10 Activities for Building Community in Virtual Spaces

by Jonathan Osler

My grandmother Sylvia meeting my daughter for the first time in 2010.

Over my 20+ year career as a high school teacher and principal, university instructor in teacher education, parent organizer, and nonprofit leader, I developed facilitation practices that were engaging and equity-centered.

But in March 2020, when Zoom took over my work world, I had to quickly pivot and identify new practices for cultivating community in online environments.

Knowing that these environments can stymie authentic connections, and often reinforce the same inequitable practices and cultures that were present before the pandemic, I focused on activities that use storytelling to create brave spaces. Below are some of the activities that have resonated the most with colleagues and students.

Storytelling Prompts

  • Tell us about a family member, living or dead, who has had an important impact on your life.
  • Tell us a story about something kind you did for another person, or, tell us a story about something kind another person did for you.
  • Share a food memory that is connected to a family custom or tradition.
  • Talk about joy. When was the last time you felt joyful? Tell us the story.
  • Share a story about a time when you did something challenging that took a lot of courage? Or share about something a friend, family, or colleague did that you considered to be really brave.

Two Truths and a Lie

Just Like Me

  • This person gets sad sometimes, just like me…
  • This person brings joy to others, just like me…
  • This person is under pressure, just like me…
  • This person Is super powerful, just like me…
  • This person feels far away from a loved one, just like me…
  • This person has fears, just like me, just like me…
  • [Does anyone in the group want to add any?]

Treasure Hunt

3 of the many books from the Black Lives Matter bookshelf that are read by celebrities, activists, and artists.

Black Lives Matter Bookshelf

Which two words best describe how you’re feeling right now?

Mood Chart

Awards Ceremony

Prepare a series of slides with awards, trophies, or certificates on them which can be easily created using Canva, using categories like the ones below. Share the slides with your participants and have each person select someone else in the group they want to give an award to. Each participant then has a chance to to share who they are giving their award to, and why.

Award/certificate categories could include:

  • Brightens The Day
  • Did Something Caring
  • Went Out Of Their Way To Help
  • Supported Me on a Challenging Project
  • Is Inspirational

A twist on this activity is to have participants create a Bitmoji avatar which they paste into a shared deck that contains the awards you have made. Participants can then move each others’ avatars next to a trophy or copy/paste them next to multiple trophies. This approach ensures everyone gets at least one award. Once the sorting is done, provide participants with an opportunity to talk about who they are recognizing and why, so the group can hear the stories behind the recognitions.

Breakout Quotes

An example of a quote that could generate powerful conversations between colleagues is from Michelle Obama:

“Do not bring people in your life who weigh you down. And trust your instincts … good relationships feel good. They feel right. They don’t hurt. They’re not painful. That’s not just with somebody you want to marry, but it’s with the friends that you choose. It’s with the people you surround yourselves with.”

That’s Me

  • I ate something delicious last weekend
  • I have taken a few meditative or mindful moments in the past week
  • Someone in this group did something kind for me recently
  • There are some things going on in my personal or family life that are weighing heavily on my heart today
  • I experienced negative treatment because of my identity in a previous workplace (or class)

Billboard Chart

Integrating these activities into your lesson plans or meeting agendas will help foster a deeper sense of community among your colleagues or students. You may find yourself with less time to cover some of the other business items or course content, but the tradeoff is definitely worthwhile. People who feel known, appreciated, and connected are more likely to experience a feeling of belonging and embrace the humanity in their peers.

Facilitating these activities will require attention to participation structures that ensure all voices are heard — a topic I’ll cover in a future post.

I’d love to hear from you if there are activities I can add to this list, questions you have about implementing these practices, or experiences you’ve had as a facilitator or participant that you’d be comfortable sharing.


How enduring 9/11 memories from Brooklyn shaped me as a teacher

My first day of student teaching in Brooklyn, New York, was on Sept. 11, 2001, the day Marlyn died on the 101st floor of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. Continue.

Buying My Way Into an Oakland Public School