As someone who teaches literature and writing, I understood long before COVID-19 that the success of a class depends on turning a group of strangers into a learning community. When students get comfortable talking to, questioning and challenging one another, discussion can be so animated that no one even bothers to be called on. They just talk.
When the pandemic forced the closing of my college in March, my core class in writing and literature had already coalesced. Our connection held up for the rest of the semester, despite our forced migration to Zoom. We were supposed to meet for 75 minutes twice a week, and we did. No problem.
I had already signed up to offer the same course during the summer, and by April, I knew the course would be online. Only as I prepared the course did I register how important casual moments in the campus classroom had been in building community. Those minutes of idle chat before class, or afterward as students amble out together or come to my desk to talk, all fostered the connections that are so central to how I like to teach.
Apparently, going forward, though, the Zoom classroom wouldn’t be keeping students in class as long as the campus classroom had. By late March, The New York Times had already reported that “Zoom fatigue” thwarted student engagement. That received wisdom led administrators to suggest that as long as we were online, we could -- and should -- reduce class meeting times by half or even two-thirds and compensate with added asynchronous work.
On the books, my summer class was scheduled to run three hours a night, three nights a week for five weeks. An intensive required course at night with not a single humanities major enrolled was daunting. All the more reason not to settle for one-hour Zooms. I planned for online meetings of two hours every night, knowing that I really had to find a way to create community in a hurry and to make technology -- never my strong point -- serve my needs.
In the end, my efforts to build community worked, and my Zoom class turned into one of the most gratifying teaching experiences I’ve ever had. Here are the strategies I tried out to encourage a group of Zooming strangers, now flung all over the country and all over the world, to become a group.
The Week Before the Class Begins
Invite students to meet with you informally in small groups. Two weeks before class began, I emailed the students. I said that since I’d never met any of them, I would set up voluntary meetings -- 20 minutes or so in our Zoom room -- where four or five of us could chat and introduce ourselves to one another. Half of them accepted my invitation.
Mattias told us he was a nurse at a hospital in Brooklyn, preparing for medical school and having a grueling time with COVID cases. To relax he was reading Pachinko. Virginia, her eye on an eventual counseling degree, said she lived in Chelsea but that she and her wife were in her hometown in North Carolina for now. Colin, majoring in international studies, was in Nebraska, not far from a meat-processing plant in the news because so many of its workers were testing positive. Junjie, a business major from China, said he was still in Queens because tickets back to China were scarce.
A week later I re-sent the invitation, and others responded. By the day class began, 15 of my 19 students had met me and one another, and we had a remarkably relaxed first meeting.
Take notes on what they tell you about themselves. During our chat, I jotted down what they said about their majors, hobbies, pets, hometowns or countries of origin, and when the actual class began, I alluded to that information when I could. I hoped it would make them feel recognized and would help others to know them, as well.
Share more about yourself than usual. To encourage a community of which I was also a part, I deliberately disclosed personal details, starting with my domestic setting. I set up my laptop near my microwave, in effect inviting them into my kitchen, and poured myself a cup of coffee, which showed on my screen. I told them I lived in Manhattan, that, yes, it had been scary, and that I had two grown sons -- one in Brooklyn and another in Seattle -- whom I worried about. I said my tech skills were halting at best, and if anyone was tech savvy, I would be grateful for assistance. Junjie volunteered.
Draw on your students’ online experience. In our chat, I asked my students about techniques and tools they had liked or disliked in their other classes. One student said that in her previous class, she’d liked the way the instructor started each class with a question, sending students to breakout rooms for a few minutes to consider an answer they could discuss and share. Another student disliked recorded online lectures. “You can’t ask a question,” she said.
Explicitly ask students to consider talking in class more than they might. I said that without their active participation, the class would fall flat. In the comfort of our small chat group, most said yes, they would talk. (And, fast-forward: they did.)
Once Class Begins
After the class has begun, bolster students’ connections to one another and to you. And go for student-centered rather than teacher-centered.
Regularly use the breakout rooms. I had often used group work in my classes, but breakout rooms were especially crucial over Zoom. I used them daily. In my previous in-person classes, I had assigned students to regular groups. Now I opted for Zoom’s randomized breakout groups. It was quicker to set up, and students liked the variety.
Build in brief student presentations. In person, I like to provide context for the readings in a five-minute mini lecture. In my online class, I delegated that task to a student via a list of questions and links to consult. Because we happened to be scrutinizing unreliable narrators, I asked a second student to present a segment I called “What’s the Story?” and to be especially attuned to the narrator’s internal discrepancies.
Assign and draw on students’ “reader-response” blogs daily. I was already in the habit of assigning blogs to make sure students did the reading and to prime the pump for discussion. To make the online class even more student-centered, I used their blogs as the focus in planning discussions, taking notes beforehand on who had said what. I’d start with an interesting observation that a student had made, identifying that person by name. During class, we would refine and develop at least one idea. Students were required to do a brief weekly paper based on various options, including an idea that had developed in class. The students whose observations prompted the day’s discussion were invariably both flattered and engaged.
Require conferences. I required students to meet with me at least once during the five weeks to discuss their paper, whether in progress or completed, as a way of connecting to them individually. To make the meeting more carrot than stick, I made it clear that I would extend deadlines for students who in conference found a way to improve their drafts, and I would allow resubmission and regrading for those came up with a revision plan. Some students signed up for two or three conferences.
Make Zoom technology into your ally in building connection. Speaking of conferences, my office hours were right before class. To meet with me, students didn’t have to leave home early or wander through a hallway in search of my office. All they had to do was click on a link. And if another student showed up for a conference early, they could wait in a breakout room.
One member of my class said he liked the Zoom classroom because it made him feel like he had a front-row center seat. Another said discussion in the classroom felt more “personal” and “more like a one-on-one conversation.”
I never did keep the class for the full three hours, and students were grateful, but I did assign asynchronous work, for which they were not so grateful. Or as one student put it: “Asynchronous work? It’s just a fancy name for more homework.”
This fall, I will be teaching all my classes entirely online, though when it’s safe to do so, I’ll very happily return to my campus. But right now, our students have made it clear they want to learn, and they want connections with one another and with us as we continue to live through these uncertain and disruptive times. And I’ve found that in classes like mine, Zoom, far from fatiguing, can be both an energizer and a bridge.