Engaging Health Equity

HPHR Fellow Lindsay Rosenfeld

By Lindsay Rosenfeld, ScD, ScM

Critically Thinking about Community-Building in Your Classroom [Or a Similar Space] (#5)

Read the full blog text below -or- listen to the blog (#5 in the Playlist).

For relevant background for this blog post – check out previous posts

I have always loved teaching. I truly relish working with students to guide them in discovering something new and achieving the fluidity to make it their own. Of course, I also learn an immense amount in the process, which I really enjoy too (well, most of the time). Nevertheless, it’s often exhausting and always extremely time consuming, no matter the environment. Over the years, I’ve taught family and adult literacy (Providence, RI), second grade (Compton, CA), and undergraduate and graduate-level courses (across Greater Boston). When the COVID19 pandemic became reality in the United States in March 2020, I was gratefully not teaching any courses that term. Suddenly though, I was supporting colleagues who were teaching while I rearranged my kitchen to be a classroom for our second grade twins. Asynchronous was part of my new lexicon.

By the time I had to get in front of a virtual classroom, I was lucky enough to cull the insight of my own kids as well as many colleagues. 8-year-olds were surprisingly perceptive when it came to what it’s like to be a virtual student. Thankfully, I was also working with a Teaching Assistant who had helped another Professor through the sudden transition the Spring before. Her perspective was instrumental in getting us ready for what I had always said no to previously: teaching online.

Over the course of this “COVID19 Academic Year”, I taught multiple graduate-level courses ranging from health literacy to the design of social experiments to a doctoral seminar. In the Fall, I diligently prepared these courses, and in the Spring, I had to quickly shift to teaching when a dear colleague had to go on medical leave. Either way, I learned a great deal about enhancing community in the classroom in the virtual setting. I carry most of these lessons forward as I prepare to teach in-person this Fall.

While I had always been focused on who was in my classroom, simultaneously bolstering the strengths of us as a group, there was a new urgency to creatively fill in the gaps of the remote environment. Gone were the casual interactions as students waited for class to begin. The waves to familiar faces in the hallways. The unplanned lunch discussions. The camaraderie on late nights in the computer lab. The casual encounters with faculty. Many of these notes have long been tenets of my teaching, and some are new. Nonetheless, they all helped to build classroom community in our strange new world – and I believe will serve us in the future, whether remotely, in-person, or hybrid. Engaging Health Equity requires rigorously tending to community-building in the places we work and learn.

Before the Course Began:


Virtual, Live Meet & Greets (Password Protected Zoom Meetings)

  • Live hellos with professor and teaching assistant (TA)
  • Students signed-up for predetermined blocks for time
  • 3-4 students per block

Asynchronous Get-To-Know-You Videos (Private Online Course Portal)

  • TA and Professor uploaded introductory videos
  • Students invited to upload videos

During the Course:


Live Class Time

  • Welcome students by name as they joined class
  • Finalize class expectations/norms
  • Reach out to students (e.g. if they missed class, dropped off and didn’t return)
  • 2 minute teach-ins (a community-building break where students volunteered to present on any topic of their choice; TA & Professor too!)
  • Class check-ins: via chat or polls (good for gauging the mood, problem points)
  • Opened class early and lingered after every class for questions/discussion
  • Routine small (breakouts) & large group discussions

Outside of Class Time

  • Office hours appointments: course or other topics (TA & Professor)
  • Followed-up on large scope in-class questions / sent resources
  • Asynchronous participation via email among teaching staff and asynchronous students
  • Mid-point survey to glean what’s working/what’s not, recommendations


  • Required small group work between classes
  • Required chat partner – opportunity to process discussion with non-classmate
  • Strongly suggested partnering for the final paper (helped foster partner opportunities)
  • Supported connecting final paper to student interests / partnering with organizations
  • Continuous feedback, by pre-determined dates
  • Scaffolded assignments to create intentional, structured support

Using the Course Portal

  • Article reflections & student comments (woven into class discussion)
  • Final presentations & comments (woven into class discussion)
  • Announcements related to course content
  • Class-wide interaction opportunities for all, fully asynchronous students too

Asynchronous Students – specific attention

  • Said hello to students in recordings; paused video during breaks/breakouts so viewers didn’t have to watch an empty screen
  • Class-wide interactions (Meet & Greet, Introductory Videos, Course Portal Conversations, Finalize Norms/Expectations)
  • Email discussion per required format for each session – with TA, Professor, and Other Asynchronous students

Student Perspective:

Students Shared the Following Aspects that Most Resonated

  • Appreciated the balance of social and academic community-building
  • Gained a lot from interactive small & large group discussions
  • Liked course portal discussions & interaction opportunities
  • Appreciated efforts to connect to students’ interests: course work, resources
  • Learned a lot from hands-on assignments & discussions: applying learnings with real-world implications
  • Helped by the repeating of information in-class, and putting it in multiple places

Lessons Learned (Highlights!):

  • Creating community is multifaceted
  • Say out loud even what seems obvious, particularly about the challenges of current life (e.g. global pandemic, structural racism in the U.S., family)
  • Being an abundance of grace is necessary, for yourself and others
  • Laugh together – show students that Professor is not taking herself too seriously (e.g. Zoom snafoos, other mistakes)
  • Raise up our collective humanity
  • Keep the mid-way movement break and community-building time (even in a short class)
  • Be even more organized, especially in communicating and keeping track of course and students
  • Facilitation of large group discussions was eased by community-building efforts
  • Reflect constantly and give class feedback on the (un)solicited input (e.g. with teaching team, frequent mini-check-ins with students)
  • Share more of your whole self than you typically might

A Few Related Resources:

Harvard University’s Teach Remotely

Brown University’s Teaching & Learning Resources

University of Southern California’s Rossier School of Education, Promoting Equity in the Classroom

University of Michigan, Inclusive Teaching Resources & Strategies

Collaborative for Academic, Social & Emotional Learning

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress, Education as the Practice of Freedom

bell hooks, Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope

Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed  

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