Community in the Virtual ESL Classroom

by: Shei Sanchez, ICLS ESL Teacher

Building a strong and engaged community of students is a key ingredient in teaching. If learners feel excluded or left behind, the classroom environment can become disjointed and leaden. It just doesn’t feel right. Therefore, the classroom should feel like a second home – a place where students and their teacher can feel secure and confident. But how can this happen in an online setting? Indeed it is a challenge, but not without its rewards. To establish an online classroom community, teachers must encourage active participation.

As teachers, we have been in many different classroom communities; without a doubt, we have also experienced this as learners. Whether it is a group of beginners trying to improve pronunciation and expand vocabulary, a pair of professionals focusing on effective business writing or a private student brushing up on grammar issues, a community between the learners and teacher is formed. From a personal experience as a student, my best classes were the ones in which I felt like a part of something bigger. It wasn’t just the learning itself. It was the learning together as a group. It’s as if we all conspired to work together toward one goal. In the case with my second language acquisition class, we collaborated on grasping Lev Vygotsky’s concepts on social development and trying to apply them to our lessons. Our goal? To become better teachers.

“The most courageous act is still to think for yourself. Aloud,” Coco Chanel said. Actively participating helps build community and dialogue in the classroom. Not only are students engaged in the lesson at hand, they are also more invested in their learning. After all, it is their class, or rather, their second home. As teachers, we are their guides. When ESL students are given the opportunity to use their second language to speak their mind and share their opinions, they feel a greater sense of agency and confidence. They own the language they are learning.

In an online learning environment, it is critical to maintain active participation among students. Although it is challenging, especially among shy students, striving to involve everyone will lead to a closer, supportive group. Indeed, it is easy to be distracted: a phone call coming, a dog barking, a doorbell ringing, an email arriving, or a cake waiting. In synchronous lessons, these diversions, among countless others, can cause active participation to plummet. Of course, boredom and disinterest in the class can do that, too. How can we discourage boredom? Through relevance. If the lesson topic is relevant to students’ goals and lives, then they are more inclined to pay attention and participate. Moreover, opening the virtual floor for creative expression can increase the students’ investment in the class.

It is true that a smaller class of students, of three to four people, induces participation more easily. Students in smaller groups generally feel more pressure to say something. But what if these students participate because they want to, not because they have to? That is the true goal of the classroom.

In one of my group classes, I had five students, four from Italy and one from Russia. As we got to know each other throughout the course, I knew that having a debate and role play on current topics would be to be the best and most exciting learning adventures for these quick-witted students. They took to the challenge and then some. My task during both participatory activities was to be the moderator and “stenographer”. The students led the online debate themselves to the point of faux-arguing over who had the best claims.

This can also be applied in a private, one-on-one class. The community is smaller, with only the teacher and her student, but that makes it all the more special. In this situation, teachers are students as well, taking part in the activities as partners.

Lev Vygotsky opined, “By giving our students practice in talking with others, we give them frames for thinking on their own.” If truth be told, keeping this in mind as we forge new roads for students to embark on creates that warm feeling of home.