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As an educator, you are a community builder. From day one, you getting to know your students on a relational level. It’s often in the little things, like sending an email the first time they miss a virtual class session. It’s what happens when you give them opportunities to pursue their interests and chase their curiosity. As the community builder, you also set the tone for the class culture by facilitating the creation of classroom norms and procedures. On a daily level, you set the tone with your approach to classroom management and in subtle things like language and tone and the sense of humor you bring to the community. You also help teams solve problems and resolve conflict during collaborative work. You find creative ways to develop trust and create a sense of presence even when students are working remotely.

This last spring, as we shifted into quarantine, teachers did an amazing job building community at the collective level and engaging relationally with students on the individual level. I’ve seen so many examples of teachers making phone calls to families, having class video conferencing meetings to just do a pulse check on each child, and going out of their way to make sure kids know that there’s an adult out there who cares. I’ve seen third grade teachers doing read alouds and last spring, I noticed all the high school teachers writing positive notes to seniors knowing all the things they will miss out on.

At the university level, I am watching professors eagerly learning how to use video conferencing technology to make sure they continue to connect with their students. Professors all around me are making phone calls to students see how students are doing mentally and emotionally. They’re checking in with them before the start of the school year. Certain professors are connecting with local agencies for students who have are experiencing trauma. It is a bold reminder that in higher education, professors might be experts in a specific field or domain but they are also deeply dedicated to the classroom community.

This sudden shift toward emergency pandemic teaching has been a reminder that teaching is inherently relational and educators at every level care deeply about those they serve.

However, this year feels different. In the spring, many teachers had already built community in a face-to-face way. But what does it mean to build community and get to know your students in hybrid and virtual environments? In the next few weeks, we’ll be exploring this topic in-depth. Next week, we’ll explore ways to set up virtual check-ins. Later, I’ll share strategies for how you can empower your classroom community as a whole in virtual and distance learning environments.

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Ways to get to know your students

When I taught middle school, I used to begin the first week of school with a History of Me project. I wanted my students to feel known and it seemed like a personal narrative was a great starting place. However, after the second year of teaching, I began to realize that my lesson wasn’t trauma sensitive.

Not every student feels safe sharing their story. Starting with a personal biography can create situations where students must re-live trauma or even experience PTSD. In addition, some students are processing shame connected to their past. While vulnerability is important, it can take months to develop trust as a community. Furthermore, some students don’t feel safe sharing aspects of their identity. This is especially true for certain members of the LGTBT+ community.

However, as teachers, we want to get to know our students. We want them to feel known and respected. This first week can be an opportunity to honor their agency as learners. So, where do we start? One idea is to focus on geeky interests. Everyone has geeky interests and sharing geeky interests allow students to share something personal without centering it on their story or their identity. You can also honor their agency by empowering students to own the creative process. Here, you affirm their creative voice from day one. Similarly, when they own the inquiry process, you are affirming their natural curiosity. The following are a few activities and mini-projects that build on these ideas.

1. Survey

There are so many different options for student surveys. You might do an interest inventory, where they rate their interest in certain topics you will cover in class. They might share ideas of topics they like, novels they’ve read, t.v. shows they watch, video games they play, or music they listen to. You might ask students about communication preferences. How often do they want you to email them and do a check-in? Do they prefer videos or text-based instructions? In some cases, you might ask questions about their workspace or technology to help provide additional resources.

While the survey is a one-on-one form of communication, you can create spaces where students share their interests with their peers. The following is a prompt I use:

Each student shares their anthem, a song that feels nostalgic, and a song that people would be surprised that they enjoy. You can then create a Spotify playlist that students can access if they want to explore new music.

2. Show and Tell

When the quarantine first began, I want to create a situation where students could share their geeky interests while also processing healthy ways of dealing with social isolation. I began our class video conference with the following prompt:

I then gave students 90 seconds to find an item of their choosing. When that was done, I called on each student using a randomizer and asked students to explain their object. I timed each student for one minute and all twenty-five students had a chance to share their item.

At first, I was nervous about this. After all, these were graduate students in their final course. However, it was awesome. One student grabbed a guitar and played a few riffs for us. Another student grabbed a giant mixer (she probably could have moved her laptop instead) and then explained what it was like to rekindle her love of baking by doing recipes alongside her grandmother using FaceTime. Still, another described getting into painting for the first time ever.

