5 Ways to Focus on Relationships in a Digital Classroom

When I first thought about starting the year online, I panicked. How would I get to know my students? What would team building look like? How would I be able to encourage connection among students?  Building relationships is not up for debate–it has to happen. It’s what tells students they are valued and worthy in the classroom. So just like any other school year, this one will start with a focus on making connections. I got you covered! Below you will find five ways to build and foster connections with and among your students in your digital classroom!

During distance learning weekly team building continued. My students were always energized afterwards and it gave them a chance to connect on a non-academic level (which many of them needed).

 Here are a few activities that you can easily build into the first 10 minutes of class while you are teaching class live.

Around the World – Share a picture of a place and have students guess which major city it is in. Follow it up by sharing a fun fact about the place. Make a copy of these Around the World Slides to get you started. 

Adaptations: Afterwards, have students send in photos of places that other people should learn about! Another adaptation can be to take pictures of places around your school community (or ask students to send them in) and ask students to tell where it is + share a story or memory about it.

Alphabetical Order – Students selected a specific category from a list such as foods, places, school supplies, etc. Letter by letter, they list things from within that category. My students either added their answer in the chat or just unmuted themselves to share. Name a few that you hear and then move on to the next letter.

Last to First – Students can select a category such as one of the ones above like school supplies. If a student says “pencil,” the next word has to start with the letter l. This one works well in the chat, or if you call on students. Sometimes there would be a lag and multiple students would provide an answer, but make the next starting letter a bit confusing.

Adaptations: Students can do either of these in groups to see which group wins with the most number of connections; Set this up as a breakout room activity, give a 1 minute time limit and then have students type their responses in the chat, and copy and paste them back in the whole group chat. These can be played multiple times with different categories.

Use those same (or similar) activities you used in face-to-face learning! Did you used to have students make name tags for their desks? Do it digitally! Have students create “about me” activities via a Google Slide and then have students share them in breakout sessions. If you’re using Zoom, make sure to turn on the function that allows participants to share their screen and teach your students how to do it too! Or as students are working on the activity, open their slides up so you can share them from your screen for students to talk about.

In typical back to school fashion, I might ask students to write a list of 5 things about themselves (from most broad to most specific) on an index card. During our school Community Meetings, we would pick one card to share, have all of the students stand up and then stay standing as things applied to them. This allows students to see what they have in common with others, as well as unique traits. Online, you can have students turn off their camera as a way of “sitting down” when things don’t apply to them. Or for some movement, they can show on screen if they are sitting or standing.

You can also use this Top Three activity as a way to share students’ interest, goals, and values. Grab the FREEBIE to make your own copy of the activity with samples and possible instructions.

Give students a way to connect with each other through the platforms you plan to use throughout your class. For example, if you plan to use FlipGrid, start out with a few activities that will allow them to share their interests and personalities. For Padlet, include some categories you want them to share regarding their interests and ask students to comment on a few of them to show commonalities!

I also love the idea of having students create their own Google Site. Team up with other content area teachers to make this a student’s digital portfolio! Yes! It can be

a digital portfolio of all their work across subject areas, AND a place for them to share more about themselves! Using Google Sites, these slides can easily be integrated into each student’s personal site and these specifically would be a great addition to an “About Me” section.

Bonus: Now that you know more about your students–you can use their interests to build it into your time together (live or recorded). Giving them a little shoutout or mentioning their interest will help them feel recognized and promote engagement. It might be helpful to print out a roster so you can check off once you’ve given them a shoutout so that you can be equitable!

I know your time is limited, but setting aside time to care for and know your students makes all the difference in a typical classroom and definitely in a virtual space. Rotate through your roster to invite students to join or stay 5-10 minutes early or late to your class. 

Try inviting 2-3 students at a time based on shared interests from previous activities! This can be especially helpful if you have many students that are unfamiliar with each other or to help students widen their circles! Sometimes you might even invite just one

student, based on a check-in form that they indicated a need for one. Maybe they had a hard day and just need someone to listen to them!

Furthermore, provide times for families and caretakers to connect with you and don’t forget to reach out to them too! Make that first connection a good one with a positive note or call to let them know you’re excited to have their student in your class and highlight of one of their strengths. This helps establish relationships with both students and families/caretakers!

Adaptations: To reach students with challenges accessing the internet, a phone call or message (via Google Voice) were helpful ways to connect with those that less frequently attended class.

Whether during regular class time or at a separate time, make sure to come together for fun! If you’re typically the teacher that has students in the classroom during lunch as a means to build connections–invite students to a quick snack with you via zoom. Whether they’re bringing a cold cup of water or a full on meal doesn’t matter–they’re there to connect with you! This is valuable time to really get to know your students and let them get to know you!

Even planning a weekly “Spirit Day” can give your students something to look forward to and incorporate some of the fun from the school setting.

Another fun idea is to team up with other teachers for a mini-talent show! Teachers can share a talent or interest with students to remind them that we see beyond academics, and that we too have interests beyond what we teach! During the spring distance learning, staff at my school did everything from share calming strategies to spoken word…and the kids loved it!

Whatever approach you take this school year, remember your core values. What were your favorite ways to connect with students before? How can you adapt that in a virtual space? Things will surely look a bit different, but there’s no need to panic! Start with one of the strategies above and expand on your strategies throughout our time online. Share these ideas or save them for later by pinning the image below!

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