7 Activities to Build Community and Positive Classroom Culture During Online Learning (Published 2020) (2022)


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7 Activities to Build Community and Positive Classroom Culture During Online Learning (Published 2020) (1)

By The Learning Network

When schools transitioned to remote learning in the spring, teachers worked quickly to adapt lesson plans and curriculums for virtual classes, while also trying to maintain community and connection. This fall, not only will many educators continue that same work, but they will have the added challenge of building community with students they’ve never met.

To support educators who are trying to do this, we’ve compiled a list of strategies that can foster meaningful relationships and authentic connection in the virtual classroom. They come from the community building exercises we used during our three-day virtual New York Times Teaching Project summer institute. After several participants told us they planned to start the school year with some of these activities, we thought we should share them with all of our readers.

How are you planning to get to know your students while teaching remotely this school year? Let us know in the comments.

Please note: The activities we describe below were all conducted via Zoom, but many other video conferencing platforms have similar capabilities.


  • Discussion Starters
  • That’s Me!
  • Flipgrid Introductions
  • Human Bingo
  • Write and Show
  • What’s Going On in This Picture?
  • Meditation and Mindfulness

Discussion Starters

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We started off our first professional development session with a series of discussion questions to get to know one another. Before the session, we selected a handful of questions from our daily student writing prompts that we thought would give participants an opportunity to learn something new about one another, while remaining low-stakes — no one had to share anything too personal.

Here’s how it worked: We shared a question on the screen, then sent participants into breakout rooms with one other person to discuss. After four minutes, we brought them back to the main Zoom room. We shared the next question on our screen, then sent them back into a breakout room, this time with a different partner. We repeated the process a total of three times.

This quick game allowed for short but meaningful conversations and, at the end, participants had gotten to know three new people.

If you want to try this with students:

  • The teacher will need the ability to create breakout rooms and assign students to them on their digital learning platform.

  • We put participants in groups of two, but if you’re starting the school year with this activity, consider that students might feel most comfortable talking in a group of three or four.

  • We gave participants four minutes to chat. Your students might need more or less time.

  • If we were doing this with students, we might give the class two minutes to write down some ideas in their notebooks before pairing them up to discuss.

That’s Me!

“I have two cats.” “I love eating Oreos dipped in peanut butter.” “I speak two languages at home.” These are the kinds of personal statements participants shared during our game of That’s Me.

To set up the activity, everyone started with their cameras and microphones turned off. Then, one person came on camera and shared a statement about themselves like, “I have a sister.” Anyone else who had a sister turned on his or her camera and said, “That’s me!” Then, everyone turned their cameras and microphones back off and the next person made a statement.

If you want to try this with students:

  • Teachers need to have a remote learning classroom space that allows individual students to control their cameras and microphones.

  • If you’re concerned that students might have trouble coming up with statements about themselves, you can provide the class with a list of possibilities from which to choose: “I like mint chocolate chip ice cream.” “I have never tried surfing.” “Math is my favorite subject. …”

  • Instead of having students jump on the mic whenever they have a statement, you might have them use the “raise hand” icon or group chat to volunteer. Then you call on them one at a time.

  • This activity works best using the “gallery view” or something similar so you can see all participants.

Flipgrid Introductions


Flipgrid is a video discussion tool that allows you to have face-to-face conversations without being in the same place at the same time. It’s easy: You create a discussion topic. Share it with your class. Then, learners record and share short videos to respond.

Before our summer institute began, we asked our Teaching Project participants to create short Flipgrid videos introducing themselves, including their name, pronouns, subject area, location and the answer to a fun question of their choice:

  • What’s your favorite show to binge-watch?

  • If you had to eat one thing for the rest of your life, what would it be?

  • What’s one thing that people don’t know about you by looking at you?

After they posted their own videos, we asked them to reply to at least one other person’s introduction. It was a way for participants to get to know one another and make connections before the sessions even started.

If you want to try this with students:

  • Teachers will need to create a class Flipgrid account. It’s free.

  • The default video length is 90 seconds, but you can adjust it to anywhere between 15 seconds and 5 minutes.

  • Start by posting your own video answering the questions you ask students and reply to them as they post their own.

  • Need ideas for questions to ask? Check out our 550 Prompts for Personal and Narrative Writing.

