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.

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, since 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. I feel like 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 as I waited for someone to speak up. I asked them for feedback at the end of the lesson and we all agreed: this was the best strategy for AP Lit 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!

Advertisements

Tips And Strategies For Converting To Digital Teaching

As I’m writing this, I’m getting bombarded with communication regarding COVID-19. Teachers that I follow virtually and some that I know personally were just notified that their classes are being moved to online-only, and some have been given almost no time to prepare. In general, teachers in America are freaking out. And for good reason. We’ve been focusing on building relationships through engaging, face-to-face classroom instruction, and suddenly almost all of those descriptors have been taken away. Folks, we’re converting to online teaching.

The good news for us is that this is only temporary. We must find a way to adapt and carry on. However, most of us don’t have the luxury of a two-week vacation and instead are told to carry on our classroom instruction…via the internet.

Well I spent some time brainstorming and a little bit of time researching and I’ve come up with an acronym to keep in mind when transitioning to temporary online instruction. Tell yourself to look for GAPS:

Converting to Online teaching
Converting to online teaching – this acronym can help you when you aren’t sure what you’re expected to deliver.

Gracious

You are likely feeling frustrated or frightened of a sudden change in workspace, but remember that most of your students probably feel the same way. As you design due dates and determine what your students will do with their time at home, consider their abilities when working at home. Ask yourself: will all my students have access to these materials?* Will my students be juggling other stressors in their life related to this emergency? How much other homework is being given in other classes? Above all, if a student is struggling with the transition to online, make yourself available and be gracious in helping them cope with this change. Consider having “office hours” and hosting a Google Hangout once a week so students can chat with you if they have questions.

*Note: Do not require students to continue to work online unless your school mandates this. Not all schools or families are equipped for this setup!

Adaptable

Along with graciousness, make sure you remain flexible as you and your students transition to an online learning environment. Don’t be surprised if your plan fails, technology doesn’t work (warning: it won’t always work), or communication isn’t clear. Plan for confusion, and be ready to roll with it as needed.

Prepared

The best way to go forward in this new territory is with an organized plan. This does not mean you have to have all elements planned, troubleshooted, and prepared before day 1. However, you should aim to be planned at least one day ahead. Also, make sure you preview all materials you require your students to complete, view, or take, and consider what you will do if any of these plans need adjusting.

Specific

To avoid complications or miscommunication, it is important to be as specific as possible when transitioning to online learning. Be clear on what you require versus what is supplementary. Specify what you need completed before an assessment, and when an assessment is due. Finally, explain how you are available for help and the best way for students to reach you. Clear communication and guidelines will only save time for both you and your students.

Now that you’ve got the right mindset to approach this new change, it’s time to prepare your materials. Rather than start from scratch, look for ways to work smarter, not harder. Rely on materials that are already posted online for your lessons, supplementary materials, or even for assessments. See my list at the bottom of this article for several resources you can access to assisting you in online teaching. As you organize materials to post to your students, sort them into categories. I’ve taken my materials on How to Read Literature Like a Professor and divided them out so you can see how this translates to high school ELA.

Converting to Online Teaching
Converting to online teaching – Here’s a breakdown of what you can offer your students but what doesn’t HAVE to be required to avoid overload.

Pre-Lesson Work

This refers to the material you want done before students take any assessments, participate in discussions, or post any assignments. This would also exclude the lesson materials themselves. Assigned readings or homework are the most common criterial for pre-lesson work. It is very important to be clear on what needs to be done before they progress, and that it students must do it before anything else.
Example: Students must:
– read chapters 1-3 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor

Online Lesson

Here is where you include materials you have created or cultivated to assist in student learning. Consider, what do they need to meet this lesson’s objective? If you are able, post your own materials here. This would include handouts, lecture notes, or even a video you’ve created of your content. To save time, consider posting online materials that teach the same content.
Example: Students must:
– review the guided reading notes correlating with How to Read Literature Like a Professor chapters 1-3

Supplementary Materials

When posting supplementary materials, consider your most at-risk or high-needs students. What extra help would they need to meet your lesson’s objective? Remember that while you want all students to see it, these resources are ultimately optional. If you need students to do it, move it to the online lesson. While it can be easy to eliminate supplementary materials, you can integrate them to engage your students with a simple media clip. See my related post on integrating media to engage your students.
Example: Students can:
– watch the video “The Beauty of the Dinner Scene” on YouTube (correlating with chap 2)

Discussion Opportunity

This is an optional element, but most teachers (and students!) find themselves missing the interpersonal aspect of the classroom once the learning moves online. If you can, incorporate a discussion forum or other method where students can still see, read, or hear from one another.
Example: Students must:
– Post to the discussion forum online and answer the following question: Provide an example of a “vampire” archetype from a book, movie, or short story. Explain how this character fits the archetype as Foster describes in chapter 1.

Demonstration of Understanding

If you’ve been mandated to move learning online, this is the required part. Basically, this is the grade. What assessments will your students take to show demonstration of learning? In keeping with the GAPS tip, consider providing several options for demonstration of learning. See below:
Example: Students must:
– Complete one of the following assessments:
1) Quiz on chapters 1-3 (this quiz can only be attempted once and is timed!)
2) Write a literary analysis of a text that aligns with chapter 3 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (see corresponding rubric)
3) Create a visual guide for “spotting a vampire” aligning with chapter 2 of How to Read Literature Like a Professor (see corresponding rubric).

I hope this article helped you learn how to approach the new paradigm that is online teaching. I’d love to hear additional tips from those with more experience or perspectives. To conclude, here are some parting tips as you approach this new teaching design:

Parting Tips on Converting to Online Teaching

  • Pick a learning platform you can use if your school doesn’t have one. Canvas, Moodle, and Google Classroom are all free and very popular among teachers. If these are too complicated, consider simply starting a blog and posting to that. Students would only need a website instead of any joining code. 
  • Break big assignments or big-point assessments into numbered steps. 
  • Don’t feel like you have have everything done before students begin work. Approach this experience like a first year teacher – stay organized, and be at least one day ahead. 
  • At the same time, remember that even though you’re at home, you’re still teaching and it’s still work. Don’t expect to get everything done in just one hour. Think of this way: your students are required to use their at-home time on school work and you want them to meet all of your expectations. They deserve the same from you. 
  • Allow yourself to use lesson materials and assessments that already exist. Websites like Teachers Pay Teachers, Turnitin.com, Khan Academy, and so many more already offer learning resources for instruction and assessments that can save you hours of time, and many of them are available for free!

Resources to Assist in Converting to Online Teaching:

Learning Platforms:

For Lessons & Supplementary Materials:

Additional Blogs/Websites with Ideas & Tips