With the start of the school year upon us, and most of us doing some type of online teaching, I wanted to share some thoughts I have about what makes great virtual teaching. Our school frantically switched to 100% online during spring break this year without much preparation. We had very little time to launch our online platform, thus we focused almost exclusively on just making it happen. I didn’t give much thought about what are best online practices, or how we facilitate comprehensible input online, or what good teaching in general looks like online until after the school year was over and I time to reflect. The teachers I coach are amazing. Through a lot of trial and error, they created some beautifully done lessons that engaged students and taught the content in a way that stuck. I had the advantage of having a bird’s eye view of the amazing work our teachers did, and I took advantage of this to create a list of things that worked the best for kids. And here, I present to you that list.
#1 – Less is more
When we first started teaching online, we tried to literally take an in-person curriculum (with all of the in-person academic demands), and just put it online. Kids took 7 classes a day, an hour each, and teachers just moved their lesson plans online. The result was that our kids started dropping like flies. They were so overwhelmed that they started giving up. Parents were angry, kids were angry, and no academic progress was being made. After a few weeks of this, we decided as a school to cut academic requirements basically in half. We reduced class time requirements and had teachers give 1 assignment only each week, instead of an assignment every day. Students went from 35 assignments due a week (1 assignment each day for each class) to 7 assignments due a week. The results were positive. Attendance skyrocketed, submission rates increased, and kids actually engaged and learned.
My advice is, if you can, to focus on depth and quality of assignments rather than quantity. The more work you try to give, the less effective it will be online.
#2 – Clarity
Online classes can be really hard to navigate for students and parents. In a high school especially, kids will have 7 classes with 7different teachers. That means 7 different sets of expectations, organization, and directions. To avoid this, prioritize how you organize your classroom. If possible, norm as a school or as a grade level team what platform you will use and how you will organize it. At our school, after realizing how difficult it was for kids to see 7 different Google Class organizations, we created a checklist and criteria for success for how to organize an online class. It looked like this:
– Google Class is organized by week titled “8/24-8/28”
– Sub tabs in the week are titled by day as “8/24” or “8/25”
– Each week has a student-facing Week at a Glance
– Week at a Glance has all links embedded
– All assignments / exit tickets are done through Google forms
– Every week has an introduction video
– Introduction video breaks down each day
– Week at a Glance is time-stamped for students.
Limit yourself to 1 online platform and don’t change.
When our school first started online teaching, we ran into this problem hard. Our math teachers were using a math website, our ELA teachers were using EdPuzzle, our History teachers were using Khan Academy, our Spanish teachers were using Señor Wooly, and etc… The amount of frustration and confusion this caused for kids and families was so enormous and affected our attendance and submission rate. My advice – get with your colleagues and decide on 1 or 2 online platforms that you will use as a team. If that’s not possible, then you as their teacher should at least choose and stick to only 1 only platform that you use each week. If it’s way different than your colleagues’ platforms, then make sure the first couple of assignments are about learning how to use the platform. Don’t just give a list of directions along with an assignment. This is stressful. Make “figuring out this platform” the assignment. Make clear instructional videos where you model how to access and use this platform. Make a scavenger hunt as an assignment where kids get credit for just figuring out how to submit something. Give lots of time and space for kids to figure out your platform before assigning content-specific work on it.
Clear grading policy and expectations
With in-person classes, I give lots of different “assignments” each day. I have a Do Now, class work, stop and jots, write and discuss, reading annotations, exit tickets, and etc. I don’t always grade everything each day, and sometimes I don’t even look at all of the “work” that students have. I can do this while I’m in person because I’m there, physically, to remind kids what is “due” and what is just for them to keep notes on. That prevents confusion and lets kids know EXACTLY what is being turned in for a grade, and what isn’t. The same idea goes for my grading policy. Even though I lay out my policy at the beginning of each year, students need constant reminder and reinforcement about what I grade, how I grade it, and what they need to do to earn the grade they want. Without this, they would be confused and “check out”, even in person.
With online classes, we don’t have the luxury of being with our students every day, constantly reminding them. We get few chances to get the directions, expectations, and grading policy in front of students in a way they will understand. Most students log in, skim directions, and try to jump straight into the work. If they get confused, few will reach out for clarification, a lot of others will get frustrated and give up. So, it’s really important that our expectations are clear and students can state exactly what is due, when it’s due, where it’s due, and how it will be graded. Label what is going to be graded and what is not. Make it consistent each day / week so kids can get into a rhythm.
