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Building Community with Students during COVID

By Annette Finley-Croswhite

In our last issue of FacSheet I wrote an article detailing some of the challenges my son faces as a college freshman in a school far from home where he started classes in August not knowing anyone and with few ways to make friends during a pandemic. My article received a good deal of traction and was featured on Old Dominion University's main Web page. Many of my ODU colleagues wrote to me to inquire about my son's experience. Some shared valuable teaching strategies that they use to help students forestall the negative ramifications of COVID-induced isolation and anxiety while creating Monarch community. Some of their ideas and practices are detailed below.

Mona Danner, chair of the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice, offers the following from her department.

Jonathan Lopez, senior lecturer in Sociology and Criminal Justice, shared the email reproduced here that he sent out to encourage students.

"Hey everyone,

"I want to take a minute to tell you I am proud of all of you. These are trying times, for all of us. It is easy to get lost as a first-year student anyway, and given the current environment, I know this is exacerbated.

"I am trying to make this experience as close to a f2f learning community experience as possible. I try to give you as specific and detailed instructions as possible to make sure you succeed in this course. I take this information seriously and I volunteer for this course every year because of how important I know it is. I want to iterate that you can contact me anytime. I am happy to set up Zoom meetings with you personally to talk about the course material or whatever. All you need to do is ask. Hang in there. We are going to make it."

Charles Gray, master lecturer in Sociology and Criminal Justice, offered that he emails his students three times a week and shared this information:

"I email the students every Monday/Wednesday/Friday and sometimes more if something comes up (news items, events, any changes, etc.).

"Monday: 'Welcome to the new week and I hope you had a great weekend. Here's the agenda for this week, etc....'

"Wednesday: 'Mid-week status check and any other news updates. More detailed specifics on certain assignments if due that week.'

"Friday- 'Gentle reminders regarding what is due, wishing a happy weekend, and summations.'

"These are always posted as announcements in Blackboard with the option selected to send as an immediate email. These announcements are left available throughout the entire semester so students can backtrack them if they would like."

Allyn Walker, assistant professor in Sociology and Criminal Justice, suggested prioritizing students' mental health and creating connectedness:

"I had seen a recommended 'Basic Needs Policy' for syllabi going around social media, and I adapted it for my own courses. This is how it reads on my syllabi:

"'Basic needs policy: Your safety and wellbeing are more important than anything going on in class, and this is especially true in the midst of a pandemic. Please reach out to me if you need to talk. This will enable me to provide any resources that I can. Additionally, any student who faces challenges securing food, housing, or personal safety is urged to contact the Office of Student Outreach and Support.'"

In terms of technology, Dr. Walker is using Flipgrid.

"I wanted to keep my classes asynchronous, because I had been reading a lot last semester about asynchronous learning being more equitable for students with internet connectivity/other tech issues, students who may be sick, or those who may find several hours of Zoom per week to be mentally exhausting. But I also wanted to have some kind of 'face-to-face' component, so I've been using Flipgrid, a technology frequently used by K-12 teachers but less frequently used in universities. With Flipgrid, you can make a short video prompt, and students can respond to it via very short videos, and they can also respond to each other. My CRJS 222 students make two one-minute videos each week - one responding to my discussion prompts, and one responding to another student. This means they have to watch a few student videos to find one that they want to respond to, but it allows them to choose their level of engagement, and because they only need to talk for two minutes per week, it cuts down on how overwhelming it can be to be on video."

Flipgrid is not supported by Old Dominion University, but it is free, and at the Center for Faculty Development, we have held workshops introducing faculty to the resource. Students love it. https://info.flipgrid.com/

Dr. Walker is also doing shorter video lectures and freewriting exercises.

"In addition to the above, I'm providing short (10-15 minute) video lectures for students to watch each week, and within them, I give a prompt for a freewriting exercise where students brainstorm something in writing for 5 minutes and then send it to me, to help them engage with the material and to encourage them to actually watch the lecture.

"My first week's freewriting assignment was for students to send me questions about their syllabus, and I'm very pleased to say that multiple students responded that they didn't have any questions but they wanted to let me know that the course was well-organized and that they didn't think they'd feel overwhelmed by their workload."

We often talk about low-stakes assignments and the importance of freewriting. As teachers, we often use freewriting in our face-to-face classes. Dr. Walker prods us to remember that we can use freewriting in asynchronous courses as well. Other faculty have been using the Old Dominion University Libraries Special Collections and University Archives (SCUA) archival project to document the experiences of COVID-19 in Hampton Roads as a way to ensure that students are reflective about their interaction with the disease. Both high- and low-stakes assignments have been created, some involving storytelling, poetry, artistic creation, or document-gathering projects. Please see the ODU COVID-19 Archive. In my History of Medicine class, for example, the final project will be structured as an entry for the archive.

In terms of building community, not all students can do that without help. Many faculty at ODU and at other colleges and universities have told me that they have reached out to students to create study groups for them. This interaction involves asking students if they want to be in a Zoom study group. The engagement is voluntary and ungraded, but such groups can help reduce the loneliness so many students feel. Old Dominion University and Don Stansberry, interim vice president for student engagement and enrollment services, have also made rooms available as study spaces for students on campus. It is hoped that faculty will encourage students to recognize this possibility. Masks, proper hygiene, and social distancing are required. Most rooms are in the Batten Arts & Letters Building (BAL). There is also one room available in Dragas Hall and one in the Student Recreation Center. ID cards are necessary for access.

Finally, some faculty report using "walk and talks" to help students on campus and to create more interaction. This activity involves students and faculty agreeing to meet in small groups outside and walk around campus together - social distancing and wearing masks, of course. The advantage here is that students get to meet with faculty and use the open-air environment of the campus for "outside office hours." Students say that such events help them clear their heads and stay off Zoom, if only briefly, and make friends.

If you have other ideas about how to help students combat loneliness, reduce Zoom-related fog, build community, reflect on their COVID experiences, and ultimately be more successful, please send your ideas and best practices to the Center for Faculty Development at cfd@odu.edu.

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