Before the pandemic, I didn’t really believe it was possible to build community online, at least not in the way that I had come to understand community through my work as an educator. For years I had practiced the art of in-person group facilitation, guiding groups of college students through meaningful learning experiences and creating opportunities for them to reflect on those experiences. For me, the goal of my work as an educator has always been to help students better understand themselves and the unique gifts they have to share with the world. And for the first ten years of my career, that was always done best in face-to-face groups.
But in March of 2020, everything changed. The COVID-19 pandemic imposed a virtual paradigm on the field of education. Online classes went from being optional for some to being mandatory for all. I was not at all prepared for this abrupt and seismic shift to online teaching. I had taken a class about online pedagogy in my doctoral program, leaving me with the belief that teaching online is harder, more time-consuming, and less engaging than in-person instruction (Dykman & Davis, 2008). So, when I was asked to teach an online class in the fall of 2020, it felt like learning how to teach all over again.
Then, in May of 2020, George Floyd was murdered. As a result, racial justice took on a new meaning and significance for me. I had previously considered myself an ally for racial justice both personally and professionally. I often discussed race and racism in my classes, but typically this happened only when the course learning outcomes specifically called for such content. When I witnessed the world rise up to demand justice for Floyd’s unnecessary death however, I realized that racial justice could no longer be a supplemental topic in my courses. I resolved to focus every aspect of my teaching on examining systemic racism and exploring possibilities for racial justice.
Reflecting on Community
Needless to say, as the fall semester approached, the challenge was stark. Not only did I have to learn how to teach in a new virtual platform, but I was determined to promote racial justice in every aspect of my classes. As I began preparing for the fall, I realized that adapting to the challenges of the context would require more of me than just attending a few webinars and adding new assignments to my syllabus. To be effective in teaching online with a focus on racial justice, I needed to re-examine how I thought about learning. As I said, I have always facilitated learning in group settings and as a result, have come to believe that the best environments for learning often resemble communities. More than tips and tricks, I needed to open my mind to the possibility that genuine community could–and must–be built amidst the isolation, fear, and collective trauma that many around the world were feeling.
This led me to reflect on a simple question: What is my definition of community? I began remembering the many communities that I had been a part of in my life, both within and beyond educational settings. I soon discovered that there were a few underlying characteristics that cut across them all. In my experience, communities are made up of diverse people working toward a common goal. I trusted people in these communities and felt comfortable sharing my honest perspectives. When conflict arose, I made a genuine effort to understand others’ perspectives. Being a part of a community also required me to reflect on my strengths and areas for growth. Mostly importantly though, strong communities that I had been a part of often formed when individuals were experiencing difficult challenges in their lives and needed support.
The more I reconsidered the idea of community, the more I came to see that the COVID-19 pandemic and the global outcry for racial justice were not barriers to creating community, but opportunities to remember the importance of community during difficult times. I began to see possibilities instead of problems. Suddenly the virtual learning environment presented new ways of creating community that I had never imagined. Focusing on racial justice opened doorways for developing community in my classes that I hadn’t considered. And just as I began to open myself up to the many possibilities hidden within what I previously saw as challenges, I also began to identify strategies for how I might go about building community in my online classes.
Foster a Brave Space
There has been much controversy in the field of education about the idea of safe space. Traditional academic wisdom values freedom of thought above all else. The idea of imposing limitations on what can be said within the walls of the classroom contradicts the fundamental purpose of education, and in the eyes of some, striving for a safe learning environment crosses that line (Ali, 2017). For others, a safe container for educators and students is not only a goal, but a prerequisite for learning (McGee, 2016). Many who advocate for safe space in educational environments believe that true intellectual freedom cannot be achieved when there are some who do not feel physically or psychologically safe in the place where they should have liberty to explore all perspectives (Arao & Clemens, 2013). Recently, a new educational philosophy has emerged, called brave space (Ashlee & Ashlee, 2015). Focusing on learning over comfort, brave space encourages educators and students to focus inward on their own growth and development by practicing mindful self-awareness of one’s own comfort zones, triggers, and learning edges.
Even if you are aware of the benefits of brave space, voluntarily leaning into the discomfort that is required for learning can be difficult. Being vulnerable enough to identify and acknowledge one’s own limitations takes courage and conviction (Brown, 2012). However, exercising bravery can be an incredibly powerful educational experience as it often leads to personal transformation. I have been fortunate enough to experience the transformational power of brave space throughout my time as an educator, and as a result have successfully used this learning framework to foster meaningful learning communities for many years.