To help with gaining clarity in online classes, I coach my teachers to always include a Criteria For Success (CFS) and an Exemplar. A CFS is like a checklist that students see. If they do all things on the checklist, they get X grade. If they only do 4/5 things, they get points deducted, and so on. Here’s an example:
CFS for a “Write what you did over the weekend”:
– Write in complete sentences
– Write at least 5 sentences
– Include at least 3 new vocabulary words
– Write 100% in Spanish
An exemplar is when you write the BEST answer possible that a kid could write, and show it to students as a guide, or as an example they can look at to know what the bar of excellence is. Example:
Yo fui a la tienda con mi familia. Yo compré ropa, mi mamá compró comida. Después, nosotros limpiamos la casa. Después, yo mire videos en TikTok. Después, yo mire una película en Netflix con mi familia.
Giving an exemplar and a clear CFS that kids can see is one of the best ways to clear up directions, expectations, and grading policy.
#3 – Give Consistent Feedback
One of the best ways to keep students engaged in your online class is to give as much feedback to them as you possibly can. When students get immediate (ish) feedback on assignments they do, they are much more likely to continue doing the work for your class and doing it better. Some ways to give feedback are:
– Show off student work – Each week, take some screenshots or pictures of some exemplar work and post it on your Google classroom / online platform. Write a mini paragraph or shout that student out in a video. Something like “welcome to week 2, here’s some great work that Mike did last week”, goes a long way.
– Quick feedback – Feedback doesn’t have to long or in depth. If students did a short writing, multiple choice, or a drawing activity along with a listening, just write in their grade book or somewhere they will see it “I loved your elephant … I also went to the store! … you got 9/10 right, great work!”. This lets students know that you are actually looking at their work, and you’re giving individualized feedback, meaning that the work they’re doing is meaningful.
– Prioritize updating grades – As hard as it can be sometimes, it’s really important to update grades as frequently as possible. When students submit work, they want to know immediately what they got. When teachers take 2-3 weeks to update grades, students stop taking those classes as seriously. This is due to many reasons – lack of feedback means they lose confidence, they lose interest, or they start working harder in other classes that they are getting frequent grades in. Update your grades are frequently as possible.
#4 Check For Understanding
Checking for understanding means that you are pausing throughout your online classes (either synchronous or asynchronous) and checking to make sure the students are “with you.” This can look a lot of ways – asking questions, giving students space to write / talk, giving quick polls / quizzes, etc. The “what not to do” with online classes is give 20-30 minute lectures (live or recorded) without ever stopping to give students time to prove that they are learning. I’m a fan of “chunking”, where you lecture / teach for 5-7 minutes, then stop and have students do some type of work. This can look like stop and jots, quick polls, quick true/false, etc. They can do this in a zoom chat, on a Google worksheet, or they can come off of mute and tell you an answer. Here are some of my favorite ways to check for understanding online:
– Word apps – Try menti.com, wordcloud.com, or miro.com. These are platforms that allow students to enter a number in their phone, type their answer to a question that you ask, and it will appear on your slide.
– Kahoot – This one is a classic. If you haven’t tried kahoot yet, you’re SO missing out! It’s free, user friendly, and allows for instant checks for understanding.
– Warm calling – If you’re teaching synchronous, try doing some “warm calling”. This is where you say “in one minute, I’m going to call on someone to come off mute and answer the following question…”. Then, you can send a private message to a student and tell him/her that you are going to call on them, and ask them if they need help with the answer. This allows that student to be successful when you call on them, while still holding the rest of the students accountable to think of the answer.
– Nearpod – Nearpod is another online tool you can use to teach. And again, if you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out! (I just learned about it myself). It’s like a mixture of zoom, power point, kahoot, menti, and prezi. It’s really, really, cool, and allows for instant checks for understanding. It’s also great for synchronous and asynchronous.
#5 – Discussion Threads on Social Media
It’s 2020. Our students live online, and it’s time we take advantage of that. One of the best things I’ve seen from online classes are teachers creating professional profiles on facebook, instagram, and TikTok. At my school, when we need to get information out to students, we put it on our student council-sponsored instragram account, and it blows up. I’ve seen teachers create professional facebook accounts where students add questions, answer questions, and help each other out about the homework. And of course, TikTok! If you are unfamiliar, TikTok is an app where you can upload 60-second videos. One of the most popular types of videos are tutorials (I’m addicted to the gym, cooking, and dance tutorials). So, why WOULD’T you, as a teacher, make a tutorial for your work / platform on TikTok and send it to your students? Do it!