Outside the Classroom

Community Building and Distance Learning

Educators and families making the switch to distance learning are adjusting to and creating all kinds of new norms, from how to schedule a day’s learning to how to turn in assignments. Developing a community out of the faces on a class Zoom is on the list, too—it can even be a key factor in the other norms’ success. But how can you engage in community building and distance learning, especially if you aren’t interacting with your students every day?

Teachers, administrators, and paraprofessionals recognize the need to be intentional about building connections with students and families this year; the “small” social interactions at pick-up and drop-off, after-school activities, and back-to-school events can’t be relied upon to build relationships with students or families. Moreover, some distance classes are formed with a mix of students from schools around the district rather than grouping schoolmates together, further missing out on already established social connections.

So how can educators and families overcome this?

Engaging in Community Building and Distance Learning

art brush and paint paletteStep One. Get Creative.

(It seems to be the theme of getting through 2020!)

Edutopia has a great list of cyber icebreakers for creating community, including virtual variations on games like Two Truths and a Lie, tips for getting acquainted in breakout sessions, and ideas for polls and quizzes that provide opportunities for students to share their interests. As the school year progresses, we like their idea of a continuous class talent show: closing each week out with a few talent acts or show-and-tell sessions. Another tip is to include storytelling exercises at the start of a session to stimulate sharing.

In all your efforts to connect the group, don’t forget that one-on-one conversations make a big impact, too. Get the most out of digital assessment features while leaving space for verbal feedback. Touching base with a quick chat (or text-message dialogue for older students) can go a long way in establishing rapport and inspiring a connection that will carry over into how that student and family syncs up with the broader class community.

blue puzzle with one yellow pieceStep Two. Make Your Curriculum Work for You.

Curriculum is also a source for bridging the virtual distance, especially when it integrates tools and materials for social and emotional learning. The absences of the school environment, rituals, and friends can hit students pretty hard, but participating in quality social and emotional learning can provide parties with the vocabulary and tools they need to identify and resolve pain points, together.

Plus, when curriculum encourages compassionate, thoughtful citizenship, it can make a real impact on issues students care about and can unite around, helping students connect their learning to their burgeoning communities.

school whiteboard with heart and cursorStep Three. Choose a Platform that Supports Everyone.

Finally, platform resources help build community with students and families in distance learning. Lesson learning goals can be made visible and explicit for students and families, while annotation tools engage active learning. Teachers can use synchronous time strategically with a presentation view of the lesson, and, if the platform allows, adapt and personalize lessons and assign them for whole-class, small-group, or individual instruction. LearnZillion and Illustrative Mathematics have worked together to develop guidance and materials to help both teachers and students engage in distance learning this school year.

parents and a child icon

Hopefully, the very fact that a class is navigating these new norms together will not only make possible but encourage community building and distance learning. Experimenting with the tools available through curriculum, platform, and good old-fashioned ingenuity can develop a truly unique learning community in a truly unique school year.

About the Author


Kallie Markle

Hailing from the wilds of far Northern California, Kallie Markle earned BAs in Literature and Philosophy from Point Loma Nazarene University. She has worked in various marketing roles and has written for National Parks magazine, where she learned to appreciate redwoods and deserts equally. She’s grateful to have joined the world of education just in time for her oldest child to surpass her in mathematics mastery.