As an extrovert, I need people. I crave the stimulation that comes from interacting with a dear uncle, an old college friend, or a stranger at the bus stop. When the pandemic blindsided us all in early 2020 and the lockdowns started, I feared that, as a social person, I would not fare well.
The first few weeks of social distancing felt more like an adventure than the punishment I was expecting, but as time dragged on I felt my attitude start to change. It was during this time that I also noticed a change in my college students. Even though they were seeing their classmates’ faces in the tiny squares on Zoom, they never had a chance to truly socialize—to complain about the colossal amount of homework, compliment Itsuki on her new hairstyle, or make new friends, which are crucial to the university experience. They were simply trudging along in front of a screen from morning until afternoon. The enthusiasm that they, as brand-new college students, brought to class on the first day was replaced with malaise. The problem was that the students did not feel as though they belonged anywhere, and Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us that the feeling of belonging is essential. If students do not feel a sense of belonging, their needs are not being met, and it is difficult to “belong” to a group of squares on a screen.
Once I realized that the students needed each other in a way that online education was not providing, I hastened to revamp the classroom. The students did not only need a warm, welcoming environment, but an opportunity to make friends … an opportunity to belong. I spent the rest of 2020 researching and developing ideas to help foster a sense of community in this inopportune time.
Some ideas worked wonders, most notably the “Tuesday Group Check-In” that I implemented at the beginning of the semester. Students were placed into random breakout rooms for the first ten minutes of class with the following instructions on the screen:
This is a challenging time. Check in with your group and see how everyone is doing. You may be able to help someone just by listening to them! Be a friend to someone who needs it.
I did not expect this simple exercise to be as successful and rewarding as it was. Students began to cherish this weekly time of connecting with their classmates. I learned that, after the first few weeks of class, they were even having their own virtual meetings to spend more time together. At the end of the semester, every student reported that “Group Check-In” was the most effective activity for building connectedness in the classroom.
Even though some of my other ideas failed miserably, by the end of that dreadful year I felt that I had learned something more about meeting students’ needs. I learned that in an online environment the teacher is the one responsible for creating the opportunities for students to bond.
What did I learn in 2020? I learned that those faces in tiny squares do not just need phrasal verbs and modal auxiliaries, they need to belong, and whether or not they do is up to me.
Amy Brazelton Little began her career teaching English to adult refugees in Nashville, USA, in 1999. She has since taught at intensive English programs, language schools, and universities. Currently, Amy is a Global Teaching Fellow/Lecturer at Tokyo International University and serves as a coordinator on the curriculum committee.