Building Community in a Virtual Math Class — Reimagining Connection & Collaboration in High School Teaching

Photo by Marvin Meyer on Unsplash

When Quad 1 began I was excited about being back in the classroom. Not that I wasn’t nervous about the safety concerns, but after months of trying to teach from home with limited technology and my two small children running around, I was looking forward to a less chaotic working environment! I imagined that after months of isolation students too would be happy to be back. In my most optimistic moments I pictured them animatedly discussing ideas, forging new friendships, feeling that electric buzz of intellectual current that fills a classroom when kids are learning, synapses are firing, and brains are growing.

The reality was kids facing forward wearing masks, spread out in military style rows and columns sitting just beyond the range of socially acceptable incidental small talk. Safety protocols meant no traditional groupwork, no shared resources, no manipulatives, no class iPads and no getting too close. No to essentially all the good stuff that used to bring students together and make learning interesting and engaging. Rough translation: no making friends, no talking, and no fun. It was a whole lot of awkward silence broken up with dry instruction and the occasional homework break.

Most of our pre-planning had been centered on fitting as much curriculum as possible into the new hybrid/adaptive/community model of learning and this social disconnection was a complete oversight. We had in fact removed most of the introductory community building activities in lieu of covering more content. So it was just jump right in, get the ball rolling and do your best to ignore the screaming silence.

Never before was the importance of classroom climate more obvious. Students were seeming less and less engaged, less motivated to attend in person or online, and mental health issues around their need for social connection was increasingly becoming a concern. But what could we do? We really only saw students once a week most weeks. The vast majority of teaching and learning was taking place online. How do you build authentic connection and meaningful relationships like this? With more and more students moving to a fully online model, we could not solely rely on the in person interactions. It appeared we would have to bravely venture deeper into this new uncharted virtual territory and build our community there.

I started to experiment and try things and began to see improvements. The silence was less deafening and I vowed to make it a priority in my planning for Quad 2. Now as we wrap up the second Quadmester, I share with you a few ways I have tried to build connection with my students and have them connect with one another. Disclaimer: Some of these items are more time intensive than others. If you are teaching two courses, proceed with caution.

Interactive Learner Profile

This learner profile was my first attempt to reach out and get to know my students. It is largely based on this PDSB Community Learning Resource with a few tweaks. I’d say about half of my students really dug in and took advantage of the opportunity to share. Others shared a moderate amount or very little, but overall it provided valuable insights into who my students are and how they learn and I will continue using it moving forward with some modifications. Some of my overall thoughts:

  • The absolute best part was the video at the end. Every video warmed my heart. Seeing their faces without masks, hearing about their hobbies, interests, families, plans for the future. It was just so great and it allowed me to greet each student by name the first time we met in person.
  • On a practical note, it was a good way to have students play with some of the apps/skills we would be using throughout the course (Google Docs, linking, sharing, commenting, Drive, etc.). They were able to work out some of the kinks before it became necessary for an assignment.
  • After I read through the student’s profiles and watched their videos, I commented on the document with my thoughts, follow up questions, etc. This was mostly so they knew I had reviewed their profile, but it turned into a neat way to have a first “conversation” with some students. They would reply to my comment, and I would reply back, etc. It was nice to find new ways to interact with those Cohort C students we would never see in person.
  • The only real downside is that it took a fair bit of time to read all of the profiles and comment back in a genuine way. Not that it wasn’t worth it, but it might not be realistic if I was teaching two courses.
  • Changes I would consider for next time: shorten and simplify some of the jargon-y bits, focus on a few sections only, and if I was teaching two, potentially consider doing the video only using Flipgrid.

Group Tasks & Activities

In an attempt to bring students together and have them interact socially and productively, I aimed to reimagine some of what we used to do in the traditional classroom and find ways to recreate them virtually. I share some activities further down, but first I will explain the logistics of how I create my groups.

To start, I create random groups using the random name picker from flippity.net (groups of 3 are my favourite). I like the way random groups break down social barriers and enable students to interact with peers outside their usual friendship circle. It also provides exposure to a variety of approaches and thought processes and allows for new friendships to form. I highly recommend it! Senior students seem fine with random groups but it can be a slightly harder sell for my juniors.

Next I create a Google Meet for each group and share the Meet links with the class. If you are using Teams, you would make channels for your various groups.

I usually give students an icebreaker to get the conversation started. I also hope it helps highlight some of their individual quirks as they get to know one another. So far, I have been picking and choosing questions from these general would you rather questions and/or these icebreakers, but there are lots of options out there. After this, they get down to work and I pop in and out of groups to check on them and assist as necessary.