This was a healthy opportunity for students to open up about their experiences and their emotions. Some chose to stick to the function of their item but others used it as a way to share a core part of their identity. Each time a student shared an item, it felt like a gift to the entire community. A variation on this activity is to have students select their item and create a one-minute pre-recorded video that they post to the class LMS. Students can then comment on their classmates’ videos.

3. Hands-On Maker Project

While we often think of remote learning as being virtual and online, we need to recognize that students need to engage in the physical world as well. We don’t want to see students sitting down in front of a screen for eight hours a day. For this reason, it helps to design learning experiences that take students away from their screens. Working remotely should include physical, hands-on learning. It should incorporate movement and allow for observations in the physical world.

You might do this with a full-day maker project:

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But you can also do this with a quick divergent thinking challenge. Here’s how it works:

Step One: In a video conference, provide students with a divergent thinking prompt. The slide below is an example of this.

During this phase, students are gathering items from around their homes in a scavenger hunt. This brainstorming phase is often hands-on. Students might work individually or in a breakout room in the video chat.

Step Two: Students analyze their ideas, combine any that seem similar, and scratch out any that you want to abandon. They might also mash-up any unrelated ideas that might work well together.

Step Three: Students choose one main idea from the list and make a product with it. You might provide a specific time constraint to push their divergent thinking even more.

Step Four: Students go through multiple iterations until their product is done.

Step Five: Students create a video demonstrating how their product works and an explanation of their ideal audience.

4. Geek Out Blogs

Geek Out Blogs are another version of a Genius Hour Project.Based on Google concept of 20% Time, the goal of Genius Hour is to provide students with 20% of their class time to learn what they want. They choose the content while also mastering skills and hitting the academic standards.

With Genius Hour, students own the entire journey. They choose the topics based upon their own geeky interests. It doesn’t have to be a traditionally academic area. They might like fashion or food or sports or Legos or Minecraft or deep sea creatures. They can then match these topics with topic-neutral standards. Students ask the questions and engage in their own research to find the answers. Along the way, they design their own plan of instruction. They decide on the resources and activities. Each student sets goals and engages in self-assessment. They work at their own pace and set their own deadlines. Students decide on the grouping. Some work alone. Others work in pairs or small groups. In the end, students figure out what they will make and how they will share their learning with the world.

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Geek Out Blogs begin with these questions:

  1. What do you really care about? Why?
  2. What is something that you’re passionate about?
  3. What is something you know inside and out?
  4. What are some things you believe deeply in? What are some convictions you have about life?
  5. What are your hobbies? What do you enjoy doing?
  6. If you could create a class from scratch, what would it be?

I explained that geekiness is a passion, interest, enjoyment and often convictions about a particular topic. I then gave them stems they could use:

  • Seven Reasons Why __________
  • Seven Ways to _________
  • Seven Things to Know About ___________
  • Seven Best _____________
  • The Seven (Adjective) _________ in ____________

They were all over the place. A girl chose Korean pop music while the girl next to her delved into issues of immigration. A boy across the room  chose Minecraft while the kid next to him gave seven amazing reasons why zombies would make great pets. A few kids wrote about their lives, their families or their cultures.

We ended up getting into digital citizenship and digital ethics. We started our blogs and added multimedia elements. We got into visual design and the do’s and don’ts of slideshows (yes, I have them create Keynotes even if that’s considered uncool these days). They learned about copyright and Creative Commons and developed a set of digital ethics in the process.

5. Curiositycast

Students can own their curiosity when we embrace a philosophy of inquiry-based learning.

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One way is through a Wonder Day Project.

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Another way is through a Curiositycast. Here’s how it works.

Step 1: Students begin with a topic. It might be connected to a particular theme or unit of study. However, it might simply be a random topic they choose. In a history class, students might ask questions about the Mayan civilization or they might choose a random topic in history, such as the history of skateboarding or the history of trap music. In science, they might choose a subtopic about weather or they might simply ask any big science questions. Individually, students generate the topic on their own and add it to a shared document. When duplicate topics emerge, students then have the opportunity to work in pairs or small groups (no larger than four). Ultimately, they get to decide on the grouping and on the topic.

