Jennifer Snelling
students work on a laptop while a laughing teacher looks on

Probably every educator can relate to the missteps teachers made during the first few weeks of teaching remotely. Maybe you were guilty of holding up a textbook to the computer camera to show your students a picture that they couldn’t see clearly or maybe you created screenshots that were hard for some students to read.

Almost two years later, we’ve learned better ways to approach synchronous online learning. Instead of trying to use a physical textbook, most educators have learned to share information through the district learning management system, a Google Form or another platform.

In the beginning, says Nathan D. Lang-Raad, Ed.D., teachers tried to replicate in-person teaching over Zoom. “Students had trouble grappling with that because they weren’t given opportunities to do hands-on learning while the teachers showed the textbook on camera.”

Lang-Read and James V. Witty, Ed.D, Esq., literally wrote the book on how to teach more effectively using blended instruction. The Boundless Classroom: Designing Purposeful Instruction for Any learning Environment is a practical guide to lesson design in in-person, virtual or blended environments.

Here are a few tips from the pros for whatever classroom model you use:

1. Start with social-emotional learning  

We’ve all been through a lot the last couple of years. That’s why it’s important to embed a commitment to social-emotional learning into everything you do – whether in-person, online or hybrid.

“There’s a lot happening in the world, and that’s something that’s important to acknowledge at the beginning of the day,” Witty says. “Once we’ve acknowledged that, we can commit to learning each day.”

 Witty’s school begins each day with an optimistic welcome and closes similarly. In a
synchronous, remote learning environment, Witty suggests having each student use an emoji as they log in to indicate their feelings for the day. If you have a student with a frowny face, check in to see if everything’s all right.

2. Engage differently 

Adjusting to online teaching has required educators to rethink how to engage students.

For example, remember what a 45-minute lesson might have looked like before the pandemic? It may have typically been a lecture format.

Lang-Raad instead recommends breaking those 45 minutes up 3. into a powerful 7-9 minute lesson. Be sure to keep it concise and engaging. Activate prior knowledge by making a connection between what students will be learning and something they already know.

After the introduction, give students the opportunity to apply the knowledge or do manipulative practice. Some prompts might include:

“This story reminds me of  …”
“I was confused by …”
“I agree with this approach because …”

3. Engaging videos  

Videos are a great tool for hybrid or online learning strategies. They can also be put to good use in in-person settings. The key is to make the video engaging. Keep the focus on big ideas that allow the students to ask a large central question. Lang-add recommends starting every video with a big question. To keep the video from feeling stale, personalize it with a special greeting or inside joke that you share with your students. Remember to keep it fun!

Laang-Raad also suggests chunking the video up to create natural pauses so you can integrate assessments within the video. This works particularly well with asynchronous learning, where a teacher provides prompts, then students pause the video to respond.

Bring the Awesome Sauce to Your Classroom

Given staff shortages and all the extra work teachers are being asked to take on right now, it pays to be internal about maximizing time. Work smarter by working collaboratively with other teachers. Sharing those engaging instructional videos you just made is one way to work as a team.

Capitalize on different blended learning models and select the one that works best for you. Ask yourself the following questions:

“What do you want students to control in the blended learning context?”
“What do you want teachers to control in the blended learning context?”

5. Change assessments

Lang-Raad and Witty suggest changing the way we assess students so that the assessment is more authentic and engaging. One example might be asking the students to do a dialogue journal. Provide a prompt, such as, “What was your favorite thing you learned today?” or “Talk about what this passage meant to you.”

Student can write their answer on a Google slide, the teacher can pop into the slide and ask another question based on their answer. With this method, a teacher sees what level of thinking the student is engaging at. Online learning is a perfect time to respond to a student’s formative assessment with video feedback on the student’s artifact.

 “We are adamant about putting students in charge of their learning,” Witty says. Reflective video journals, designing solutions to real-world problems, peer-to-peer debates.

 We need to be forward thinking because we wont go back to where we were before the pandemic,” Witty says. “Students are used to living in a virtual space and having boundless classrooms available 24/7.” 

The Boundless Classroom

Jennifer Snelling (@jdsnelljennifer) is a blogger from Eugene, Oregon, who writes about educators using technology to empower students and change the way we learn.