When it came to developing brave space amidst a deadly pandemic and the sweeping calls for racial justice, I was unsure how to proceed until I realized that the circumstances of the times actually held rich opportunities for building community in my virtual classroom. Rather than avoiding these difficult topics in the classroom, I decided to dedicate the first few minutes of each class for my students and I to check-in with each other about how we were experiencing current events. I always led by example, being the first to share openly and honestly before inviting others to do the same. Sometimes these discussions were brief and surface-level. Other times they were intimate and emotional. Regardless of the depth of these discussions, my students often expressed their gratitude for the space to process our thoughts and feelings.
Although my classes this past year were virtual, I felt a close connection to my students. Living through 2020, and processing what was happening through the lens of brave space, proved to develop some of the most robust learning communities that I have ever experienced. Through course evaluations and one-on-one conversations, my students commented on how supportive and meaningful the brave space was for their mental health. Others shared how they made socially distanced connections with classmates in real life, which is not something they had done since the pandemic started. I, too, benefitted from the perspective and processing that happened in my classes this past year. My understanding of how to build a learning community has expanded and much of that has been the result of fostering brave space in my online classes.
Focus on Self-Work
Just as safe space is a contested issue within education, so too is the practice of self-reflection to promote learning. Historically, educators and students have been encouraged to leave their personal lives at the door of the classroom in order to remain objective to academic facts (Freire, 2000). Traditional models of education consider personal experience to be secondary when compared to the insights that have been discovered through rigorous scientific research and peer-reviewed discernment. So, for some, personal self-reflection is something that is best done with a therapist, and not with a teacher. Still, others believe that it is impossible to remove oneself from the learning process. For these educators, meaningful reflection upon personal experience is the basis for all learning and development (Dewey, 2007). Similarly, others refer to education as a liberatory practice, whereby personal freedom and social justice can only be pursued through critical self-reflection (Hooks, 1994).
I have always fallen in the camp of those who see self-reflection as an effective pedagogical tool for learning and development. I often refer to the process of self-reflection as self-work because it involves looking inward to identify where my students and I have room to grow in our understanding and awareness (Ashlee & Ashlee, 2015). Again, I have been fortunate enough to be a part of educational communities where self-reflection was encouraged and as a result, I learned. As an educator, I’ve seen self-reflection lead to powerful discoveries for my students. Rather than seeing what we were learning as separate and distant from themselves, self-reflection allowed course content to take on personal meaning for my students.
Through my experience teaching this past year, I learned that self-work is not just an effective teaching tool, but also a powerful means for building community. At first glance, self-work might seem contrary to the goals of community. Given that self-reflection is often a deeply personal exercise, those looking to build community might opt for more collaborative ways to engage individuals in the process of community development. In my classes this year, self-work was often a gateway to community because it has encouraged everyone in the group to operate from a beginner’s mindset (Kabat-Zinn, 2005). Rather than being another way my students and I felt disconnected, practicing self-work actually brought us closer together. We were all experts in our own experience, and everyone understood that we all had room to grow.
Self-work was an especially productive framework when having conversations about racial justice this year. Many White students and educators, including myself, often resist conversations about race and racism because of the discomfort that comes from facing one’s privilege and the harmful oppression that People of Color experience as a result of systemic racism (DiAngelo, 2011). Framing these discussions in the context of self-work gave my White students and I permission to acknowledge our lack of racial awareness and encouraged us to focus on listening and learning. For students of Color in my classes, self-work became an invitation to care for themselves in ways that were not encouraged in other spaces. This meant speaking honestly and being validated about their painful and traumatic experiences with racism.
Despite focusing on self-work, the conversations we had about race and racism in my classes this year were not easy. Grappling with the harsh realities of systemic racism with eyes wide open was both infuriating and heartbreaking. But whenever White supremacy reared its ugly head, we took time in class to talk about how we were experiencing these horrifying events. While these conversations were some of the most challenging moments in class this last year, they were also meaningful opportunities for learning and growth. Leaning into the uncertainty of what was happening in the world through self-work not only supported our learning, but it also contributed to the development of a strong community in my classes.
Facilitate Story Sharing
When it comes to stories, there has long been a tension between academics. The art of narrative has always been beloved among those in the arts and humanities, but stories tend to hold less weight in the sciences. On the one hand, romantics argue that narrative accounts of personal experience help students make meaningful connections for learning. People on this side of the fence view stories as the closest approximation to truth we humans can muster. Classicists, on the other hand, believe that while stories may be nice, they hold little scientific value. As such, these educators prefer to stick to cold, hard facts.