The first few times I did group work virtually I gave students a quick questionnaire to see how it went, if folks engaged, if they liked it, etc. I use Mentimeter for getting quick anonymous live feedback from students, but any way to collect data would work. Based on their feedback, students seemed to enjoy the opportunity to work with peers, participated regularly, and felt the group discussions were beneficial to their learning.

Below are a few group activities/tasks that went well and students enjoyed.

1. Collaborative Problem Solving: In the first days of the course I wanted students to start conversing, review key concepts, and engage in fun and interesting mathematics. These problems are some of my favourites to spark curiosity and thinking. They’re open, rich, and encourage creative problem solving.

Once students are in their groups and the initial chat is over, they launch a Jamboard from their meeting and share it with me. I give them problems one at a time and they work through them on their Jamboard. I pop into groups as they work and we reconvene in the main room to share strategies and solutions as a class before I give the next problem.

It is a great intro activity that provides a fun and risk free way to open up communication between students while I start getting to know them as problem solvers.

2. Warm Up Activities: These activities typically involve a pre-created Jamboard which have an activity set up already. I share it with the groups and student work together over the Jamboard to complete the activity.

Here are two activities I have used that seemed to go well: Function Matching and Polynomial Sort with Instructions. Once students are in their groups one member will open the link and share it with the rest and also share it with me so I can see their work. Groups can create new frames, copy and paste items, etc. to complete the activities. Many of the activities I use in Advanced Functions come from this amazing OAME resource from a few years back.

3. Group Tasks for Review: Before an assessment, I have students work in groups to complete a review activity as part of their preparation. Knowing the task is designed to assist with the assessment usually motivates them to engage, ask questions, explain, etc. as they work through it. I rotate though groups answering questions, sharing strategies, etc. and at the end we meet as a whole class and discuss any concerns. Here is a Polynomial Graphs & Characteristics Group Task as well as a Rational Functions Group Task that I have used with my students.

Groupwork did a great deal to build a sense of community, comfort and friendship among the students. Activity in the chat increased along with general banter, good natured ribbing, and the overall willingness to work together, help one another, form study groups, interact outside of class, etc.

Conferences for Assessments

In addition to students having the opportunity to interact with each other, I also wanted to build meaningful relationships with them. I was looking to open lines of communication and get to know them each as individual learners. Additionally I was hoping to compensate for the lack of observational and conversational data we typically gather in the traditional classroom setting. Certain learning goals seemed to lend themselves nicely to discussions in a conference setting and so I decided to give it a try.

Each conference was primarily an assessment, but also served as an opportunity to check in with students to see how they were doing, what they were struggling with, etc. They tended to be much more open and candid than they normally would be through email or in a group setting.

The conference set up included this generic rubric, which we edited as necessary for specific learning goals. I also created a schedule giving each student a 10 minute time slot. For the most part I randomly assigned times and then allowed for minor tweaks as necessary. (Side note: I almost always went over the 10 minutes, so aim to stick to one or two learning goals max) With this timing it usually took about four or five 75min periods to interview everyone. While time consuming, it at least did not require any additional time to mark. I assessed during the interview and shared results with students before they signed off. One tip I would recommend is to have students self assess and share how they think the interview went before I shared my views. This often led to good discussion which allowed them to better understand the difference between level 3 and level 4 for example, and get a better idea of what I was looking for in their explanations/solutions for next time.

I would also usually create a document with a set of conference questions that I could use throughout the interview. I generally share my screen and ask the questions, using the same question for a few students and changing it up when it felt necessary.

One final thing to consider is what the rest of your class will be doing while you conduct your interviews. Sometimes I had my students review, complete skill checks, complete DESMOS activities, use it as a work period to complete upcoming portfolios or assignments, etc.

While there are clear pedagogical reasons for building community in our classrooms, the overwhelming benefit in the context of virtual learning was providing students in isolation the chance to physically talk, use their voice, converse with members of their peer group, and build healthy relationships. Some have managed to maintain a solid social circle throughout this pandemic, but many have not and these moments really seemed to brighten their spirits and create that vibrant classroom atmosphere I miss so much. It also allowed me to get to know them as learners and individuals in a way I haven’t been able to since last March when this all began.

As we gear up for Quad 3, I am looking forward to continuing this work while further exploring culturally responsive pedagogy and equitable teaching practices as we prepare to de-stream grade 9 math in September. This has been a challenging time to be an educator, but also one of growth, innovation, and re-invention. I have to believe that once we are back in the classroom, we will be better for it.

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Annalisa James

Annalisa James

Optimist, Dreamer, Believer, Thinker, Doer, Teacher