Step 2: Students generate a set of research questions connected to their topic. As a teacher, you can provide them with research sentence frames. You might include this on a slideshow or in a shared document that they can copy and paste.

Step 3: Students provide feedback on one another’s questions. Students are looking for the following:

  • This question is specific
  • This question is on-topic
  • This question will allow you to find facts rather than just opinions

The method of feedback can vary depending on the technology and the grouping. If it’s a blended classroom, they might provide feedback in-person. If they’re working remotely, they can choose between leaving feedback as comments asynchronously on a shared document, recorded video feedback, or in an email. They can also give feedback synchronously with a phone call, a walkie-talkie app, or a video conference.

Step 4: Students engage in online research. The beautiful part of working remotely is students can read at their own pace and they’re not tied to a tight class schedule. However, this also means you might have to create some accountability, so you might ask students to find at least 5 facts or answer at least two of their questions.

In this research phase, students can organize their information in whatever style works best for them. They might use a spreadsheet, a table, a set of note cards, or create a sketchnote.

Step 5: Students share their information with a partner or small group. This works well as a video conference, with teachers clarifying expectations and then asking students to move into breakout rooms. However, a quicker option might be a simple email update or a comment on the class LMS. If students are working individually, this is an opportunity to share their findings with someone who has had no background knowledge. It often, leads to better research in the second day. If students are working in teams, it’s an opportunity to share their findings and expand their knowledge as a group.

Step 6: Students go in-depth in research for a second or even third day. The goal is to develop a rich understanding of the topic. You might ask students to create concept maps, which they can do by hand or using an online app.

Step 7: Students share their work in a podcast. They can use a dedicated remote podcasting app (such as Zencastr) or create a video recording and then take the audio out afterward using an audio editor (such as Audacity). If the technology process seems too complicated, you might simply make it a vodcast and have students record their video chat.

If students are in a small group, they can stick to a single topic. If students worked individually, they can share their findings with a partner.

Sample outline: Individual option

  • Partner A and B both introduce their topic and explain why they chose them
  • Partner A introduces the questions and shares the research process
  • Partner B asks any clarifying questions that might guide the story
  • Partner A shares the answers as well as any fascinating facts
  • Partner A and B can have an open discussion about the findings, facts, and other questions they might have
  • Partner B introduces the questions and shares the research process
  • Partner A asks any clarifying questions that might guide the story
  • Partner B shares the answers as well as any fascinating facts
  • Partner B and A can have an open discussion about the findings, facts, and other questions they might have

Although this is a general outline, partners should feel the flexibility to modify this. Fourth or fifth grade students might need to stick to the outline more closely while college students or high level high school students might choose to create their own outline and move in a more free-flowing way.

Sample outline: Small group

  • The group shares their questions and each member talks about why they chose the topic
  • Each group shares what questions they asked and what answers they found
  • As they share their facts, other groups members can add additional facts or explanations. It should feel like a conversation
  • Each member shares one fascinating fact that surprised them
  • They end with each member either sharing a new question they have or why they think their findings matter

Again, the outline is meant to be flexible. If groups do subsequent Curiositycasts, it becomes an easier process.

These are just a few ideas. There are many different options that allow students to chase their curiosity and pursue their creativity. In the process, we can honor student agency and begin to build a classroom community despite the physical distance.

John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me


  • MerraLee Block says:

    I am an elder teacher and so, will be teaching virtually for the present. As such, I need to re-invent myself as a charismatic, loving, entertaining instructor for my students to get the results that will best prepare them for their futures. Your information is very helpful for it connects me to my students without forcing them to be intimate before they are ready. Thank you so much.

  • I’m so thankful for all your ideas and have been using them with my learners. Your work is so engaging and motivates my reluctant writers- They find joy in what normally would be considered mundane to them!

  • Lindsey Blevins says:

    My students loved having a scavenger hunt! I really like the song anthem playlist idea so everyone feels like they get input on what is listened to and to keep a variety of music playing that appeals to everyone in the classroom.


    Lovely material! Thanks for sharing it.
    Hugs from Argentina

  • Barbara Dunn says:

    I am thanksful for all the ideas and using them in my music classes with Behavior Disordered Students.

    Thanks for sharing it.
    Barbara Dunn

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