Creating Class Culture, Diversity & Equity, Online Learning

Creating an Inclusive Online Classroom: Getting to know your students

The Underlying Philosophy

When mentoring student teachers I tell them the most important thing to focus on is relationship building. Students want to come to, and are more likely to be successful in, a class where they feel valued and supported.

The COVID Complication

This has never been more true, or more difficult, than during the COVID pandemic. We are physically separated from our students by social distancing and PPE or by remote learning. This also puts up a mental and emotional barrier that is hard to overcome.

Our COVID reality differs depending on our teaching situation. It may include teaching: online students who we will never met in person; students who we see in person only occasionally due to altered schedules (eg. quadmesters); students on a hybrid system, were our attention is split between online students and face to face students. All of these teaching situations make getting to know our students that much more difficult.

Our students are also learning in more difficult circumstances than ever: with inequitable access to technology, while dealing with increased financial instability, working full time, and/or taking care of younger siblings, in abusive situations, and/or while dealing with mental health issues. Some of which we will never know about or fully comprehend.

Given these difficult scenarios it is more crucial than ever to ensure that we put building and maintaining relationships above all else.

Setting up your online classroom: Cameras on?

There is debate about whether or not students should be forced to have their cameras on at all times. I have fallen into the “no” camp for many reasons, including those below:

Knowing all of this, I allowed students to keep their cameras off (which they all did) during my first quadmester as a eLearning teacher. But I found it had a negative impact on our mental health. Teaching/learning into a black void can be very depressing.

This quad I decided to again give the option, but I looked for a solution to the “black void” issue. I changed video platforms and chose one that allowed students to upload a profile picture (e.g. zoom). The profile picture is visible when students turn their cameras off. Now we see the image below rather than white “ghosts” or black squares.

Phone screen shot from my zoom class

I could have allowed them to choose any image, but the psychological need was not being fulfilled by non face pictures. They could have used a selfie or their school photo, but some were reluctant to do so. Instead I had my students create avatars (cartoon look-alikes). I searched for a program that allowed for inclusiveness and diversity. I wanted my students to be able to choose from a wide variety of options so that they felt represented by the image they created (skin colour, body types, hair style and texture ect.).

Bitmoji is a free app that I use for my social media platforms. It comes with a wide variety of options and students can download hundreds of different images (some may not be appropriate for school use). However it needs to be downloaded on a mobile device, which I can not assume each student has access to.

Instead I tried out Pixton which is a web based app, intended for school use. I created a class and shared the link. It even has an option to use the avatars to create a variety of class photos. The avatar making function is free.

If you’d like to try it out, here is the google slides assignment I gave my students. I also added in teacher instructions and video’s to help you get started. Feel free to make a copy and alter to your needs.

Some of the design options
A class from Twitter
My class this quad

Here are some other avatar creators you can try:

Even though some students chose not to participate (see “ghost” profile above), most of them did and in the end looking at faces has made a significant difference in ensuring the class and I feel like part of a community and there has been more engagement this semester as a result.

Co-creating Classroom Expectations: RESPECT

An inclusive classroom requires a safe space. The best was to get buy in to this idea is to develop class expectations as a class.  My expectation is that everyone be respectful in class. When teaching a face to face class I ask students to think about how we show respect to ourselves, others and the classroom. I put them in groups and have them focus on one topic and they use chart paper to outline their ideas in words or images. Students then do a gallery walk, read through the charts and add to the ideas. We sum up the information as a class and then post the charts papers on the wall.

For my virtual class I do the same thing except we use breakout rooms and a jamboard page for each topic. I then use screenshots to post them on the Google classroom banner.

A page from my classes respect jamboard

Get to Know you Activities

In my regular classroom I spend a good deal of time in the first few weeks getting to know my students. Read more about some of the ways I do this face to face here.

It is even more important to spend time on activities to develop relationships with your students when teaching online. In fact I have continued to do these community-building activities on a weekly and sometimes, depending on how things are going, daily basis. Need some support and/or ideas on how to do this online, find them here.

What’s Your Name?

One of the hardest parts about teaching online has been learning students’ names. In class I have students choose their own seats (this is more inclusive, as they can sit where their needs require) and then I have them put their names on a seating plan. I use this plan to learn their names over the first few days. They introduce themselves to the class on the first day and say their name whenever they participate in class during those first few days.

This is harder to do in an online class. Although I do have students say their name when they participate orally some of them prefer to participate in the chat, so I never hear their name aloud. I prefer not to force students to participate orally, unless absolutely necessary, so I have them share how to pronounce their names and identify their preferred pronounces in a google slides file. This is a great opportunity to discuss that my class is a safe space, where everyone is treated with respect. I also have students add their profile pic (see above) as well so that I can learn their name and their image at the same time

Daily Check-ins

If we were in the classroom I would greet students at the door as they walked in and do a check in (or if unable to do so with some students, I keep an eye on them during the period). My door check in includes a “hi” (with a smile) and a leading question. I use this interaction to gage how they are doing. If it is clear from this interaction (or my observations) that the student may be struggling, I make a concerted effort to engage with them during the period to ensure that they feel supported and have the help they need. This check in is harder to do when teaching online.

Instead I do a check in via a meme (I choose a different meme everyday) at the the beginning of the class. I share a google slides file (click link to access and make a copy) and students indicate in the chat (via a number or descriptive word) how they are feeling. This has a few purposes. It lists them in the chat as present (in case they have tech issues and disappear), gives me a few minutes to take attendance and for students to arrive and it lets me know how they are doing.

For more images, google: meme check in how are you feeling animal

I private message, to do a more personal check in, if a students number or descriptive word is concerning. This has led to the quick reveal of situations which require added flexibility on my part (assignment extensions, additional one on one guided support, telling a students they do not have to complete specific work or assignments) and/or the need to bring the student to the attention of admin (require tech or WiFi) or school staff (social worker, child and youth worker, guidance counsellor etc.) who can give added support.

The Results

Setting up my class to be focused on relationship building and inclusion, has ensured my online class has become a safe community for all students. As a result, students are more engaged and are more successful in their learning.

Interested in other online learning blogs, see:

eLearning/Remote Learning/Homeschooling Online Resources

Free 2ndary ELA Resources

Interested in how to get to know your face to face students:

5 Ways to Get to Know Your Students in the Secondary English Classroom


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