Building Classroom Culture in the Zoom Classroom
It is a strange and challenging semester for us and our students. Many of us are teaching online synchronously through platforms like Zoom. While adjusting our content and delivery approaches are challenges in and of themselves, there are other important considerations for building a positive and effective learning environment. For me, classroom culture and establishing rapport with and between my students are important considerations. A welcoming classroom culture can make all the difference in our students’ learning and in our sense of accomplishment and satisfaction with the classes we teach.
Building rapport with our students and developing a classroom culture are skills that we learn throughout our years in the classroom. But how do you build rapport and culture in a Zoom classroom?
I know many people are coming up with fun, creative ways to brighten up their students’ day and make classes feel more human. In this post, I will share a quick and easy activity I introduced this semester with my Zoom classes to help overcome this challenge: the Zoom Background Challenge.
The Zoom Background Challenge Activity
When you use this activity in your class, I hope that it puts a smile on your face and that of your students. I hope that it brightens your day.
First, some background.
When I started as an assistant professor at Utah Valley University in 2010, I implemented a fun challenge in my classes. Students who missed no more than 2 classes during the semester (for any reason – excused or unexcused) would receive a high five on the last day of classes. Students who missed zero classes would receive a double high five. And yes, Rocky music blasted during this celebration (Learn more about why I did this on my 10-years teaching reflection post). The students loved this activity; some have even joked that they took a second or third class from me just to earn that double high five. With classes being online this semester, clearly the high fives were out of the question.
What to do?
Given the popularity of Zoom backgrounds, I saw an opportunity. Why not have students come up with a new Zoom background each week? To make it more fun and incentivize participation, I decided to make it a little competition.
How does the Zoom Background Challenge Work?
Each week, a student from class is assigned to submit a theme topic for the following week (Students can be assigned at random, or through some other means). Then, students go out and find a background that fits with the theme and return the following week with their finding as their Zoom background.
To illustrate how it works, let’s imagine that my class is meeting on Tuesdays and Thursdays. On Tuesday, the students have their Zoom background up for the week’s theme. I also remind the student assigned to pick the theme for the following week to let us know on Thursday what the following week’s theme will be. On Thursday, the following week’s theme is announced. Students log into class the following Tuesday with their new background. This process is repeated week after week.
The activity is completely optional. Students are encouraged to participate. I do ask, however, that regardless of whether a student decides to put up backgrounds and thus participate in the challenge , they do provide a theme for the rest of the class for their assigned week.
I have been impressed by the variety and creativity of the background themes students have come up with. Some are focused on aesthetic, some on humor, and some on self expression. Topics have included: favorite cartoons from childhood; favorite animals; favorite celebrities; the set from one’s favorite TV show; scariest movies; forests and jungles; the worst movie ever; best photo of autumn.
To incentivize participation, I make the background challenge a friendly competition. I am giving out 3 awards for the Zoom Background Challenge. They are:
- Awesome Sauce –The person who had the most creative, stylish, humorous, or otherwise awesome single background one week.
- MVZ (Most Valuable Zoomer) -Person who consistently, week in and week out, had awesome Zoom backgrounds associated with the weekly themes.
- Theme Star –The person who came up with the best theme for everyone to pick a Zoom background for.
On the last week of the semester, the students will vote on the winner for each category.
Isn’t the Zoom Background Challenge Just a Time Waste?
Yes, it does take time. All worthwhile things do.
How much time does it take?
While it does take about 5 minutes at the start of class out of the learning experience, it has been time well spent; an investment in the classroom culture and rapport the students have with each other and with me. This is an investment that pays dividends, particularly in a time where we are less connected with our students than ever before.
At the start of class, i take a few minutes to go around and comment on just about every student’s background (If you are teaching a large class, you would probably have time to only comment on a few). Each student often shares a few thoughts about their background. It has helped the students and I learn about each other and make the Zoom experience feel more personable. It opens conversations between students such as “Oh, I also loved that movie when I was growing up.” Of course, I participate too. We briefly talk about my background so the students can get to know a little more about me; they get to know that I am more than a voice and a face on a screen.
Are there other benefits?
A Boost of Energy. Having these few minutes boosts my mood as we start class and I believe it boosts my students’ moods based on their reactions. It creates a nice ice breaker each day and helps get the conversation going – which, over Zoom, isn’t always easy. One student told me how much she enjoyed it, stating that the Zoom Background Challenge is the most exciting thing to happen in any of her classes this semester.
Cameras. I get a sense that many of our students do not want to have their cameras on. Many universities have told their professor not to require students to turn their cameras on for privacy reasons. For this reason, I do not require my students to turn on their cameras although I do kindly ask them to as a way to create a more personable culture. With the Zoom backgrounds, students have more privacy as their surroundings are hidden. I sense that it has helped more students feel comfortable having their cameras on (although I do not have any hard evidence to support this) and just about all of my students voluntarily have their cameras on, whether they participate in the challenge or not.
Student participation in the Zoom background challenge has remained consistent among a core group of students in each class. Additionally, there are a few students that tried to participate but have not been able to do to technical issues or due to joining class from their smartphones.
I believe that people learn when they are paying attention and they learn when they are having fun. If we don’t get our students’ attention and help them feel they are part of a community, how can we expect them to learn? I hope you find this brief activity useful in energizing our COVID classroom.
I would love to hear about the fun and creative ways in which you are energizing and humanizing your online classes.
Stay safe. You are awesome.
- Be well!