Teaching Today

10 Habits to Humanize Online Classrooms

Antiracist pedagogy recognizes students as deeply complex individuals and disrupts the marginalization of those of color and others left behind, writes Amaarah DeCuir.

March 24, 2021
 
 
Milan Markovic/istock/getty images

Having returned to another semester teaching online amid multiple pandemics, my commitment to antiracism in the classroom remains urgent and necessary. Although often narrowly defined to teaching issues of race and inequality, antiracist pedagogy itself is grounded in the work of humanizing one another. Humanizing validates my students’ right to show up as they are and to claim their lived experiences as meaningful, and it recognizes them as deeply complex individuals. It is a practice that disrupts the marginalization of students of color and other students left behind by centering our common humanity in the classroom discourse.

I’ve developed 10 habits to humanize my online classroom that are essential to embodying antiracist pedagogy.

  1. Communicate your antiracist priorities. Define your commitment to antiracism in front of your class, and establish expectations for advancing antiracism in your online classroom. When you hold yourself publicly accountable to this work, students will expect you to intervene if racist discourse disrupts your learning community, fostering trust in your capacity to teach.
  2. Acknowledge the historical and ongoing impacts of systemic racism. Racism impacts our classrooms; it shapes students’ access, interactions and achievement. It is both a manifestation of our racist history and the realization of racial hegemony. It explains the bias and microaggressions targeted against marginalized students. Our responsibility is to acknowledge the continuing impact of racism because it shapes how students show up each day.
  3. Do not reduce intersectionality to multiple identities. Intersectionality is not about celebrating or naming the sum of our multiple differences. It is a theory that describes the disproportionate impacts of power, marginalization and oppression at the intersection of our multiple identities. Humanizing our students makes within-group differences visible by using intersectionality to communicate the impacts of those differences. In class discussions about sociocultural experiences, we do not stop when one person shares a story -- we deliberately make space for others whose identities may appear similar but experience power and oppression quite differently.
  4. Rationalize the importance of your course. Pause for a moment and consider why we are teaching online this semester: we are in the middle of multiple pandemics. As faculty, we cannot lose sight of this devastating reality, and we will lose credibility if we act as if the pandemic is not impacting our teaching and learning. It is time to rationalize the importance of our course in light of the larger, consequential realities bearing down on our students. Prioritize teaching the essential knowledge in your syllabus and assume that your students are struggling to manage significant loss of health, financial stability, mental health and close relationships. Humanizing our students compels us to modify course expectations to reflect the reality of this moment. It requires us to respond with care when a student says they are not doing well, or their mental illness is debilitating, or their family obligations are mounting. It obligates us to accommodate students observing Easter, Passover and Ramadan this semester. And if a national trauma erupts again this semester, then we must adjust further to validate the changing realities that students are experiencing.
  5. Check in, regularly, on people’s lived realities. I start every semester by asking my students to introduce themselves through a private email or a video message so that I and their other classmates can learn about them as individuals. They share the pronunciation of their preferred name, their pronouns and their lived realities that will most likely influence their engagement this semester. I continue to check in each class meeting by allocating time for students to share good news or something weighing heavily on their minds. This is a good way for me to learn why some of my students turn off their cameras, when they are stressed or why some struggle with social anxiety. In those moments, students often show their vulnerabilities, and their classmates demonstrate empathy and shared experiences. I listen attentively, I check back regularly and I respond with care to validate their humanity. Each day, I begin class in conversation with my students before I teach the academics. That is how we build a community of learners.
  6. Assume responsibility for student engagement. Teaching online is challenging, but learning online is even more so. It is our responsibility as instructors to facilitate student engagement. We must learn to use technologies that poll students, collect their feedback and facilitate collaboration. I assign students to the same breakout room for two weeks to foster extended relationships that increase engagement. I task students with constructing knowledge in collaboration with others by providing learning tasks and discussion prompts that support my learning objectives. Even teaching asynchronously, we are responsible for engaging students as they practice skills and discuss concepts by keeping the content relevant and varying the ways students can represent their knowledge.
  7. Authentically assess student achievement. Humanizing our students requires that we as instructors validate multiple representations of their knowledge in our classroom. Assessing student achievement online should inspire new considerations, such assessing student-led discussions, problem solving, application of content or demonstration of skills. I teach with a class roster on my desk and use symbols to record when students initiate new ideas, provide relevant examples or pose antiracist questions that foster deep learning. It is difficult to authentically assess students online solely through multiple-choice exams because we are overconsumed with fears of cheating. But it is not appropriate to assuage those fears using digital surveillance tools that reproduce the panopticon gaze.
  8. Host community office hours. Rather than expending my energy to create individual appointments answering the same questions about the course repeatedly, I host community office hours for my students to meet me in my online office together. I answer questions once, in front of multiple students. When I help a student construct an assertion statement, other students are learning by example. I’ve even begun to open my community office hours to former students who return to mentor current students on course material. Students share that community office hours are not intimidating and shift the power imbalance that can create anxiety in professors’ offices.
  9. Disrupt bias when and where it happens. As antiracist educators, we are obligated to disrupt bias when and where it happens. If your course texts reproduce racist ideologies through omission or explicit racism, challenge the text. If a student harms another student with racist discourse, call them in and teach them how to repair the harm. Check for bias on discussion boards, in breakout rooms, when choosing group partners or when explaining inequities. And check yourself! Be ready to validate another’s humanity when a student describes being harmed by bias in your class.
  10. Address contemporary issues. If events and issues in the world outside your academic discipline impact and affect you, assume that they impact and affect your students, too. Make space to address the trauma of COVID, the pain of social isolation, the rising economic hardships and the fears of political violence. Last month, we discussed the disproportionate impact on families in poverty during the Texas power outages and the sadness associated with upcoming holidays away from loved ones. I shared my concern for my family in Houston, and a student shared her worry over lost financial revenue. Addressing contemporary issues centers my own humanity and that of my students by acknowledging our complex lived experiences outside the classroom. While no one expects you to offer a solution for society’s injustices, students will want you to acknowledge and respond appropriately to issues of concern.

Humanizing your online classroom occurs through the establishment of habits, ones that are practiced and strengthened over time. This work becomes easy when done in community with other people. Look to your institution’s center for teaching excellence or seek like-minded colleagues to prioritize humanization together. Our world, our nation and our communities need antiracist pedagogy, and our students are looking at us to foster this commitment online.

Bio

Amaarah DeCuir is a professorial lecturer in the school of education, and an inclusive pedagogy fellow at the Center for Teaching, Research and Learning, at American University.

Read more by

Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.

 

We have retired comments and introduced Letters to the Editor. Letters may be sent to [email protected].

Read the Letters to the Editor  »

 
Back to Top