Community building at a commuter school is hard. This has been written about, discussed and is not news to anyone who has ever taught at CUNY. It was something that I felt equipped to do – pre-pandemic. I had attended SPA Day workshops about community building – I even presented about how to build community in the classroom. I had a repertoire of tools and activities. However, they all required students to be physically present in a classroom. Last fall, as I was teaching my first online class, the added layer of building community with students commuting to a virtual classroom created what seemed at first like an impenetrable obstacle.
A Box of Black Boxes
As I opened my zoom classroom for the first day of class, a day that is usually full of energy and nervous excitement, a day that I get to introduce myself and the material, I was not prepared for the gravitational pull of those black boxes. I felt my words and my energy being sucked into the vortex of zoom and had zero idea of who I was sharing space with or if anything I said was being heard by anyone. I remember closing the meeting room and feeling something, I never experienced before as a professor – defeated.
Flipping the Classroom
For those of us who have survived poverty, defeat never lasts long. I reached out to my community of active students and asked for help. Almost everyone said that the online classes they felt most connected to the material AND the professor were the ones they felt compelled to turn their cameras on for. I could work with that.
I re-wrote my syllabus so that before I introduced any topic, I included an interesting (I hoped!) and accessible short video (less than 10 minutes) that familiarized the students with the content. Then instead of using the classroom time to lecture via my PowerPoints I recorded a voice over and uploaded them to YouTube so that they could watch/listen to them. My son and wife provided me with an audience and questions so that during the voice over – I could make clarifications, add nuance – or dig deeper into some of the content – and hopefully not sound like a robot reading a script. The power points ended with critical thinking questions and short writing assignments that would be discussed in the next class together.
Power of Emotion
Sara Ahmed wrote, “So while the experience of pain may be solitary, it is never private.” Last fall there were tremendous feelings that pulled so many of my different communities together and apart. As a professor, I felt estranged from my classroom. As a student, I felt a worldwide comradery in the experience of learning online for the first time. The comraderies came mostly from strangers in Facebook groups, whatsapp chats and hashtags – and it was a lot of sharing pain and joy and our lives.
Since our classroom lectures were now outside of the classroom, we used the first 15 minutes of every class to simply check in about our lives. The first class I asked everyone for their thoughts and feelings before class started and all I got in response was crickets. Finally, one student unmuted herself and said in a quiet voice that her son had been sick but was starting to feel better and he turned 2 months old that day – you could feel her tired relief. Then another student said she was currently sick and that she was grateful for the hope that young mom shared. Immediately the mom’s box went from black to the curated golden gate bridge with her infant son in her arms waving happily and with each person sharing the boxes flipped from black to a community of tall stalks of green grass, swaying palm trees and the northern lights surrounding the faces, and families, and sometimes folks eating dinner.
After those first few classes, I suggested they make a whatsapp chat just for our class – and keep in touch with each other in between classes. They did and instantly it became a place for them to use the universal language gifs and memes to build community with each other. Once class ended, they gracious invited me into the chat – and almost a year later we are still sending photos of graduation, our kids and our lives. HIS 210 thank you for reminding me of the invaluable power that only comes from community and challenging me to learn a different way that worked for us to create that in our class.
Rocio Rayo, Queer Mother of a Free Black Boy. Rocio recently served as the liaison between Hostos Lincoln Academy of Science (DOE) and Hostos Community College (CUNY) in the Bronx, NY. She managed an Early College Initiative where students graduate from high-school with both their Associates in Arts degrees and their high school diplomas. Rocio believes that public community colleges serve as an entry point for students to access higher education. She graduated from Hostos Community College in 2011 and completed her BA/MA in History at the City College of New York in 2014. Her thesis focused on re-imagining the “failed feminist agenda” narrative that emerged from second wave feminist historians who studied the Sandinista Revolution with third wave feminist intellectual tools that incorporated stories of state sanctioned reproductive health initiatives. Rocio is currently expandingher academic exploration past Nicaragua to investigate the birthplace of women’s militancy – comparing Nicaraguan and Irish women’s anti colonial revolutionary involvement. She can be seen on most nights and weekends with her wife, cheering