Building belonging in blended learning

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Last week we looked at ‘teacher presence’ and the vital connection between a teacher and students. Equally vital – and equally challenging in remote or blended learning situations – is ‘social presence’, or ‘belonging’. We know that being part of a school and a class community is incredibly important for children and young people. How do we promote a sense of belonging to a community when we only meet online?

Belonging for wellbeing

As we explored last week, live lessons are not necessarily the ‘best’ form of remote teaching. However, even if your school has chosen to deliver most teaching asynchronously it may be worth scheduling short, live class or form catch-up sessions where children can connect with their teacher and peers. Seeing their teachers and adults from the school community is important for children’s sense of belonging, community and wellbeing. It is also highlighted in the DfE’s guidance for schools on adapting to remote learning, in the wellbeing section:

“Encouraging and enabling interaction between pupils, parents, carers and staff can help them to feel like they’re a part of a community.”

And picked up in the recent Ofsted remote education research report, which noted:

“a few leaders specified that their schools had tried to create opportunities for student-to-student interaction to boost motivation and morale in their cohort. This was done through breakout rooms online, or through messaging boards/apps. A couple of schools mentioned that their nativity play was able to be streamed remotely. Leaders believed that this had created a sense of stability and community for the pupils involved. Another school arranged for children to sing to a local care home through a live online platform.”

Belonging in action

We’ve surfaced many more examples of good practice where, as Mark Martin discusses in this week’s video, school leaders and teachers have found effective tools and platforms that help children feel they belong and enable them to bring their authentic selves, their identity, culture, heritage, passion and interests to the school community and its online spaces.

Assemblies (often recorded) have taken on a greater importance in a world of online schooling. Having that contact with headteachers, heads of year etc has helped students feel like they still belong to a community. But, in addition to using assemblies, singing assemblies and morning messages from teachers to promote a sense of community, many schools have created whole school community videos showing all the adults in lockdown, such as this dancetastic example from Hitherfield.

Headteachers are also using video messages to share information with children and parents in a more personal way than a newsletter.  From the first lockdown, here’s Hanover primary headteacher’s message to year 6 about not doing SATs, and Kate Atkins, headteacher at Rosendale, explained school closure and shared her thoughts on the challenges for reopening to children via YouTube. Padlets can also be an effective way of enabling children to share what they’ve been doing and get a sense of what their classmates are up to in a safe way (check out our guide to using Padlet for tips). Virtual postcards from schools to families have also been used effectively.

At Julians Primary School, pupils have used a combination of social messaging through their learning platform, J2E, and live Zoom catch up sessions to maintain relationships with peers and support their wellbeing. Billy Perrin, a year 6 teacher and computing subject leader, schedules whole-class Zooms three times a week for a 15-20 minute chat about the day and maybe play games. They are optional but the majority attend.

A whole class tea party

A primary school in Brighton held a Zoom tea party for the whole year 2 class as an end of term activity. It was built up over the preceding fortnight with work across the curriculum, reading about royal tea parties, writing about the components of a good tea party, creating decorations from materials found at home, drawing pictures of the food they planned to make, learning a dance (demonstrated by teachers in a video), making a sandwich and sweet treat and culminating in an online party, led by the head in fancy dress, in which they shared about their food and costumes.

Some schools are using less structured approaches to create communal online spaces for younger children – for example, a Lego drop-in video call where children can log in and chat together as they build, sharing what they create. This can replicate the community feeling of a breakfast or after-school club, where children can be themselves and bring their enthusiasm and passion into an authentic space.

Whole school activities

Whole school activities can give children a sense of their wider school community. For example, many schools participated in the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch last month. Children were able to discuss and compare what they saw with other pupils.

Others choose to hold yoga or other exercise classes which are open to all year groups. Not only do these activities promote health and wellbeing, they also give children shared interests through which to connect with the other pupils in their school.

And if you’re wondering what else might work in your particular context? Why not ask the children or young people? Mark Martin suggests surveying young people to find their ideas of what might help them to feel happier and play a bigger part in their school community.

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