Rita Margarida Magalhaes and Rebecca Johnson -- The notion of a "classroom" as a physical space in which we gather together to learn and challenge one another has fragmented across modes and platforms in the COVID-19 pandemic. It may take a little more work and intention to create an inclusive learning community with your students in this new landscape, but it is possible. This post will provide some suggestions and tips for making your class, wherever it may be held, into a space in which all students are welcome as they are, without the need to code switch or out themselves.
Start the Conversation Early
Let students know right away that you want to hear from them, and that you think meeting and talking with them is important. When you have your roster before the semester begins, survey your students. Ask them about their concerns, what they hope to get out of the class, and ask them to describe their challenges, including with technology and their living situation. Make sure that students know the answers they give you matter. Be responsive to their concerns, help them brainstorm solutions to their challenges.
In a pre-class survey in which the results are only available to the instructor, you might ask students more personal questions. Questions such as the following
- "Where are you from? What is something I might not know about where you grew up?"
- "What is your favorite thing to do in your free time?" and
- "What is something (academic or not) you are really good at?"
will provide you with information that you can use to personalize the content in your class. You can use examples that align with student interest and experience. Questions such as "Is there anything I need to know to help you succeed in my class?" or "What is your preferred name? What are your pronouns?" will help you get to know your students better and let them know that you care about their success. You can also ask them personal questions, to get to know them better, but also so you can adapt your course so that the examples you use can be relevant to your students.
Be Present, Real, and Welcoming
With in-person interaction complicated by physical distancing and masks, it may be harder for students to get to know you. Use myCourses as a space to introduce yourself. Post an introduction on the Announcements tool. If you are comfortable, make a short video. Let your students see you in all your glorious imperfections. Let students know you are right there in the trenches with them, learning with them as you all navigate these unprecedented times.
Remind students that you are a resource for them. Not all students are comfortable going to their professor for help. This could be because they are shy, they may have had a bad experience, or simply not know that it is okay to ask you for help. Students from untapped identities are particularly vulnerable. Be intentional, warm, and constant with your message to increase the likelihood of students taking you up on your offer.
Learn Student Names
In large enrollment classes this is difficult, and having students in masks can make this more challenging still--even so, you should work to learn your students' names. In the physical classroom, if you can supply some card stock and markers (disinfected before class) ask students to create a small table tent with their preferred name. They can put this in their backpack and reuse it for every class. Students may wish to include additional information such as pronouns and a pronunciation guide to their card. In Zoom meetings, you get the advantage of seeing their name on screen while looking at their face, and this helps you learn the names quicker. Consider activating the setting in your Zoom meetings that allows students to change their name to their preferred names. This will also permit interpreters to identify themselves in Zoom. This setting can be found at rit.zoom.us in Settings, near the end of the "In Meeting (Basic)" settings.
Request and Apply Feedback in the First Quarter of the Semester
About four weeks into the semester, ask students for feedback on the class. Conduct a quick and simple anonymous survey of the students in Qualtrics that asks them what is and isn't working for them in the class. Ask for suggestions. Share the results with the students and let them know how you are acting on the feedback. If there are suggestions you cannot implement, explain why.
Tools Mentioned in This Post
The following tools can be used to facilitate the suggestions in this post. See Using Digital Tools to Support Classroom Activities in All Modes for more information.