Classroom Community: Only A Button Click Away
Students have reported a staggering drop in the sense of classroom community during virtual school, but there is hope of rebuilding what once was.
March 10, 2021
Sitting down at a table, meeting new friends, carrying on a side conversation during class, cracking jokes that erupt the classroom in laughter: all of these are experiences from a classroom with a flourishing sense of community. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, these characteristics of classroom community have all but disappeared completely. In a recent survey of 76 Green Hope students from all grades, only 8 of them reported feeling a sense of classroom community this semester, citing reasons such as a lack of effort made on the part of peers, the lack of cameras being turned on, and the awkward nature of breakout rooms.
Teachers formerly presented to a sea of students seated at desks, but now they present to a sea of pixelated icons in Google Meets, in which students fervently avoid showing their faces. This disconnection from the reality of school creates an environment where many feel that fostering new relationships is incredibly difficult. Sophomore Mere DiGiacomo mirrored this sentiment, saying that most of her friends from middle school ended up attending different high schools, and that she has had trouble making new friends at Green Hope.
“If I want to talk about course material with someone in my class I have to be lucky and have an acquaintance or friend there,” she explained.
It’s difficult to make new friendships when students don’t even know what their classmates look like. Teachers have attempted to encourage socialization by splitting students into breakout rooms. Unfortunately, the efficacy of these small group sessions is questionable. While some students report that they’ve been able to form connections in these rooms, several others feel that breakout rooms have had a negligible effect towards the formation of community. In many classes, breakout rooms are characterized by an awkward lack of continuity, with yet again no cameras on and perpetual silence, which is sometimes broken by an occasional message in the chat.
Highlighting this awkward experience, one sophomore said, “it’s just showing up and going through the motions because kids just don’t seem to want to talk to each other.”
While the disinterest and lack of participation of many students is part of the issue, other students feel that the virtual situation just isn’t conducive to a healthy classroom community. One junior explained this, saying, “classroom communities, when they are made, are almost always made through informal interactions between students. These interactions don’t exist in online class because there is no genuine way to communicate with others. Talking in the chat and answering teacher’s questions is simply not the same as joking around in the back of the class when the teacher isn’t watching … The role of school as being a medium for relationships between students is greatly diminished due to the nature of the new school environment.”
Several students have even given up on creating a fully virtual community, holding the belief that the only way to restore a sense of classroom community is to return to in-person school full-time. Junior Manasa Konduru is one of these students, believing that, “the only way to make a better classroom community is to go back to school because ways of communicating online are drastically reduced. At least if we go back to school, we can communicate with different people.”
Though the virtual setting prevents the formation of a classroom community to some degree, hope isn’t completely lost. Approximately 85% of surveyed teachers feel they have received support from administration and the county in creating a community, which has come in the form of online resources and professional development meetings. On the whole, teachers have considered these resources helpful in inspiring their virtual communities, but one teacher was critical of them, saying, “a lot of their suggestions are more fitting for younger students, not the 16-18 year olds that I teach.” Still, some teachers have found their own ways to construct community. One teacher reports that they have used, “games, inside jokes, and the occasional chat towards the beginning of class that students might get involved in,” to help develop a sense of community.
Students have also provided suggestions about cultivating community in the virtual setting including setting aside more time for informal classroom discussions, creating group chats outside of the classroom, and interestingly: turning cameras on. By far, the suggestion most frequently submitted by students was the use of cameras. But even though this answer is obvious, adoption and implementation of this idea has been unsuccessful. Some teachers report no students with their cameras on, which leaves them teaching to an empty screen. The few students who choose to turn their camera on sometimes feel discouraged from doing so because the overwhelming majority of students have their cameras off. This creates what many have described as a sense of “peer pressure” to avoid camera use altogether, proliferating the existing lack of student participation. While turning off cameras solves the immediate issue – not feeling awkward at that moment – it contributes to the overall detriment of classroom community in the virtual setting.
One anonymous staff member said “I think the onus is on the student more in a virtual setting. Most do not turn on the camera, do not unmute, do not type in the chat. When my students have done those things, the class seemed to have more fun and a better sense of community.”
The decision on whether or not to mandate camera use has been a hotly contested subject of debate over this school year, and as of now district leadership has determined that it shouldn’t be required for student privacy reasons. Still, some teachers, joined by a smaller group of students, feel that the use of cameras should just be mandated.
Teacher Mr. Pluchino supports the stance that camera use should be a requirement, claiming that “[students] are taking the easy way out by using this situation to not work as hard as they would in the classroom … They are testing to see where the line is … We as teachers, administrators and parents are not doing our job by not bringing down the hammer.”
For better or worse, students have ultimate control over the quality of their classroom community, and can choose to enact positive or negative change through the decision of whether or not to turn their camera on. Just because students aren’t required to, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t. The current stigma of awkwardness revolving around the use of cameras has been shown to detract from the classroom experience for both students and teachers, and many believe that dispelling this feeling is integral to developing a stronger sense of community going forward. The more students who turn their cameras on, the less awkward it becomes and the better community there will be. In the word of Green Hope teacher Ms. Clark, “really, [students] shouldn’t be made to do it, but should want to.”