It’s 9 a.m. Monday morning and you are logging into your first virtual learning session with your class of second graders. You are greeted by a few smiling faces, several blank screens, and some other random body parts. You encourage everyone to turn on their cameras and continue with your lesson. Instead of focusing, students start drawing on their digital whiteboards, turning on the mics to talk, taking pictures and sharing them, and generally getting out of hand with the technology. Other students also need your help with their studies and their technology. What can you do?
Covid-19 has forced many students and teachers out of the physical classroom and into a virtual one with a whole new list of struggles. Early childhood educators might have it the hardest as their young learners have short attention spans, are not used to being in front of a computer for long periods (let alone to take a class), most likely do not understand the technology they are being asked to use, and will struggle with engagement and discipline with an online instructor. Below are 20 suggestions and tips to assist you with running an engaging virtual classroom.
It is easy to want to try all the new and exciting tools that have been created for educators and their students. From Seesaw to Clever, Class Dojo to Edmodo, Khan Academy to Kahoot, and dozens more; these are all great applications and resources, but you must choose just a few so as not to overwhelm your students. Your school district might mandate which tools you use, but if they don’t, I’d recommend choosing no more than three or four to start and adding more later if you feel your students are up to the challenge. In my district, for example, we started by using Clever to log in to all of our other applications, Seesaw for the largest chunk of our instructional time, Class Dojo for behavior management, and Epic.
Introduce New Tools Slowly
This tip might sound a lot like the one above, but I promise you that it is different. Whether you are starting with virtual learning or within the physical classroom, you need to introduce each piece of technology one at a time if possible. You don’t want to overwhelm the students and parents with information and instruction whether it be on your video calls with your students or through email with the parents. The best way to introduce a new tool is to start with fun, non-graded activities so that your students can learn the ropes without feeling any pressure. We let our students play around with the many features of SeeSaw such as drawing and taking pictures before starting instructional activities.
Have Your Administration Give You Access to a Student Version of an Account
Something that really helped me as a teacher is seeing what the students see when they look at their Seesaw or other application. It is very difficult to help them navigate through the tool if you only know how the teacher side looks. Your district could have just one account that all teachers can log into. This way you are familiar with what the student is seeing, and you can better guide them when they have technical questions and perhaps even screen share.
Students demonstrate both wanted and unwanted behaviors in the classroom, but the virtual classroom lends to a whole new world of behaviors and discipline. Students will not be used to receiving discipline through a computer screen, but hopefully, these tips will help the class run smoothly.
- Establish a Regular Schedule: Just as elementary teachers usually have a morning meeting with a schedule for the day when we are in the physical classroom, there should be a set schedule for the virtual classroom. Students need stability, especially in uncertain times. A schedule will make it so that students always know what to expect.
- Involvement: Encourage engagement and participation by starting class with something fun that students will look forward to and won’t want to miss.
- Use a Reward System to Encourage Positive Behavior: An example of this would be the application Class Dojo or a reward system that you physically hold during the video call that they add stickers/tokens to. This might lead to them having free time on a drawing portion of your educational application or them earning a dance break with a video you screen share. Get creative!
- Set Clear Goals and Celebrate Milestones: At the beginning of the school year and regular intervals, set individual and classroom goals. Let your students be a part of this goal-setting so that they take ownership of the situation and work harder to achieve them. Celebrate your goals and milestones along the way with things like certificates or congratulatory videos!
- Check-in On Their Emotional Well-Being: It’s no secret that we love our students but that can be harder to convey when we are only communicating with them through a computer screen. Try to make a habit of learning about what is going on in their lives outside of the computer screen. Have them answer a prompt about their day or week by drawing pictures, writing, or making a video depending on your grade level.
- Use Props as Attention Grabbers:
Problem behaviors are less likely to occur when students are engaged. We all know that students prefer to be active, but it’s just a fact that sometimes they will have to sit and listen. Using puppets and other household items as props to grab their attention is a skill I’ve brought to the classroom from teaching ESL classes online.
- Focus on Communication: When building a community among our students, establishing trust through communication is a crucial step. Whether it is with parents or directly with students, it is key that we have a system down concerning how we will communicate.
- Play Icebreaker Style Games: These will help students get to know one another if you are starting our school year on zoom or a similar platform. Even if you did start your school year in the physical classroom these games are great to continue to foster a sense of community and fun. The students no longer have centers and recess together. Try having a scavenger hunt or playing Pictionary.
- Have Students Record Videos of Themselves: Students love playing with the camera and having an adult help them record a video to introduce themselves to the class can really help build a sense of community if your school year has been virtual from the start.
- Make Time in Class for Students to Share Their Smiles and Frowns. Be Sure to Participate: Students need to feel connected. A great way to accomplish this is by giving them time to talk. They do need some structure however when doing this so this NY Times article suggested sharing smiles and frowns, which are the ups and downs of their day or week, however often you choose to incorporate this. Be sure to participate in this activity so that your students feel a sense of closeness with you as well.
- Include Pieces of Yourself: Throughout your assignments and class time together insert your heart and soul into the curriculum. Become a real person to them not just a task giver. Show them pictures of your family. Let your cat make an appearance (This could even be a reward!). Talk to them about what you are going to do after class is over. Create and use your Bitmoji if you haven’t already!
- Try Video Creating Responses to Students Questions: Your students love hearing from you, and they will connect with you even more if you send them a video message instead of just a text email. A video message can also be used to explain something visually or to answer the same question from a large group of students.
- Use Multimedia: Remember that students learn differently. Using various forms of instructional media such as videos, text, and audio will not only keep students engaged but will ensure they are learning in a way that is meaningful to them.
- Let Students Explore: Give your students a chance to explore the many fun and educational tools that come with the applications you are using. You may be surprised by how much they will learn. Also, our students were born into the age of technology. Let them teach you something!
- Allow Students to Demonstrate their Learning in Multiple Ways: Be sure to still include hands-on projects, not just online quizzes or video projects. Students can present physical projects by taking a picture of it or by sharing it in your virtual class meeting.
- Use Both Synchronous and Asynchronous Learning: Some students will thrive in the virtual classroom while others will struggle. Be sure to give equal instruction in the online classroom and through offline text, videos, and projects.
- Virtual Field Trips: Complement video lectures with virtual field trips, which allows students to interact with digital replicas of museums, landscapes, and many other environments. Resilient Educator has curated a list of virtual museum exhibits, virtual social studies tours, and even virtual scientific field trips that can be highly engaging for an online audience.
- Receive Training From People Who Teach Virtually for a Living: https://sites.google.com/outschool.com/teaching-online/home?pli=1&authuser=1
- Check out Resilient Educator’s “Tech Try It! Series”: More tips about creating engaging online lessons and replicating your classroom culture for a virtual environment.
- Integrating Technology in the Classroom: Resilient Educator has curated helpful links for teachers to help showcase how to utilize technology to create an engaging learning experience. Discover strategies and platforms that can be useful for online educators.
Andrea Earp is an early childhood educator from Pennsylvania. She is also a freelance writer focusing on education. In her free time, you will find her working at Build-a-Bear workshop making kids smile or at home playing board games with her fiancé and friends. She can be found on Instagram @findyourfightsong16.