The month of March brought about rapid and unforeseen changes to the way we live our daily lives – changes that we unfortunately weren’t able to spend summer curriculum hours preparing for. In seemingly the blink of an eye, so many of us have gone from face-to-face instruction to designing online distance learning lessons for our students of all ages.
As I set off to tackle this new way of teaching, I worried about how we would start this work with our school-aged students who are equally unacclimated to this digital mode of daily learning from home. I wanted to set my students up for success and not overwhelm them or their families in a time that is already filled with much angst and worry. I also wanted to create an online classroom that provided some structure and connection that many of our students are no doubt craving as their days, too, have been turned upside down.
Sifting through the resources, podcasts, and conversations with colleagues, I am sharing the three tips that I found most helpful when embarking on this work. As we launch our digital classrooms, we need to consider how we are teaching into and setting students up for success in both their physical environments and digital environments, and how we can foster our now online classroom community.
1. Physical Environment
Set up a comfortable and productive “classroom space” for both you and your students.
I don’t know about you, but it took me a while to figure out where I was going to set up my own “classroom” at home. I have lugged crates of books, notebooks, papers, folders, binders, markers, chart paper, etc. home with me. First, I tried my bedroom as my teaching-learning space and I quickly realized that my bed was not making a good backdrop for my Zoom meetings or pre-recorded read-alouds! So I moved to my kitchen where my quarantined teenagers were frequenting the fridge and pantry too often for me to be able to concentrate. I finally found a spot that I settled on in my living room. It’s not perfect, but it’s the best option that I found so far and it’s working pretty well.
Here is my colleague Ashley’s digital classroom set up:
Finding a physical space where we can concentrate and focus on our work is important, and this is one of the first things we need to teach our students. When we are learning from home, we need to look around our house and consider what spaces work best for us.
I like to create a chart for students as we talk about these considerations for our physical space:
- Noise level: First, we need to think about the noise level. Is the spot that we are choosing free from noise that is distracting? Siblings, other family members, the television, video games are all things that can create noise and distractions that can easily pull our focus away from our work.
- Lighting: Additionally, we need to consider the lighting in our space to be sure we can see the materials that we are working on without straining our eyes.
- Seating: We may also want to consider things like the type of seating we work best in. I work best sitting in a chair with a firm back; I find that it keeps me alert. If I sit in my bed or living room chair, for example, I actually get a little too comfy and find myself daydreaming or worse, drifting off!
- Materials: Just like when we are in the classroom, we want to make sure we have all of the materials we need for our classwork. Think about having a place for your books, notebooks, pencils, markers, etc. so that you have these handy and ready for your digital classroom work.
Talk through these important considerations and any others you or your students may come up with and ask them to share out where in their homes they’ve found best for their “at-home classroom”. Some students may find spaces that can be permanently set up for school – that is ideal; however, this is not always possible. For some students, they may be finding a good learning spot each new day.
2. Digital Environment
Start with technology tools that are simple to use and that you and your students feel comfortable with.
There are many amazing tech tools and enticing platforms available, and I want to learn how to use them all! As I started to prepare my digital classroom, I had to keep reminding myself, these tools/platforms are here to help leverage my teaching, and I do not need to become an overnight master of all things tech!
In addition to prioritizing what we tackle from the tech side of things, we also need to teach our students about and acclimate them to the digital platforms we will be using. We need to be careful not to make assumptions that all of our students are tech-savvy and digital natives and therefore do not need to be taught how to access and use the online components of their new digital environments.
It is best to start simple here by using, whenever possible, tools that you and your students have already used in the past. If you are learning around any new tools, choose ones YOU are most comfortable with. Our school already utilizes Google Classroom in most of our grade levels, so we are sticking with that as our primary way to share information with students and families. In addition to this, I found Flipgrid and Seesaw platforms to be extremely user-friendly for both teachers and students. There are a ton of different options available that are amazing, but in the beginning, simple is best. (Note: You can always add more tech tools as your comfort level increases!).
Then orient students to your digital classroom.
Once you have your digital classroom up and running, you will want to give students an overview and tour of the setup.
- Introduce the tech tools: Show students how to access and log in to all components that they will be using and allow students time to orient and practice.
- Set up routines and expectations: Teach students what routines to expect in this digital learning space and what responsibilities they will have. This is much like your very first week of school when you teach students how to navigate their physical classroom(s) and go over the class schedule and responsibilities. Be sure to address: When are live sessions being scheduled? Where can they find recorded sessions? What predictable structures will be in place for assignments and asking for help?
I’ve included two video examples for your viewing. One is a lesson on what to expect in online lessons. Here is an anchor chart that accompanies this lesson:
The other lesson is a quick lesson to teach students how to use our Flipgrid platform.
Neither video is perfect or edited; I created both of these in one take. As you embark on this work, I strongly urge all of you to embrace “good is good enough” and get your teaching out to students without overloading yourselves with perfectionism and video editing.
3. Building Your Digital Classroom Community
Reestablish your classroom community (only digitally this time!).
Before diving right into the academics, we need to take time to reconnect and reestablish our classroom community. As much as possible, we want to give students opportunities to see their teachers’ and classmates’ faces, as this builds a more intimate connection in the distant digital space.
Verbal communication: Communicating and interacting with one another in online platforms feels different than when everyone is sharing the same physical space. We need to acknowledge this and give students more wait time for response and participation. Allowing students to set up thinking prior to sharing out verbally or in the chatbox is also helpful. Demonstrating how to use features like muting when another is sharing, hand raising, and even using gestures are also important to include in your first days online together.
Nonverbal communication: Additionally, it’s important to point out that much of online communication takes place nonverbally. Our facial expressions can say a lot when our faces are featured in boxed windows! To prepare students (and yourself), set up some whole-class conversations around relevant topics to reconnect and give students practice interacting in their new digital platform.
As you go along, you may consider co-creating an etiquette chart that captures these rules and norms of how to participate in your new digital classroom. I’ve included an example here.
I hope these tips are helpful to you as you navigate this uncharted territory! Leave us a comment below to share what is working in your digital classroom or things you would like us to post next!
Thanks to the tips and tools Kristen Ziemke and Katie Muhtaris are putting out there for teachers! Check out their site for more distance learning support and ideas: Read the World
Thanks, also, to Maggie Beattie Roberts for the brainstorming and conversation around distance learning! Learn more from Maggie at: Kate and Maggie