Voices from the #PrincipalProject Community

4 things students want from virtual learning this year.


This blog post is excerpted and adapted from “What if School Looked Like This? Centering Students in Virtual Learning Design,” from Community Design Partners. See the full 19-page publication for more detailed findings, more details about the Design Camp focus groups and guidelines and resources to help you invite students to the “design table” in your school community.

This summer, a series of “Design Camps” convened groups of students and teachers in Baltimore City, Texas and Oregon virtually, to debrief their experiences with spring distance learning – and discuss ways to strengthen virtual learning experiences during the 2020-2021 school year.

Students asked teachers, “What would a healing and joyful school look like?” Teachers asked students, “Tell me about a time at school you felt someone knew you deeply.”

Together, they tackled the question: How might teachers and students build stronger relationships and more engagement in virtual classrooms this year?

Students and teachers brainstormed “prototype” strategies to test in virtual classes this school year. Students, many from groups that have been historically underserved by school systems, stayed at the design table with teachers for the entire camp, rather than the typical experience of leaving design only to adults.

Below are the four priorities that students identified, each with student-centered strategies that you and the teachers on your team might implement this fall. (See more detail on each theme in the full, 19-page publication.)

Priority 1. Connection and Community
Feeling acknowledged, supported and valued were themes that came up in student stories. They valued class time spent checking in with one another, as well as small groups or individual meetings with teachers and peers, and they specifically named humor and laughter as important.

Student-designed strategies to foster connection and community: 

  • Tea Time: Educators schedule a virtual time each week where students sign up individually or in a small group to connect over tea. Topics could range from light (e.g., sharing funny pet videos) to more personal.
  • Siesta: Build in a student-planned 5-minute break for every 30 minutes of class time. This could include music breaks (class DJ), snack breaks (chat and eat together), bio breaks (turn off camera and take care of your needs) and more.
  • “Tiger” Tok: Students and the teacher choose a dance from Tik Tok and perform in a small group or as a class with the teachers. Consider class or grade-level competitions across the school. Replace “Tiger” with your school’s mascot.

Priority 2. Consistency, Coordination and Clarity
Last spring, expectations, systems and workload were often uncoordinated and overwhelming for students. One student said, “If we are more comfortable, we can learn without stress.”

Student-designed strategies to foster consistency, coordination and clarity:

  • One-stop virtual learning manual: Create a virtual guide that contains sections such as: Google Classroom features, virtual classroom etiquette, directions for submitting work and responsibilities.
  • Predictable internal class schedule: A predictable routine in each class so students know what to expect and can, as one student said, “build confidence.”
  • UPlan: A color-coordinated calendar that shows projects, tests and due dates across all classes a student has.

Priority 3. Relevance and Meaning 
A major theme heard from students was the disconnection between virtual learning and real life. Especially in a historic time of nationwide antiracist protests and a global pandemic, students wanted to dig deeply into “real life.”

Student-designed strategies to foster relevance and meaning:

  • What’s happening?: Students and teachers brainstorm current issues, choose one or more and draft a framing question. Students use creative platforms to present information on the issue including recommendations for how to make real change.
  • Current Events Photo Start: Use the first 5-10 minutes of class to share a photo from somewhere in the world. Students think about the prompt, “How does this visual relate to the world today?” Use oral discussion or online tools like Jamboard or Nearpod to post thoughts.
  • Hot Now: Students collect current events and choose one they want to read, research and share in small group discussions.

Priority 4. Flexibility and Choice
Many students valued the flexibility that came with asynchronous learning. They said it allowed them to work at times that fit best with competing priorities such as jobs, family obligations and sleep.

  • “Flexject” student-choice projects: Students select and design a project aligned with learning outcomes while the teacher serves as a project mentor. Students have choice in everything from topic to format.
  • “Freaky Fridays” with students as teachers: Students establish leadership roles by leading activities like group conversations, ice breakers or lessons.

Click here to read the full publication on student insights about virtual learning.

Want to set up a Design Camp in your community? The publication resource provides a roadmap for making it successful – just click here and skip ahead to page 10.

About the Author

#PrincipalProject Team
#PrincipalProject Team

#PrincipalProject is a pop-up project where lead learners can collectively explore ideas and solutions to common challenges, facilitated by Teacher2Teacher.