Search form

Equitable Practices for Virtual Settings

I recently attended a Zoom class that was difficult to engage in. There were about 50 people in attendance, and the session alternated between the instructor talking to the large group in lecture-style followed by silent intermissions for participants to type ideas into a shared online document. Without a learning structure that allowed participants to have more of a role, I quickly tuned out and worked on other projects. In our continuing desire to increase the effectiveness of virtual classes, one important consideration is that we not move backwards into primarily teacher-centered practices by leading sessions in which all students do not get opportunities to provide their voices. Below are a few strategies for maximizing equitable participation in virtual settings in order to support student agency and ownership.

Start Strong

We all know it: first impressions really matter. Before starting the instructional portion of a meeting or class, we can create a welcoming space by inviting individuals to provide little pieces of information about themselves. These could include a preferred quarantine activity, a favorite meal, a not-too-guilty pleasure, and so forth. As students share their information in a variety of possible ways (via the chat, in a document, or verbally), teachers might opt to keep track of what they hear and use these fun facts to call on kids later in the class period. To add a layer, other students can guess who is being called on based on the information before the individual speaks up, which will strengthen an online community even further. For example, anyone who knows me well is aware of my devotion to Snickers ice cream bars, so I feel closer to people who have that information. When classmates personalize information to a peer, it not only increases their level of engagement in that moment; more students are also likely to become more comfortable in the space and participate in the next portions of the class.

Learn About One Another

Last year, teachers had the benefit of interacting with students for a majority of the school year before the pandemic shuttered in-person learning. This year, making connections with students we meet virtually is not only more complex; it is also the most important work we can do to ensure that students feel invested in our classes. When we begin the school year, many students will need time to get to know one another. Playing a quick game of “That’s Me” using a list of commonalities can be a fun way to provide socialization. To play the game, the facilitator goes through a series of criteria, such as, “I’m wearing a t-shirt,” or “One of my parents owns a motorcycle.” As the facilitator names the criteria, participants can either call out or type into the chat, “That’s me!” It might be ungrammatically correct, but it’s fun to see what everyone has in common, and the instructor can then call on people in a particular category later in the class to provide some variation in which voices are heard. As is also the case with in-person equitable calling, it is best to let students know in advance that they may be called upon to speak; that way, an enjoyable game will not turn into a “gotcha” moment.

Equitable Calling

Despite our efforts to the contrary, teachers often wind up inadvertently calling on the same students repeatedly. Going further with making sure all voices are heard, especially when we cannot necessarily see all the faces in a virtual space, how can we strengthen our processes for equitable calling? One accessible technique that maximizes the voices in whole-group settings is to have participants call on one another using the “popcorn” method so that a broader range of people speak. In this model, one person shares a thought and then calls on the next, putting the calling process into the hands of students and not the teacher. Non-verbal calling is also a useful strategy. If participants type into a document or similar to provide their perspectives, the teacher can ask each participant to record one question or thought to share with the group, either verbally or via the chat, to increase participation and voice.

Community Leads to Equity

As we gather with students virtually, making connections has become more than just a fun way to start off a school year. When we construct community builders and activators, we not only gain more clues about students; we also open the floor for a safe learning space that values all participants. In our adjustment to virtual teaching, prioritizing community as a means to building equitable learning practices will ensure greater success with instruction with each passing week. Taking the time to step back and focus on hearing voices accomplishes the ultimate goal of creating classrooms that celebrate all students, regardless of setting.

Written by Miriam Plotinsky, Education World Contributing Writer

Miriam is a Learning and Achievement Specialist with Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland, where she has worked for nearly 20 years as an English teacher, staff developer and department chair. She is a National Board Certified Teacher, and recently earned her certification in Education Administration and Supervision. She can be followed on Twitter: @MirPloMCPS

Copyright© 2020 Education World        

Photo by Emma Matthews Digital Content Production on Unsplash