Creating Magic in Your (Online) Classroom

Black cauldron emits colorful smoke with potions and books surrounding it

We all know that the best teachers are most often those who ignite passion and curiosity within their students. What we may not all know (yet) is that we can spark this same magic in our online classrooms. Just ask those of us who have been teaching online for years.

A handful of this, a sprinkle of that

1. Be friendly/approachable.

Introduce yourself—be a person. Socialize with your students and share photos, funny memes, GIFs, interesting links, etc. Use the dang emoji. 😊

I was once critiqued for using emojis in my online courses by an instructor who hadn’t yet taught online and thought emojis might make me seem unprofessional to students. But, after 15 years of teaching online, I can tell you this: By and large online students already assume your professionalism; it’s your humanity you must be purposeful to convey. Students (many of whom would rather text than talk) are fluent in emoji. Employed purposefully (and sparingly, like the exclamation point!), they help communicate tone and mood and can substitute for absent body language and facial expression. It can also help soften the blow of a critique and can serve as the sugar that makes the medicine go down. When used together, emoji, memes, etc. can help to create an atmosphere of fun and creativity.

2. Learn students’ names.

Online this can mean matching a student’s name with their work rather than their face. It might mean knowing what topic they’re writing about, connecting past work with current, and/or remembering details about their life. Above all, care about them; make them feel seen.

Admittedly, this can be harder online. Names and emails without faces blur together. But with effort, it can be done. Like many online instructors, I ask my students to post a photo of themselves (or something that represents who they are, although the vast majority do not choose this option), and I refer back to their photo many times throughout the semester—respond to their email, look at their photo; read their topic proposal, look at their photo; respond to their essay, look at their photo. The repeated name-to-face-to-content helps me “see” and remember them, and students can feel this familiarity or the lack of it. Fostering it will raise you from a faceless computer to a teacher-who-cares.

3. Be accessible/connected.

Interact regularly and often: Answer emails quickly (I usually tell my students they can expect a response within 24 hours, M-F), update the gradebook frequently (even 20-30 minutes per course on a busy day will tell students you are present and engaged). Give meaningful, individualized feedback when possible. Post course announcements one to two times weekly, and quote lines from your students’ work within them, when possible, to highlight further connections between their ideas and the course content.

In the traditional classroom, students raise their hands with questions or check in with you before or after class. Online, email is the equivalent of a raised hand, so aim to respond promptly. Although I generally do read and respond to student emails “during working hours only,” I must admit, I often check email after 5 pm and on the weekends. At first, this might sound like an awfully horrid, workaholic thing to do, but the truth is, I still choose whether or not my response can wait until tomorrow, and, honestly, sometimes I don’t mind replying right away. Find what works for you but set clear expectations for your students regarding your email response time and stick to it. 

4. Build community.

The best classrooms are places where students feel like they belong. The same is true online. Ask students to introduce themselves to one another, and have them work in groups. Create regular opportunities for them to interact.

I start with this icebreaker: I ask my students to introduce themselves in a way that makes them human (and I do the same). For instance, list 25 random facts about yourself (some of mine: I grew up in a farmhouse built in 1901. I am a self-proclaimed cat lady—even though I only have two. I love steamed spinach with vinegar.) And then, when asked to respond to one another, they undoubtedly comment on their similarities and differences: Spinach is disgusting! I am a cat mom, too. And so begins the weaving of the web which is then reinforced throughout the course when students are asked to respond to one another’s writing and ideas.  

5. Be passionate.

In a face-to-face classroom, our students witness our passion in countless ways—the smile on our face, the heat in our voice, the creativity with which we approach the mundane. Convey these same things online—use video, let your voice shine through when communicating with your students through text, and create assignments YOU would like to complete.

Take the same advice so many of us who teach writing give to our students: Write like you mean it. You don’t have to sound like a robot. Show us what you mean. Spice this section up. Announcements, assignments, and feedback to students don’t have to sound dull and dreary—online students are, perhaps, first and foremost readers, and if you don’t hook them they will quit reading (or want to anyways). Of course, feeling passionate requires necessary bandwidth. One way I foster this space for myself is to save energy and time in places where it simultaneously builds quality. For instance, once I’ve written a particularly fabulous suggestion about conclusions, one that conveys my best advice in a kind tone, I copy and paste it into a “Common Feedback” document (there are apps for this, too), and then the next time I find myself wanting to say the very same thing to a different student, I don’t have to recreate the wheel but instead have a base I can tweak and personalize as needed. It’s a win-win. 

6. Keep it fresh.

Reflect and revise, revise, revise.

Just because you can copy information from one course site to another, doesn’t mean you should. If something doesn’t work, chuck it or carve it into something better. Likewise, if something works well in your face-to-face classroom, consider how to tweak it for the online sphere. For instance, don’t steer away from group work simply because your students cannot sit together in a circle. With a detailed plan and clear goals (consider necessary turnaround time for feedback, “rules” for engaging critically and kindly, detailed questions to guide the work, etc.), asynchronous groups work surprisingly well and they help to build and reinforce the relationships that make learning more effective. 

Many will tell you (online) learning is really all about meaningful connection—between you and your students, your students and one another, and your students and the course content. During this time of COVID-19, we have been pushed out of many of our comfort zones; our students may not have enthusiastically chosen to enroll for online classes, just as many of us may not have enthusiastically chosen to teach them. But, perhaps even more so in the online classroom, it is up to us to invite the magic in. The list above is, of course, not a one-size-fits-all but can serve as a guide for beginning to find your own pizazz in your online classroom. Above all, choose with care the ingredients you add to your cauldron for they will either nourish connection or will zap its possibility from the get-go.

Kenya Jenkins Fletcher has been teaching first-year writing courses at Boise State University since 1999 and has been teaching online courses since 2005. She is always on the lookout for ways to make her (online) courses more personal, more meaningful, and just-plain more magical for her and for her students.