Building any community requires time and effort, and it starts with one thing: relationships.
When teachers form strong relationships with their students by demonstrating genuine care and facilitating common experiences, they are better equipped to engage them in learning. In the process, they build community. This is important for all students, regardless of the setting. However, it is especially critical for English learner (EL) students in virtual learning environments.
Here are seven ways to develop an online community with EL students:
Focus on assets rather than limitations
Now more than ever, engagement strategies should be based on what EL students have and are able to do rather than what they don’t have and aren’t yet able to do. Consider all the assets your EL students bring to the virtual learning environment—such as their home language and culture—and find ways for them to connect with peers by sharing, teaching, and learning about one another. Additionally, you can leverage EL students’ digital skills by inviting them to share something they are already doing with technology, such as creating TikTok videos as a class or developing a meme.
Maintain (or create) routines
As much as possible, continue to observe the same practices you did in your physical classroom. For example, begin your class meetings with a connecting activity, such as a question of the day. In addition, establish new routines, such as a daily video greeting or a weekly breakfast meeting (when students attend class in their pajamas). Having this consistency is important for all students and even more so for vulnerable groups, such as EL students.
Reach out often
In brick-and-mortar classrooms, teachers tend to contact EL students and their families more frequently—a practice that is especially critical today and should continue in online classrooms. Checking in allows you to demonstrate that you care about your EL students, and it helps you get to know them on a more personal level. Be sure that your outreach efforts are intentional, sincere, and personalized.
Open up and be genuine
It is important for EL students to get to know you as a person, not just as their teacher. Put another way, humanizing yourself makes it easier for your EL students to connect with you. Showing your vulnerability (for example, by laughing at your own mistakes or admitting when you’re struggling with technology) is as important in a virtual learning environment as it is in the physical classroom. In addition, something as simple as introducing your children or pet via Zoom can go a long way toward building a positive relationship with your EL students.
Stay in the present
As a teacher, you can hold a space for your EL students that lets them focus on the here and now, which will provide a sense of stability and safety. Along those lines, at the beginning of every online learning session, explicitly state the day’s discussion topic (e.g., “Today, we are going to talk about our favorite animal” or “Today, let’s conduct a science experiment about acids and bases”) rather than bring up the past or focus on what the future holds. If EL students know they will be discussing innocuous matters that won’t remind them of their current stressful situation, they will likely be more apt to participate.
Create a student buddy system
Engage students so that they can support one another rather than having them rely entirely on you. Creating partnerships (for example, between EL students and non-EL peers) can help all students feel more connected, as well as build leadership skills, increase empathy, and foster friendships. It can also give EL students more language-learning opportunities both in and outside the virtual classroom.
Remember to celebrate
Remind all your students that during this stressful time, we need to lift one another up, share smiles and laughter, and celebrate all we do have. Be sure to acknowledge birthdays, new family members (including pets), and any academic milestones or accomplishments in the virtual classroom. In addition, emphasize that although we are not physically together, we are still here for one another—and that one person’s success can be viewed as a success for the entire class.