Recently however, researchers of all stripes have started to explore the impact of stories on the human brain. Stories are the most effective way to communicate complex ideas that will be understood and remembered over time (Simmons, 2001). Humans love the thrill of a good story. Even very simple stories can contain complex lessons, insights, and perspectives (Simmons, 2015). Bring to mind a boring presentation where the presenter read statistics directly from the slides. Regardless of how factual the information, most of us lose interest and forget what is said during these types of presentations. Now recall a riveting action film or a captivating love story. Oftentimes we can recite specific details from our favorite movies or books without even trying to commit them to memory. This is the power stories have to help us learn.
I rely heavily on story sharing in my teaching. Both in and outside the classroom, some of my most meaningful learning moments have come from bearing witness to and sharing personal stories. My perspective on the world is limited to the things that I’ve seen and done, but when I’ve heard stories from those who have different identities and experiences, my eyes were opened to so much more. Story sharing has allowed me to truly understand many of the unearned privileges I benefit from as a straight, White man because I’ve heard heartbreaking experiences from those who have been marginalized and oppressed in ways that I’ve never had to consider. At the same time, I’ve been given the opportunity to share my own story while in community with others. This allowed me to reflect on my identities in ways that I never would have otherwise. Powerful experiences like these have compelled me to facilitate story sharing in my classes with the hopes that my students will benefit from the practice, as I have.
When it came to processing race and racism in my classes this past year, stories were key. As an introduction activity, I invited my students to share the story of their lives through the lens of their racial identity. I asked my students to practice appreciative listening, or observing aspects of the story with which they resonate with most. I modeled for the students by sharing my own experiences as a White person trying to understand my privilege and unlearn the racist ideas that society has taught me to believe. My students told their own troubling and tragic stories about race. After each student shared, there was time to express gratitude and highlight similarities between experiences. Even though the students shared vastly different experiences, the exercise always seemed to bring us closer together.
Based on my experience teaching online this year, I learned that not only is story sharing a powerful teaching tool, but it is also an incredibly effective way to build community. While COVID-19 impacted different people in very different ways, it touched the lives of everyone in my classes. Some students got sick and had to miss class. Others had family members and friends who contracted the virus, had to be hospitalized, or worse. This past year was an emotional roller coaster and I realized what my students needed more than anything was to share their stories and have someone to listen, really listen. My online classes this year became communities in part because they were spaces for my students to honestly share stories about what they were experiencing with others who cared enough to listen.
As an educator who successfully facilitated in-person educational communities for years, I had always been skeptical of online education. And during such an unprecedented time with multiple pandemics, political turmoil, and collective trauma, I was not feeling particularly optimistic about teaching online this past year. Not only was I doubtful about developing virtual community, but in the wake of George Floyd’s murder I was also committed to pursuing racial justice in every aspect of my classes. Either one of these would have been formidable challenges on their own, but 2020 was an unrelenting year for educators. I felt unsure about how to be an effective educator and when it came time to plan for my fall classes, I was stuck.
As I often do when I am stuck, I stepped away to reflect. I focused on my most formative learning experiences and realized that my most meaningful learning experiences happened in community with others. More often than not, those communities were strongest when individuals were going through troubling times. I began to believe that what was happening in the world might actually be an opportunity for learning, and not just a problem to be solved. Rather than being barriers to community, the challenging circumstances of this past year became points of connection for me and my students.
With this realization in mind, my classes became some of the strongest communities I’ve ever experienced as an educator. As a learning community, we discussed what we would need to foster a brave space in the class where each person felt supported in stepping outside their comfort zone to learn. We prioritized our own learning and growth throughout the course by focusing on self-work as a shared goal. Finally, we processed what we were experiencing in the world, practiced appreciative listening, and established trust with one another by facilitating opportunities for vulnerable story sharing.
The strong community in my classes this year would not have been possible without the courage and conviction of my students, who accepted my invitation to share their personal stories with total strangers. It also would not have been possible without my own commitment to self-reflection prior to teaching this year. Rather than gripping to my old ways, I took time to wonder about how building community might take on new meaning in light of everything that was happening around me. As I have so often found in my work as an educator, the most meaningful experiences happen when everyone in the learning community has the opportunity to let go of who they think they are supposed to be and express who they truly are.
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