Prior to 2020, our students thrived despite turmoil: Superstorm Sandy, the Baltimore riots, mass shootings in Las Vegas and Florida. They learned in spite of these events (and sometimes through them) largely as a result of community. Among other emotional supports at home and in the world, they relied on school community to process their grief, anger, or confusion with peers in the hallway, with teachers in department offices, and through thoughtful conversations and mindful assignments done shoulder-to-shoulder with their fellow learners.
This fall will be wasted if we do not begin from the premise that our students are learning from a place of dislocation, anxiety, uncertainty, awareness of social injustice, anger, and trauma. So are we. Cathy Davidson, Director of the Futures Initiative, CUNY Graduate Center
Now, with a convergence of crises, our students (and we teachers too) need community more than ever. So, how can we remove some of the distance of distance learning? It’s time for the feminist ethics of care.*
Feminist care is rooted in a connection to others. It relies on collaboration, relationships, and communication. Thanks to physical proximity, such care was natural to our pre-pandemic interactions. We connected by dropping in on a basketball game, expressing admiration for art outside the Gordon Room, and cheering wildly for student leaders at assembly. We stopped to help teary students who weren’t our own and we joined impromptu conversations in the hallway or swung by and sat in on classes in session.
Zoom and other distance learning tools may seem the antithesis of the community we generated in person. But what digital community lacks in physical proximity, it affords in an elasticity of space and time not available in our in-building experiences.
Virtual communities must be mindfully constructed around social experiences that prioritize the personal. Niya Bond, University of Maine
One approach to building community digitally is to simulate in-person experience. Creative Zooming in the Upper School fall play “Speechies” generated community among students, faculty, friends, and families. Attendees were greeted with music and used the chat to say hello and wish the actors success, just as they would at 100 East End. After the performance, they and the actors were ushered via the chat to a separate "Zoom lobby" where everyone unmuted to share praise and gratitude. The chat stream was as lively as the verbal exchanges. (That same approach might be used for readings, art shows, concerts, debates, or salons around course or student-chosen topics.)
Another approach is to look for brand new opportunities to build community that only the digital realm can provide. Zoom chats hold endless possibilities, from providing space for running commentary during a Zoom-watched video to “lava discussions”** where students preload their ideas and then hit enter on cue to look for commonalities and consensus—all voices speaking at once. Outside of Zoom, we can invite our students to co-learn or co-create our units through shared Google Docs or communal Padlets or Wakelets where students recommend books, videos, or social media posts to supplement teacher-chosen media (or, of course, just for fun). We can cede synchronous class time to student voices—voices they don’t hear enough in their eerily peer-lite pandemic bubbles— by recording mini-lectures to be watched before class, reserving precious face-to-digital-face time for the students to learn from each other. Such mini-lessons can be static (recorded via iMovie, Quicktime, or Zoom) or interactive (via Flipgrid, VoiceThread, or Vimeo).
Dominator culture has tried to keep us all afraid, to make us choose safety instead of risk, sameness instead of diversity. Moving through that fear, finding out what connects us, reveling in our differences; this is the process that brings us closer, that gives us a world of shared values, of meaningful community. bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope
Perhaps most importantly, we can build care explicitly into our synchronous sessions. We can start class with wordless music and a five-minute free-write or free-sketch prompt to process emotions. We can ask students to identify topics they’d like to discuss. Like old-fashioned "stations," we can allow students to rotate through a series of breakout rooms to complete tasks, prompting movement every 10 minutes and including a “Chat and Chill” room expressly inviting shared down time. Not only might that foster community, but it may also refresh students before they head to the task in the next breakout room.
Got 5 minutes? Set your cell phone timer, put on some music (on the Zoom toolbar, click More to choose "Share Computer Sound"), and ask students to chat about some personal topic if they'd like--perhaps the media or shows they are into right now. When the timer goes off, it's time to start class. Choosing a range of music, from around the globe and across decades, can open up conversation as well.
Got a whole class period?
Let students know ahead of time to prepare for student-driven fishbowl discussions to delve into a reading, lab results, or video. In these sessions, divide the class in two. For the first half of class, group A runs their own discussion (unmuted is great) while group B hides video and while all hide non-video participants. Those watching can comment via chat or keep notes on the discussion themselves. Then, the groups switch.
Got a whole unit to spare? Put the students in the driver’s seat, reversing the power dynamics of the classroom which front-loads care. Have them choose the next text or topic or ask them to select the texts or media for the topic you've chosen. Allow them to set, collaboratively or individually, the due date for the next assignment. Or, create together the rubric for the next assignment, to be used for self, peer, and teacher evaluation.
Got an idea or resource to share?
Add it in the comments below, please!
Interested in more?
In about 10 minutes, you can read more from Cathy Davidson's "The Single Most Essential Requirement in Designing a Fall Online Course" quoted in this post. Or you can browse peer-recommended Common Sense Media's Tips and Resources, many of which expressly connect to care and community.
Or, if you’ve got 45 minutes to invest (less if you speed up the audio), you can listen to this Tea for Teaching podcast to learn from UNC Chapel Hill’s Viji Sathy (Psychology and Neuroscience) and Kelly Hogan (Biology) who provide concrete, research-proven ways to build inclusive learning strategies that build student agency and community while working against narratives of racism and sexism that our students experience in our fields.
*For more information on feminist care, read this interview with one of its creators. **Idea stolen from someone who credits it to math professor Doug Shaw.