Leave a comment below about how you are building community (online or offline – we can adapt) or what questions, suggestions, ideas etc come up for you about what I’ve shared here. Pushback is welcomed! And in the spirit of collaboration, I thank you for your contribution!

Cross posted to The Two Writing Teachers Slice of Life Story Challenge.

2 thoughts on “Building Community in Digital Spaces

  1. haitiruth says:

    I’m so inspired by all the conversation I see/hear from teachers who are just determined to make this whole crazy thing work. Thanks for this! Ruth,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for your comments, Ruth. This online learning is a strange place, but I’m finding ways to make it work for us. Not a long term solution for sure, but I’m asserting we can do hard things. This is mine right now.


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