Defining Your Class Culture During Distance Learning

Defining Your Class Culture During Distance Learning
Kelly Mendoza September 3, 2020

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Fill in the blank: The culture of my class is _____________________________. 

What came to mind? Was it easy to define, or did you struggle to describe it? The beginning of the new year is all about starting fresh and setting norms, guidelines, and defining your classroom culture with students. But what does that look like if your class is all distance learning, or if it’s a classroom that’s socially distanced? 

In a time when you and your students are outside of your comfort zones, taking time at the start of this school year to define your classroom culture is more important than ever. For instance, if you are doing distance learning, what are expectations around accessing and completing assignments online? What should students expect for synchronous video meetings or instruction? How can you create a culture of responsibility and respect without seeing each other face-to-face? What are the expectations around being a good digital citizen? How can you transform procedures and routines from your physical classroom for distance learning (i.e., morning routines, circle time, group work, stations, etc.)? Use the tips below to define and refine your classroom culture for this unusual … but exciting school year. 

Set expectations together

Teachers know that in order for something to work, students need to be bought in. At the start of the year, invite students to define classroom rules with you. And maybe you don’t want to call them “rules,” it could be “expectations” or “guidelines.” Decide which guidelines are deal-breakers that you need students to follow. But leave open space for students to add their own ideas. You could structure expectations under themes, such as Be Responsible, Be Respectful, and Be Resilient, then invite students to each add an idea under a theme. Use the Our Class Expectations template to get started! Setting expectations together helps students bring their voice to the table and build community in your classroom.  

Repeat your class mantra

When I say mantra, you may envision a yogi meditating. But really, a class mantra is simply a word, phrase, sentence, or set of phrases that is inspirational, grounding, and summarizes the spirit of your class. This is something that you define, because it also lets students know your philosophy as a teacher. Ideas include: “Dare to be remarkable!” “I can and I will” or “Peace begins with me.” As you begin the school year, take time to explain the class mantra. For instance, if your mantra is “Be your best self”, what does that mean exactly? What does it look like? Write your mantra on your classroom page, include it in your email signature, show it in your Zoom background, and refer back to it often with students. You could invite students to draw a picture of it and hang on their wall. The goal with mantras is repetition. Soon, students will chant the mantra with you at every class meeting! Check out Philadelphia teacher Jasmyn Wright’s class mantra “push through” using a call-and-response format with students. And don’t forget — you can have a teacher mantra for yourself, and students can create their own personal mantras too! 

Define digital learning expectations with students and parents

Distance learning is new to many students, and it may seem foreign to parents. But parents are key to students’ success, since they are the facilitators of at-home learning. Yes, your school likely has an acceptable use agreement and student code of conduct around technology use, but digital learning expectations are classroom-specific guidelines around using technology for learning and being a good digital citizen. For instance, how are students expected to be safe and responsible online? How will they communicate and be kind and respectful online? How will they balance screen time with other life activities? Not to mention, how will they care for their devices (carry your laptop with two hands)! These expectations need to be discussed with students and parents up front, and reiterated throughout the year. (See Common Sense Education for free Digital Citizenship lessons and videos.) You can even make it like an official agreement that students and parents read over together, each sign, and return to you. Also check out Common Sense Education’s digital learning guideline templates for grades K-5 and 6-12.   

Survey your students along the way

What’s working for students, or what you thought might be working, may change over the school year. Survey your students a few times throughout the school year to get a pulse check. Questions could range from specific such as “What do you like most about our Zoom meetings? What do you like least?” to a more open-ended “What would you like to do more of in class?” Google Forms and Survey Monkey offer easy-to-create survey options. Show students the results and make changes based on feedback. They will appreciate to know you are listening to and supporting them. 

This school year is going to be dramatically different from any year you’ve taught, whether you are new to the classroom or are a veteran teacher. Your classroom culture will no doubt be different, but by defining expectations, norms, and a class mantra with students, you can still make a special and unique community in your distance learning classroom. 

Circling back to the earlier exercise, try filling in the blank again: I want the culture of my class to be __________________________.   

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