3 Successful Strategies for Distance Learning (and 2 that Failed)

I’ve now been teaching online for a full month, due to COVID-19 closures in my state. Because of our spring break schedule we were able to make the switch to distance learning fairly quickly. Since then, I’ve tried (and failed at) several different strategies for teaching my sophomores and AP®* Lit students. Here are some strategies I’ve found that work, and a few that totally bombed.

*AP® is a trademark registered by the College Board, which is not affiliated with, and does not endorse, this website.

Disclaimer: My school requires mandatory conferences (similar to Zoom meetings) twice weekly as our “classes.” These conferences are at a set time and are required to last at least 15 minutes, with the option to last up to an hour. Our students are asked to attend and to submit homework, but late penalties are not being enforced. I’m just explaining this since many other schools are on different systems, so experiences may fluctuate based on teacher expectations.

What Worked – Discussion Posts

With traditional classes, I often rely on a lot of introductory Q & A or mini-discussions to engage students and introduce the concept of the lesson. Now that I’m online, I’m lucky if my students (who attend) have even turned on their mics. Because of technology capabilities, I’m usually the only one capable of talking in a standard class. After the first week of dead air, I switched tactics and posted short questions to our online discussion board before and after classes. I keep most of these discussion posts optional and ungraded, but my students are still participating. Although it’s not the same, it’s shown me that my students are still learning and staying (mostly) engaged. In fact, I’ll sometimes mention them in the next day’s lesson and that will illicit a response from a student who may have otherwise remained silent during our conference time.

What Didn’t Work – Required Discussion Post Responses

Another thing I’ve tried is requiring students to read each other’s discussion posts and to comment on them. I remember doing this often in online classes for my masters, so I figured it would be a great way mimic a classroom discussion. NOPE. Not only are my students not quite ready for the critical thinking demanded from this exercise, it’s really hard to make them care. Get ready for a lot of “I agree with you, great point with…” x 25 with this strategy. I quickly abandoned it, relying simply on the initial discussion post and leaving it there.

Lots of this. Not worth it, in my opinion.

What Worked – Optional Viewing Parties

As I transitioned to our new distance learning unit on heroes with my sophomores, I realized that I needed to integrate many movie clips. There were some lessons, such as our day studying superheroes, where I had six different movie clips to show. This put me in a difficult spot. I wanted my students to have the option of watching the movie, but I knew others needed to keep their lessons short (like my student who spends each day watching her 1-year-old brother while her mom works).

I decided to show the first clip as an attention-getter to the whole class, then move on to teach the material and assign the homework. After I finished, I invited students to stay for a “viewing party” for the remainder of the clips. It turns out half of the class stayed each time, while others signed off. I did the same when we were reading The Crucible. I offered a viewing party during my office hours for anyone who wanted to watch the movie, and again several students tuned in. This strategy is respectful of students’ time but also offers expansion or relational activities for students who need it.

What Didn’t Work – Classic Discussions

Once my AP® Lit classes moved online, I tried so hard to replicate our normal AP® Lit classes. The hardest day for me was the day I realized this was impossible. No matter what I did, I simply could not get my students to participate in a class discussion on our online platform. I chalk this failure up to several factors:

  • Low morale due to school closures (especially with my seniors)
  • Difficulty in being heard with various mic and tech issues
  • The struggle to be heard over others in a limited online setting
  • Fear of being wrong, sounding stupid, not doing the reading, etc. (typical reasons you’d see in a traditional classroom)

What Worked – Pre-Assigning Analytical Questions

Here’s what my pre-assigned questions look like on Schoology. Students respond to their assigned task in a discussion post-style forum and I can refer to them during the lesson.

After too many attempts at discussions during class I finally stopped and re-assessed what I needed. I needed to know 1) that my students were paying attention, 2) that they did the reading, and 3) that they were participating in analysis. Before our next class, I broke our lesson up into chunks and assigned 1 short question for each student. I asked the students to read over the upcoming lesson and texts and prepare an answer that they would “teach” to their peers during the lesson. The results were extraordinary! My students were poised and ready to share and we had no more awkward dead air. At the end of the lesson and we agreed: this was the best strategy for class going forward.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned with the transition to online teaching. Please reach out and share any more lessons you’ve learned during this time, as I’d love to hear them!

3 thoughts on “3 Successful Strategies for Distance Learning (and 2 that Failed)”

  1. How did your viewing party work from a logistical perspective? Did you stream the clip over Zoom by projecting your screen?

    Love the “teach your peers” idea!

    1. We don’t use Zoom, we use Schoology conferences. In a conference, they have the option to upload an external video which has worked great. I’m not sure what the equivalent is in Zoom but I bet there’s something.

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