The first day of class is a very important one in terms of creating community in any course, and particularly so in a flex-hybrid course.
In fact, you can even start building community in advance of the first day.
Start Building Community Even Before the First Day
If you can, it’s a great idea to communicate with your students over the summer by email, video, or both.
If you are communicating with your students several weeks in advance, you will need to use WebAdvisor to send them an email.
If it’s close to the start of the semester, you can email your students directly from Canvas using Announcements.
(Canvas is the best option if it’s available – the Fall 2020 Course Standards ask instructors to use Canvas as their primary communication channel with students.)
Essential Advance Communication: Help Students Understand First-Day Logistics
Before the semester even starts, it can be really helpful to give students a sense of what the first day will be like. This is more important than ever – they’re feeling as nervous and uncertain about this coming semester as we are!
- Tell students how and where (if applicable) you will meet with them for the first class. (As the semester gets closer, more information about first day logistics will be provided by the college in The View.)
- Tell students what they will need to participate fully in class on that first day.
- Let students know that they’ll be expected to contribute to discussions and will need a working mic and to be in a place where they can speak aloud.
- Let students know if they’ll be referring to a reading or document during class and whether they should have it open on their screen,
- Let students know they’ll need their cell phones to participate in polls or clicker questions.
(Important: encourage but do not require remote students to be on video. Not all students are in an environment where that is possible or comfortable.)
Helpful Advance Communication: Introduce Yourself and Get to Know Your Students
Here are some ways you can start creating a personal connection with your students even before you meet them:
- In your advance email or video, spend a little time introducing yourself as a person. Here are some great suggestions for welcome messages.
- Add a bio to your Canvas profile so that students can “read up” on you before the semester starts. Here’s how to edit your Canvas profile. Note that you’ll need to put in a request to the tech HelpDesk if you want to change your name.
- Survey, poll, or otherwise get a sense of your students before the first day. In particular, it would be a good idea to ask for their pronouns. Knowing something about your students can help you read the (real or virtual) “room” and also facilitate connection with individual students. (In some ways, this might be easier if you’re teaching remotely. You can keep a few notes just off-camera to help you remember things about your students that might enable you to connect.)
The First Day
There are many great ways to build community with your students on the first day of a flex-hybrid course. These are just a few:
- Share something about yourself that gives your students insight into who you are as a person and why you’re passionate about what you’re about to help them learn.
- Let your students know you’re human. One silver lining of the pandemic is that students and teachers are more attuned to their shared humanity, and you can harness that effect to connect with your students in a new and more personal way.
- Will you be Zoombombed by your dog or your toddler periodically during the semester? Introduce them on that first day and shamelessly exploit their cuteness to get students interested.
- Do you have a poster on the wall behind you or a tchotchke on your desk that reveals something interesting about yourself? Point it out and tell its story. (Don’t ask your students to do the same thing, though – some of them may be connecting to class from places that they are not comfortable sharing with others.)
Here are some ways for your students to get to know each other:
- Use breakout groups to have students interview or otherwise learn about one another, and/or to collaborate on a meaningful activity related to the class. (This is also a comfortable, low-stakes way to get everyone used to the technology you’ll use for breakout groups throughout the course.) For example, you might try the “speed-dating” exercise described in this Faculty Focus article.
- Discuss and evaluate the classroom “space” together. At the end of class, check in with students to make sure that everyone could see and hear, and that they understood the tech and logistics of the class activities.*
Definitely involve students in troubleshooting, especially if you’re not a tech genius yourself. At Champlain we have the wonderful luxury of having tech-savvy students in almost every class. More than likely, students will be able to help each other resolve issues without your having to do much and – voila! – solving problems together is a great way to promote student self-esteem and build community.
There are many other ways to build community on the first day – here’s a helpful list of additional suggestions from the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching.
As a follow-up to the first day, a “get to know you” discussion forum can help students connect further with one another – which would be particularly valuable for first-year students who don’t yet have on-campus friendships.
Another good follow-up might be to require students to send you a message using the Canvas messaging system (here are instructions to help them do that). This will ensure they know how to use it and establish it as an important communication channel for the course. Of course, you should reply to their message with a short personal greeting letting them know you received the message and are available to help them succeed.
A Nice Little First-Day Bonus Feature of Flex-Hybrid Teaching
You know that first-day-of-class syllabus spiel you give over and over? And how supremely boring it is for you and for your students? In a flex-hybrid course, you can do the syllabus review in advance and record it on video (which doesn’t have to feature your face if you don’t want it to – you can do a screen-capture video of just the syllabus). Then, you can stream it on the first day of class or (even better) assign it to your students to watch as homework and spend your first day of synchronous learning doing something more interesting and worthwhile.
(Of course, you’ll want to do some sort of activity that assesses whether they watched the video, read the syllabus, and understood both. An initial syllabus-related assessment or check-in might be a nice low-stakes way to make sure students know how to use Canvas for quizzes, discussions, etc.)
* This is adapted from an “IRL” activity suggested by the Vanderbilt Center for Teaching and it’s arguably even more valuable for flex-hybrid classes, which will likely require a bit more initial trouble-shooting. https://cft.vanderbilt.edu/guides-sub-pages/first-day-of-class/.