Distance learning can feel impersonal and inaccessible, but there are ways to help students feel a sense of connection and access academic material.
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By Amanda Kern
As education adapted to the pandemic, teachers scrambled to create sustainable virtual spaces. Online instruction may never feel quite the same as live instruction, but it’s likely we’ll be doing it in the fall, and there are many simple ways we can create virtual classrooms that inspire and accommodate all learners.
CREATE A WELCOMING VIRTUAL SPACE
We can’t high-five our kids on their way into virtual classrooms, but there are other things we can do to give our virtual spaces some personality.
Start class with a greeting: And let students see your face. It adds a personal touch that makes students feel good about coming to your class.
Pose a question: Try asking, “How are you feeling today?” before jumping into content for the day. If you notice that a student has submitted a concerning response, send them a message to show you care.
Set an agenda: Include a learning target so that students know what to expect from the lesson. (I always provide at least one opportunity to take a break.)
DEVELOP A REWARD SYSTEM
Believe it or not, there are viable reward systems you can use in your virtual space.
Develop goals that respond specifically to your students’ struggles: For instance, one struggle I’ve had since switching to virtual learning is getting my students to attend my optional office hours. To address this, I developed a system: Each day that a student comes to office hours and completes the assignment, they get a raffle ticket. Then, at the end of the week, I collect all the tickets, draw a name, and send a pizza to that student’s house. They love it, and I consistently have great attendance at my office hours.
Other rewards might include unlocking a fun extra credit opportunity, mailing a certificate home, sending a positive message to parents, giving virtual homework passes, or earning a virtual dance party.
MAINTAIN HIGH EXPECTATIONS
As always, the first step to preventing distracting behavior is setting clear expectations.
Create a procedure for each virtual feature of your classroom: When are students allowed to be in these virtual spaces? Does an adult need to be present? When should students use the chat feature? Should the microphone be muted? Should they use the chat to ask questions?
Communicate your expectations before starting the lesson every day: Focus on behaviors that directly impact your virtual learning space, like “Only use the chat to type questions related to the lesson” or “Make sure your microphone is muted during the video.”
Remember that you control the virtual learning space: When students intentionally defy expectations in a way that disrupts learning (such as using profanity in the chat, repeatedly yelling, or playing loud music when their mic should be muted), remove them from the virtual learning environment if you can, and contact their parent or guardian to ensure that everyone is clear on the expectations.
REACH OUT TO AND SUPPORT FAMILIES
Consider the challenges that students and their families face. Is the student home alone while the parent works, perhaps taking care of other siblings in the home? Does the student have reliable access to technology? Does the student have a quiet space available where they can go to focus?
Reach out to families at least once a week: Learn what their struggles are, offer solutions when you can, and update them on student progress. Some students may need more frequent check-ins at first to stay accountable, so set aside time each day to make these contacts. Share accommodations that parents can try at home, such as using timers and allowing frequent breaks.
You will likely have to provide tech support to parents and students, so be patient and prepared to answer tech questions about your learning platform. You might make a Frequently Asked Questions flyer available.
Always reach out from a place of support: Phrase your communication positively and offer support. For example: “I noticed that Jasmine has not submitted her assignment today—what can I do to support her? Do you have everything you need for virtual learning?”
OFFER SCAFFOLDS THROUGHOUT THE LESSON
Expect that each activity may have students who need extra guidance. Provide a scaffold for each part of your lesson:
- If students are typing a free response, offer sentence starters beneath the prompt.
- If you teach a class that requires students to read, record yourself reading the chapter and offer a read-along option.
- If your class requires students to solve problems, provide extra video examples.
- Offer exemplar answers after giving students a chance to try on their own. It might seem counterintuitive to give kids the answers, but unless you’re assessing their understanding, it will do more good than harm.
USE ENGAGEMENT TECHNIQUES
Explore the features of your learning platform, and consider how they could be used to engage students:
- Prompt students to respond to a classmate’s thinking over chat.
- Call on students to read out loud to each other.
- Share your screen to highlight exemplary answers, shout out to students, or play videos.
- Allow students to share their screen to show their thinking.
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