This post was written by educator Emily Vizzo.
Back-to-school season is here, and for many educators, that means more distance learning. Despite the distance, though, you’re still the same kind, caring, and skilled educator. Positive energy, curiosity, and support translate through the screen, and your students can feel it.
Much of your existing practice can still be effective online. Higher-order questions, Socratic seminar, free writes, note taking, incorporating high-quality resources, ongoing formative assessment — these translate! You’ll find what works for you and your students, but here are some best practices to consider:
- Normalize tech issues. They’re part of life. We shrug them off and keep it moving.
- Review class expectations at each session’s start. Keep these short: visually display and quickly review. Ours: “Be present. Be respectful. Be curious. Be yourself!” Ask students to offer examples of what these mean to them.
- Normalize family interruptions. Quiet learning environments are ideal, but often not reality. When family or pets make unexpected visual or verbal appearances, just acknowledge and move on. “That’s OK, babies cry sometimes! Just turn your mic back off and let’s not worry. I’ll repeat my question.”
- Camera on? Great. Camera off? I understand. Students may have home conditions that they don’t feel safe sharing. Students might log on from a shelter, medical center, or their cars. Others may have anxiety about interacting on camera and that’s valid too.
- Weigh priorities. Engagement and participation outweigh strict grammar in the chat for me. Students desperately miss one another! Freely shared welcome greetings, shoutouts, and goodbyes in the chat can help students feel the space belongs to them.
- Keep your day and time consistent. Consider sending regular digital flyers listing meeting details, and add this information to email signatures. Nudge attendance with emails, calls, or texts 1-2 hours before sessions begin.
- Organize your screen. Extensions like Spectacle and Magnet will divide your screen into sections during live sessions. This helps track queued resources while you keep a steady eye on the class. (I also use Awesome Screenshot daily).
- Bookmark folders make a great archive. Before sessions, bookmark resources planned for use (I typically plan for more than needed to fine-tune lesson flow). Afterward, review bookmarks for possible repurposing or revisiting.
During the Lesson
- Welcome each student by name when they join. You can write names on sticky notes, making checks when they share responses to moderate participation. (If you’re a teacher who uses craft sticks in a jar, that works online, too).
- Consider beginning with a 2-3 minute free write. This creates a grace period as latecomers join or address technical issues. Look for standalone prompts or lesson openers. “What makes a fair society?” “If you started a business, what would it be?” Later, students can copy/paste favorite sentences into the chat or volunteer to read.
- Shorten chunking time. Students have more distractions at home, and it’s harder to monitor engagement. Shorter increments help students stay focused. Realistically, this might mean scaling back objectives to concretely focus on single concepts.
- Narrate the chat. Reading comments aloud helps students who might not be able to keep pace — especially when the chat is moving fast. Affirm students by name when engaging with their post. If a student wrote a lot, I ask if they’d like to read aloud.
- Ticket out the door. This works great online, too! For humanities, I sometimes ask for one takeaway they plan to share with families. Or, finish with quick assessments: “Type one sentence into the chat that correctly uses a semi-colon.”
- Paper and pen? Still OK. Online sessions don’t need to be totally digital. It’s fine for students to take notes, sketch models, make outlines, draw diagrams, and write in a notebook. They can easily hold it up to share.
- Guest speakers are great! I’ve invited guest speakers from the community, and it’s also fun to invite other teachers for guest speaking (be open to reciprocating).
- Mix it up. Your live sessions can include talent shows, leadership seminars, class parties, virtual clubs, informal social-emotional learning, and drop-in office hours for tutoring or saying hello.
Prep and Follow-up
- Check with your SPED lead. They can offer crucial recommendations for making your lesson as accessible as possible.
- Invite student videos. Not all students feel comfortable sharing live, but they might enjoy prerecording a video for screening during a session. During Women’s History Month, students sent 1-2 minute videos highlighting a woman they admired, ranging from Amelia Earhart to Cardi B. I also welcome student-recorded, peer-to-peer “motivational” videos!
- Touch base afterward. Just like in traditional classrooms, unexpected emotions and revelations can surface. My students have come out to peers, shared status as survivors of sexual abuse, discussed learning disabilities, and shared complex, intense feelings related to race or family immigration histories. You just can’t predict those moments. Following up helps you to affirm students and learn whether they want to continue the conversation.
Looking for more virtual learning resources? Check out Emily Vizzo’s post featuring 15+ National Geographic Education resources for engaging online lessons here.
Feature image by Rebecca Hale