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Connecting with students in the virtual classroom

Boy studying while wearing a purple blazer, from a previous iteration of the Wesley uniform
Remember THAT purple? Year 11 student, Denzill Nicholls, wearing a 2011 Year 12 blazer for a themed day: ‘In a virtual classroom we’re still having the kind of fun that always ensues when in class with my peers’

Fostering a community of inquiry is central to our students’ learning, and even in our current online learning environment it’s the simple things that enable that, as Sara Liversidge explains.

‘Our personal lives, our school lives, our professional lives, our family lives have been significantly disrupted, yet the relationships that lie at the heart of this school community continue to flourish.’ These are the words of Kim Bence, Head of Campus at St Kilda Road in a recent campus newsletter.

The idea at the heart of her message, that relationships lie at the heart of this school community, really got me thinking. To be effective, teachers need content knowledge (knowing about, say, geography) and what’s called pedagogical content knowledge (knowing how to teach geography), but they also need to be able to build productive relationships with students. Without productive relationships built on trust and respect, no quality learning will happen. This is because, my content knowledge and pedagogical content knowledge will only have value for my students if they feel connected. Put simply, if they don’t feel connected they can’t hear me, no matter what I know about geography and how to teach it.

Only connect

In normal times, connecting might be as simple as standing at the door to the classroom and greeting students as they enter. Right now, as students are learning from home, I can’t do that, but I can still connect. The blend of timetabled synchronous and asynchronous classes means we’re connecting in our live virtual classroom, but we’re also connecting in self-paced classes. Research by Karen Swan on ‘Building learning communities in online courses: the importance of interaction’ explains why. Swan found that asynchronous online learning where there’s a lot of interaction – contact with and feedback from teachers, and active and valued discussion with teachers and peers – fosters learning by creating an online community of inquiry. We’re able to interact through the video function of MS Teams in our live virtual classroom and in self-paced classes through the forums on the class portal pages, where the teacher – and other engaged students – may answer questions students have about the work.

The simple things

I don’t count myself as the most tech-savvy, but I do know that effectively teaching in a virtual classroom depends on the same fundamental elements as teaching in a bricks-and-mortar classroom. Whatever the technology, my starting point is that all of my students need to feel valued and cared for; they need to know they are heard, by me and their peers, and their contributions really matter.

I’m not pretending every lesson I’ve planned and delivered is the stuff of legend, only that I think the essence of the Wesley classroom can still be seen in our virtual lessons! One simple way I’ve fostered connection between my students is to ask my Year 11 IB Geography students to wear a piece of their Wesley uniform to virtual class for a ‘Wear-a-Piece-of-Wesley-Uniform Day.’

As one of my students, Denzill Nicholls, explains, ‘Despite being physically separated, it’s not as though we can’t still have the kind of fun that always ensues when in class with my peers.

‘Our Geography “Wear-a-Piece-of-Wesley-Uniform Day” is a case in point. We had Ms Liversidge wearing a 1987 Wesley rowing cap – the year the Wesley Girls First Four and Second Four that she coached won at the Head of the River – as well as students in everything from a full rowing zoot suit to a hockey jersey to a Wesley Big Band vest, complete with bow tie. I wore the Year 12 blazer my brother Zebedee wore in 2011. Remember that purple? This was one very entertaining and simple way to bring us all together during this time of virtual learning.’

I had a mother email me later that day, telling me how much joy it created in their household. It was a simple thing to do, but it triggered lots of laughter and sharing – the mark of a good lesson.

My daughter is in Year 12 and I can hear laughter and chatter from her virtual classroom as well, so I know my colleagues are having the same impact in their classes.

Sara Liversidge teaches IB and VCE Geography at Wesley College.