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10 tips to succeed with e-learning

ISTA member Amanda Burman is a language arts teacher at Bluffton High School. Burman shares her tips for making the transition to online teaching successful.

School buildings may be closed, but school is still in session. Teachers have been tossed into a world of virtual teaching. It has been scary, frustrating and amazing. Now, can you imagine how the students feel? Probably the same.

I have been teaching for a decade and part of that time was with a virtual school. That’s right, I started as a brick-and-mortar teacher, then moved to a virtual school and back to brick-and-mortar. I was pulled back into my natural habitat three years ago after missing the community that a classroom brings. I currently teach English 9 and 11 and publications with yearbook and newspaper.

Here are some tips on how to prepare, adjust and rock your online teaching.

  1. Set Expectations: As soon as you can, make a list of expectations, just like you did in the beginning of the year for your classroom. Topics you should discuss: How should students find their work? How will students turn in work? How should the student or accountability partner (I don’t call them parents, because often this person is a grandparent, older sibling or babysitter) contact you? This is also a good time to reassure them – this is a hard time, but we are all in this together. I recommend doing this via a video, hearing your voice and seeing your face helps everyone. 
  2. Weekly Plans: I urge you to make weekly plans that you send out at the beginning of the week. I send my weekly plan for all my classes via email and a Google Document on Sunday evenings. I include as many links as I can so students and accountability partners can see what is coming for that week. Please realize that even if your school has a learning management system (LMS), not all accountability partners know how to navigate it. The extra step of a weekly preview keeps everyone on the same page. Also, giving weekly plans avoids overwhelming everyone, yourself included.
  3. Record Lessons: The days of walking around the classroom and working through a quick lesson with amazing visuals made with Google Slides or PowerPoints are gone. We need to still show up for our students though! I record lessons with my face visible, using my already solid content. I have used Screencastify and Zoom to do these videos on my computer. You can be seen and use visual aids.
  4. 15 Minute Pre-recorded Lessons: As mentioned before, recording lessons is a must. Take a deep breath, because I am going to rock your teacher world – keep your lessons under 15 minutes. These students can’t sit in front of a device for an hour and pay attention. Short lessons hold their attention and will also free up time for them to complete activities/assignments.
  5. Objectives: Student learning objectives might be a trigger word for many of us educators, but when I say objectives, trust me, I mean something far simpler. These are statements like, “Students will be able recall information about Karl Marx,” or, “Students will complete thesis statements for their upcoming essay over gothic literature.” These statements are posted on the screen at the beginning of a lesson and help everyone have a common goal. I have my own goals as a teacher, like 80 percent of my students will show mastery of the historical context of Animal Farm by obtaining a 74 percent, or better, on the Animal Farm Quiz #3, but they don’t need to know that. The student watching should know what is expected from them for the lesson at hand. Help be a guide, not a dictator. 
  6. Two-click Rule: How many times have you gone to a website to purchase something and after a few clicks of the mouse you can’t figure out how to check out, so you give up and go to a new website. Too many clicks are how you lose customers and students. Post your lessons and activities in multiple places and view the student view of your LMS to make sure your materials are easy to find. Try to make it so there are only two clicks from logging in to student work for the day.
  7. Entrance Activities and Exit Slips: One of the things my students loved in our traditional classroom was how I would often do brain teasers at the beginning of class. This was a great way to set the tone for class, gain participation from the students and help me take attendance. I would often use notecards as exit slips as checks for understanding. Both ideas are still applicable in our new virtual classrooms. I do brain teasers to open my live class. I share my screen. Open the same slides I used weeks ago and instruct students to write their answers in the chat. They love the competition. As for exit slips, I give a link at the end of my recorded lessons that take students to a Google Form with one question that checks for understanding. I even give some points for participation on these since they had to watch the lesson to get to that point! 
  8. One Graded Assignment a Week: This is a dreaded topic. If you assign it, do you have to grade it? No. Do you grade every single assignment, understanding check or worksheet that you pass out in your classroom? No. We know which assignments show individual growth and understanding. Grade those and only those. It is unlikely that you will have a due date where every student will turn it in on time. As a matter of fact, I still chase students down for work. Save yourself some time in chasing, grading and stress. Choose one assignment a week to grade. Fun fact, the students don’t need to know which assignment that is! 
  9. Live Class Once a Week: It seems like everyone has moved to virtual meetings. These are great options and should be used, but not for every lesson. I host one live session a week, per class. I use the live session to check homework, help edit essays, answer questions about school and life and offer help on assigned work. Rarely will I ever give new information. We should be treating this as supplemental work since not everyone can be there. Yes, you can record and share the video, but we need to understand that not all students learn by watching others interact. Honestly, live material should be more about continuing community and checking in our students and less about shoving material at them. 
  10. Co-teach Lessons: This is a surprise bonus when teaching virtually. If you can have another teacher join your live class, do it! My friend Tara is a wealth of knowledge, and a person I often lean on when things get hard. I felt like having her join our history lesson before starting to read Animal Farm helped me learn and get the students excited. While teaching virtually, I often had a special education teacher join to help students who needed things read to them or just needed things explained in a new tone/voice. In classes where I have several IEP students, I send the week plans and invite our awesome special education department to my courses on our LMS. They can jump in if they want or watch the lessons to help guide students when meeting with them. 

These are ten simple adjustments you can make today. It would be easy to assign a worksheet and instruct our students to turn it in, but is that what they need? We are a source of stability for students. Let’s make these adjustments so we can continue to offer reliable support.    

Lastly, give yourself some grace. You will make mistakes, just push through them. I have left a few links locked and made an error on a virtual quiz key. I fixed it and sent an apology, and the students forgave me! Students are eager to hear from you. Happy virtual teaching!