Human Bingo

You might be familiar with the game Human Bingo: students walk around the room and mingle until they find someone that matches the facts listed on a bingo-style sheet. The student writes down the person’s name, and the first student to get five in a row — or fill out the whole board — wins.

Well, we adapted this for the virtual classroom: We used the Flipgrid introduction videos to populate a Bingo board, with each space including a statement about one of the participants. Then, we displayed the board on a shared screen and invited participants to write, using Zoom’s annotation tools, the correct names in each square. Participants discussed the answers in the chat and on the mic. The only rule was that you couldn’t write your own name.

This can be a great follow-up to the Flipgrid introductions to see how many students watched their classmates’ videos and remembered what they shared.

If you want to try this with students:

  • Zoom, Adobe and Google Jamboard all offer built-in annotation tools that students can use. We had participants practice by writing their names first so we could make sure everyone knew how to access the tools.

  • If you don’t have access to a meeting annotation tool, then students can share answers in the chat or on the mic while the teacher writes them on the board.

  • Here is a blank Bingo card you can edit for your own class.

  • If you have a large class, you can split students up into small groups in breakout rooms. Make it a competition: Whichever team completes the card first wins!

Write and Show


As a daily closing activity, we invited participants to sum up their reactions to the session on a written sign, then hold it up for everyone to see. The first day we asked them to describe how they were feeling in one word. Another day, we asked them to find a New York Times headline that reflected their moods. On the last day, we asked them to craft their own headlines, ones that captured how they felt and what they had learned after the three-day session.

If you want to try this with students:

  • For this activity, everyone will need to be able to see everyone else’s screen. It works best in “gallery mode” or something similar.

  • Students will need a piece of paper and a marker so their text is easy to read on the screen.

  • You can use this activity to get a sense of students’ emotional well-being at the end of each class or as an exit ticket to gauge their understanding of academic content.

What’s Going On in This Picture?


After participants had gotten a chance to get to know one another via the community-building activities, we introduced them to “What’s Going On in This Picture?” one of our most popular Learning Network features. It encourages communication and collaboration - and teachers tell us it’s fun for students too.

We sent participants into breakout rooms to look closely at the Times photograph above and discuss the three questions we ask every week as part of this activity:

  • What is going on in this picture?

  • What do you see that makes you say that?

  • What more can you find?

Participants chimed in on the microphone and in the group chat to share their observations, offer their interpretations and build on one another’s answers, while a facilitator summarized their responses and kept the conversation moving. This exercise isn’t about getting the right answer; it’s about examining an image, looking for details, practicing inference skills and then, based on the clues, drawing a conclusion.

If you like What’s Going On in This Picture? then you should also consider trying What’s Going On in This Graph? — its sister feature that we run with the American Statistical Association.

If you want to try this with students:

  • Teachers can share their screens with the image — either copied onto a PowerPoint presentation slide or directly from The Times’s website — and students can respond on the microphone or in the chat. Watch this video to see how a teacher uses the Visual Thinking Strategies protocol in her classroom.

  • You can also put students into small groups in breakout rooms to discuss while viewing the image on The Times’s website. Have them come back to the main room to share their conclusions with the rest of the class.

  • Participants from the Teaching Project told us they plan to use this activity in their classes to create a predictable weekly structure and as a warm-up activity to get students thinking and engaged before diving into academic content.

Meditation and Mindfulness


Sitting at a screen all day can be tiring and physically uncomfortable — even if the lessons or conversations are engaging. Throughout our Teaching Project, we tried to hold space for this reality by sharing a mindful moment together once a day.

One way we did this was by practicing different breathing techniques and mindfulness meditation. We practiced box breathing (exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, inhale for four counts, hold for four counts, repeat) and a five-minute body scan, like the one below.

If you want to try this with students:

  • How to Meditate,” an article from the Well section, offers a step-by-step guide with various techniques, as well as audio guided meditations. You can start with a one-minute meditation and work your way up to 15 minutes.

  • If you’re looking for something quick and easy, try “Basic Mindfulness Meditation” for a script you can read aloud to students.

  • For more ideas, see Well’s “Mindfulness for Children” guide, which is geared toward parents and teachers of children of all ages, including a section on mindfulness in schools and mindfulness with teenagers.

  • You can play one of the guided meditations by sharing your audio on Zoom or lead your own.


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