How to Create an Engaging Virtual Classroom
Excitement and anticipation comes with the beginning of any new school year no matter whether you are a teacher, parent, or student. That is certainly true even more so now. In fact, with all that is going on in education as a response to the pandemic, we could give these emotions more honest monikers like anxiety, worry, trepidation, fear, and discomfort. We have all had our comfort zones completely demolished. As teachers, we are normally expected to plan and be ready to pivot in case the unexpected happens, which it always does. This is usually something that, as we gain in experience, we are able to do with greater fluidity.
As a planner, I write out my plans for everything, school, home, and family. You name it and I probably have a set of “To Do’s” for it. As a teacher, normally by this time in the summer I will have mapped out my plans for at least the first month of school. This includes all of the labs and hands-on activities that are so vital in Chemistry for grabbing my student’s attention and building the necessary relationships from teacher to student and from student to student. However, this year we are tasked with planning for the ultimate unknown. We do not know who will be in our class or how many of them will attend. Will they be in-person or remote? How will we reach out to them and connect to build relationships? What will work best to reach them if they aren’t communicating? How much support will they receive from their homes? What struggles have they experienced during this time? Do they have connectivity? Do they have to watch their siblings? When will we get to meet them in person? This doesn’t even include any of the content that we have to cover on a pretty tight schedule.
Building relationships with my virtual students seems to be the first and largest stumbling block. To solve this problem I started paying much closer attention to my email inbox where I found several articles on engaging students remotely and creating a powerful remote learning experience. It was overwhelming, to say the least, and there are so many resources, tips, and techniques that you can use.
I started down a rabbit hole and jumped from one resource to another. I was going nowhere fast and getting frustrated with all of the options promising solutions to my challenge of how to engage my students from day one. I finally decided that I needed to start with my virtual classroom and was inspired by WeAreTeachers. I know that many have jumped on the Bitmoji Classroom train and this is not a new idea or original idea, but this looked like fun and I really wanted to try something new. The old back-to-school get to know your stuff was really no longer relevant and I wasn’t going to be able to do a Mad Scientist Demonstration or the Re-Enactment of Laboratory Eye Safety that I have always used.
How to Create a Bitmoji Classroom
To get started I did what my students do, I consulted the all-knowing internet! I found and used the Youtube channel for Thomas Blakemore who teaches in Dubai which helped me be able to get started. My first step was to make myself a Bitmoji. To do this, I had to use my cell phone to download the Bitmoji App. When I opened the app, I was directed to take a picture of myself which, amazingly, turned me into a cartoon character!! I am constantly surprised and have that feeling of, “Well would you look at that! What will they think of next?!!!” I know I am not ahead of the times and this app has been around for a while, but it was new to me!
The videos I have watched of the very insanely talented teachers who use their own virtual classrooms to teach their online students strongly recommended that you should make the classroom look as close as possible to your real classroom. This way when they do get to come back to the classroom, it will seem at least a little familiar. The first step was to create the base of my virtual classroom. To do this, I created a new Google Slides Presentation and selected “insert” from the top menu, “image”, and then “search the web”. I searched for “wall and floor”, which brought up several options to choose from.
From here, I started building my virtual classroom with inserted images that mirror the furniture, posters, whiteboards, etc. that fill my real classroom. I learned that using the term “transparent” after any term helps you find the type of pictures needed to design your room more realistically. Once you have all of your elements, you can customize everything to fit in your room.
I do want to emphasize that I am in no way am I an expert at this. In fact, this process of designing my virtual classroom took me the better part of a day and I’m still refining and adding things.
The purpose I had for this virtual classroom was for it to be a spot where students could look for references, tools, and information. To accomplish this, I began inserting the links that I wanted my students to be able to find and use. Linked to the corkboard in the upper left of the classroom is a Padlet app that will act as our class’ virtual bulletin board. As a part of their first-day assignment, I will have my students post a picture of themselves in their workspace at home. I hope it not only shows me what they look like but gives me just a little glimpse into their environment. In the future, I will continue to use this space to celebrate awesome student work and facilitate relationship building.
If you click on my Bitmoji, you will get a link to a video I created in Screencastify of the real me introducing myself. Other links include chemistry safety rules behind the Minion, our classroom management system, Canvas, an interactive periodic table, the log-in for our online textbook, and our class syllabus.
My plan is to have my students take the time to investigate all that my virtual classroom has to offer and then see if they can answer the questions found in the virtual scavenger hunt I will post in a quiz format. I really want them to interact with it enough so that we can build engagement and I hope it works. My plan is to modify this classroom once a week and add in things that are relevant to the learning for that week, the whiteboard will have a new announcement, and my picture will have a different video for further directions. My virtual classroom is nowhere near as awesome as some of the teachers’ I have seen and I could second guess myself into doing nothing new or different, but what if it works? Or what if it opens the door to learning for just a few more kids? Then my efforts are well worth it. If you have any good ideas for how you are going to build engagement in your virtual classroom, I’d love to hear about it please share in the comments below!