Creating a Welcome Virtual Classroom Environment

by Mari Venturino

Mari Venturino is a middle school science teacher at Mar Vista Academy in San Diego, CA. She is a Google For Education Certified Innovator and Trainer, a Google Certified Educator Levels 1 & 2, and is Leading Edge Certified in Online and Blended Instruction. Mari is also the editor of Fueled by Coffee and Love, a collection of real stories by real teachers. She is currently working on her Doctor of Education in Educational Technology at Boise State University with an anticipated graduation date of fall 2022.

Back to school looked and felt a little different this year. The usual hustle and bustle of a new school year was replaced by worry over how to best create a welcoming and productive classroom for my students–100% online

Even with the big changes in our classroom format and the uncertainty over when we will return to the classroom, there are many things about teaching that remain the same. Most importantly, my focus in the first few weeks of school is how to create a welcoming environment for my students. 

Our current online schedule includes six 90 minute block class periods (three classes per day). Teachers are expected to meet synchronously with students for 30-45 minutes, then provide 30-45 minutes of asynchronous classwork. During the asynchronous time, teachers can support students and answer questions. 

Like every other year, I had the first day of school jitters. However, unlike all other years, I couldn’t pop into a friend’s classroom for a little excited pep talk. My colleagues and I texted throughout the morning to share our successes and encouragement. My students were also nervous–first day of middle school and they showed up to school all online! 

We started our class by going over our video chat norms. I don’t usually start the first day of school with rules; in this case, it was important to ease anxiety for students on what will be expected of them when we are online together. Most importantly, I want my students to know that, while their participation is required, they do not have to turn on their camera or microphone during class. 

Building Routines: 

Much of the first few weeks of school starts with building and practicing classroom routines. Teaching online is no different. In my classroom, I have established routines for how class will begin and how students will use the online space for interactions. We begin each synchronous class with a warm-up and a review of our norms. As we have launched into more content in science class, I have used tools like Peardeck and Padlet to give each student a voice and an opportunity to share their learning. 

Activities for Creating a Welcoming Environment: 

As with every other year, it is essential to create a welcoming classroom environment. In the first two weeks of school, I spent time getting to know my students, their interests, and making sure they are represented in our classroom community. 

The first activity we did was a Flipgrid Name Intro. Students recorded a 30 second introduction to the rest of the class, including their name and a little bit about them. Not only is this essential for getting to know students, but also it is important for me to learn how to pronounce each name as the student says it. Unlike other years where I get plenty of name practice, this year this has been my only opportunity to match a name to a face (cameras, during synchronous class sessions, are optional). 

The second activity we did was a Getting to Know You Survey. I have iterated on this survey over the years; thanks to Ace Schwarz (Teaching Outside the Binary), I added in better-worded questions asking about students’ names and pronouns. I use the survey data to find ways to structure our class that value my students and engage them in authentic learning experiences throughout the year. 

Third, I had my students complete a quilt square for our Classroom Quilt. Instead of an artifact hanging on a classroom wall, I turned this into a banner for our Google Classroom. The final product turned out amazing! My students and I love opening up each class and seeing each member of our classroom community represented in the header! 

I am looking forward to this school year and whatever adventures will bring! I am grateful to work with amazing students who are flexible and willing to try new things! 

Mari Venturino

Mari Venturino is a 7th grade science and AVID teacher and Blended Learning Specialist at Mar Vista Academy in San Diego, CA. She is a Google For Education Certified Trainer and Innovator, a Google Certified Educator Levels 1 & 2, Apple Teacher, and is Leading Edge Certified in Online and Blended Instruction. Mari is also a National Board Certified Teacher. Mari was awarded the CUE Outstanding Emerging Teacher of the Year and ISTE Emerging Leader awards in 2017. She is a member of the ASCD Emerging Leader Class of 2018. Mari is the co-founder of Breakout EDU Digital.

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