Creating classroom norms is critical at the start of the school year, and whether we like it or not, the transition to remote learning is like starting a whole new school year. It’s a different environment, governed by a different medium, therefore requiring different norms.

As always, building classroom norms should be a democratic process. It should be responsive to the needs and diverse backgrounds of our students. Here are some tips for building culturally responsive remote learning norms within your digital classroom.

1. Allow the norms to develop organically.

Responsive Classroom has an excellent model for building classroom norms. They suggest allowing students to brainstorm classroom agreements. More often than not, students brainstorm lots of “little rules” like no running or put materials away.

“I’m not sure I can remember all of these rules,” I say to my students, as Responsive Classroom suggests. “Can we make some more general rules that are easier to remember?”

The digital classroom is no different. Within the first week of live online learning sessions, my students quickly identified some problems, as well as some rules, that would help us learn how to collaborate with one another.

“I can’t hear you, Mr. France,” one student said. “There are so many little sounds.”

“How could we fix that?” I replied.

It wasn’t long until a student suggested that we use the muting function to turn off our own microphones when someone is talking. The class agreed that this was helpful and made it easier to hear. Over the course of the next few days, this turned into a broader conversation about ways we could collaborate in our new digital environment.

They came up with lots of “little rules” like:

  • Post to Seesaw activities, not the journal.
  • Always post to share work.
  • Only use Google Hangouts with teacher permission.
  • School related things only
  • One emoji at a time
  • Stay on Meet the whole time
  • Stay muted so we can hear each other.
  • Stay on topic.
  • Only text with teachers’ permission.
  • If you’re late, don’t say hi in the chat.
  • Use texting appropriately.
  • Only use emojis when necessary or when it’s appropriate.

And afterwards, we came up with our “big, broad” rules that encompass all of these:

  1. Act like you’re at school.
  2. Use the tools appropriately to help learning.
  3. Be a problem-solver using the tools you have.

While we’ll continue to add to this list, it’s a great start–and inclusive of lots of scenarios that might arise as we continue exploring online learning together.

2. Take into account that home lives vary greatly.

I’ve heard of some teachers requiring that students keep their cameras on when in live learning sessions. I understand some of the rationale behind this. I want to make sure my kids are engaged, many teachers think to themselves. But there are some major flaws within this rationale.

Liz Kleinrock of Teach and Transform reminded me and the rest of her followers recently that we are very literally entering our students homes when they are participating in live learning sessions–and we aren’t necessarily asking permission to do so. Entering students’ homes makes all students vulnerable. Some are more comfortable with this than others–and for a variety of reasons, including aesthetic differences in their homes to the feelings that come up when a live camera is staring them in the face.

We must not only be aware of this. We must be respectful of this. We must honor our students’ right to privacy. We must also resist the tendency to make assumptions about students’ engagement based on what we can see and hear. Just because we can’t see them doesn’t mean they’re not listening.

Instead of creating a norm around camera usage, I keep my minilessons very short, allowing me a great deal of time to check in with students in small groups or one-on-one. During these times, we use Google Hangouts, keeping the camera optional. After all, they are posting pictures of their work to Seesaw, and I can always use that to check in on how they are doing with assignments that way.

3. Remember that rules are meant to be broken.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge proponent of creating classroom norms. But they’re also just meant to be a guide, not a set of ruthless and rigid rules. No, you shouldn’t kick your kids out of the live learning session if they break a norm. Consequences should be natural and restorative, and if you’re noticing that a given norm isn’t working for your kids, it might be time to have a conversation about better ways to respect the norm. It might even be time to change the norm itself. Overall, norms should be supporting your classroom culture, and if they’re not, it might be time to re-evaluate.

Nevertheless, if you keep equity at the center of your intentions for developing classroom norms, you will, without a doubt, be able to adjust your norms as you continue on this uncertain journey into remote learning.

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