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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Building a ‘Sense of Community’ Online Among Teachers & Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — March 27, 2020 17 min read
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(This is the 10th post in an 11-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, Part Four here, Part Five here, Part Six here, Part Seven here, Part Eight here and Part Nine here.)

The new question of the week is:

How can we best support students when we teach online?

In Part One, David Sherrin, Lorie Barber, Janelle Henderson, and Cathleen Beachboard contributed their experiences.

In Part Two, Amy Roediger, Dr. PJ Caposey, Michael Silverstone, and Jeremy Hyler shared their reflections.

In Part Three, Matthew Johnson, Joseph Jones, T.J. Vari, Deb Blaz, and Cindi Rigsbee offered their ideas.

In Part Four, Nick Fotopoulos, Helen Vassiliou, Cornelia Okraski, and Sam Olbes discussed specifically how they were teaching their ELL classes online.

In Part Five, Maurice McDavid, Holly Spinelli, Ashley Wallace, and Kristen Koppers talked about what they were trying to do with their classes.

In Part Six, we revisited teaching English-language learners, with commentaries from Sarah Said, Sandra Mings Lamar, and Linda Heafey.

In Part Seven, Sara Cooper and Susan Scott used their very recent experience to write about what to do—and what not to do—when transitioning to online classes.

In Part Eight, Elizabeth Stein, Alexsandra López, Christine Kellogg, Mirna Jope, and Ceci Gomez-Galvez shared advice for those who are working with students with unique needs.

Part Nine highlighted contributions from Amy Sandvold, Jackie Haus Hoggins, Danielle Macias, and Dawn Mitchell who, among other things, explored what this crisis means for educators who work as instructional coaches.

I have also written about my own online learning plans, and you can listen to a 10-minute podcast conversation I had with several contributors to this series.

Today, Patrick Finley, Carina Whiteside, Benjamin Kelly, and Lauren Dykstra discuss their recent experiences.

Advisory is a critical tool for sustaining schools through the Coronavirus Crisis

Patrick Finley is the co-principal at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School, New York City:

As an EL Education school, our school begins each day with an advisory period that we call Crew that is similar to many advisory systems, but so much more than a grab bag of team-building activities. Crew is a small group of students that gathers regularly with an educator who creates structures and activities meant to instill a sense of community for all members. Our mantra, “We are Crew, not passengers,” carries with it the idea that each Crew leader has a duty to bring together a random assortment of students and help them to understand that the whole is greater than the parts.

With Damon McCord, I am the co-principal and co-founder of the Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School (MELS) in Queens, a very diverse, unscreened 6-12 school in the New York City public school system, and a partner with New York City Outward Bound, which is also creating resources to support teachers during the coronavirus crisis.

When we opened our school 10 years ago, we took our 19 staff members on a camping trip that modeled Crew practices. As school leaders, we knew that this work was necessary not only to show our staff how to lead Crew but also to help them understand the importance of establishing meaningful connections with students and colleagues. Since that time, we attribute our success to our dedication to Crew.

This week, we found ourselves once again building a new school. This time it wasn’t a choice; our hand was forced by the spread of coronavirus. We had to dismantle our usual program and build out a schedule and system that functioned in a much different way. As we, like so many other faculties, have designed a new schedule and coursework, we have been clear that once again Crew is our most important work.

Crew is the Lifeblood of our School, but now we are in uncharted waters. Eight-hundred and fifty students are floating adrift in the world, each anchored to their own houses without the social connections that sustain their day at school.. Now more than ever, schools must make sure that we are monitoring and supporting the whole child.

With an advisory model, each teacher has a manageable load and a ready-made system for communication and ensuring that students’ basic needs are being met. At MELS, we have already held our first online Crew meetings, with almost all of our students accounted for by an adult who knows them well. Using Zoom, our virtual Crews “circle up” online to check in. Our Crew advisers don’t just distribute links to Google Classrooms. They take time during virtual Crew to check in with individual students and use protocols to connect students to one another and their school community. They ensure that every student can be successful, that they are not just one of a hundred names on a roster. You can see a sample of our initial virtual Crew lessons here.

The achievement gap is only going to widen during this time in which school buildings are shut down. Our country’s most vulnerable students will be the most difficult to keep track of and keep engaged. Over the last week, some educators have developed strong online coursework, but there must be a network of accountability for all students. In the weeks ahead, it is our responsibility as educators to ensure that we have systems for those that are disengaged and lost. We must continue to foster students’ belief that they are part of a community and needed. Crew will be our first line of defense, just as it always has been, for communication with families and students who are vulnerable. Especially in secondary schools, where students are in virtual classes with multiple teachers, having a Crew leader who is responsible for only a small group of students makes it possible to meet each student’s needs.

In remote-learning schools, online classrooms provide each student “passenger” a ticket to board the learning vessel. At MELS, students are not just invited aboard as passengers; they are put to work, and their work is needed and necessary for the boat to function. All must row in order to move forward. In the weeks ahead, our Crew system will support students to be active advocates for themselves and others. The communities developed through Crew give students a support network, a school “family,” and also a responsibility to act when they are called upon to support others.

Like everyone else, we can’t say exactly how the weeks ahead will unfold. One thing we can say is that years of building systems and practices that strengthen community are now going to be put into action. For years, educators have overemphasized skills for standardized tests, and advisory has been seen as a “soft” skill. We know, now more than ever, that advisory and structures like it that foster community among students are as important as any test score.

For those schools without an advisory system, it is never too late to start. Begin with the basic building blocks of teachers and staff working with small groups of students, no more than 16. In the days ahead, these new “advisers” can begin to know each student’s face, name, and story through prompts to check in and contribute to a community of support. Learn from school leaders and students with virtual advisories in place. The work we do in Crew will serve students as much as any content we deliver.

The importance of routine

Carina Whiteside is a middle school social studies teacher who is passionate about the impact of social studies education for teaching skills and values needed by America’s future citizenry. Follow her on Twitter at @mrswhiteside_:

I am a planner. This skill has suited me well in the teaching profession. I am excited to plan backward from my learning goals and assessments toward my daily learning activities. I feel accomplished when my plans work out.

Nothing could have prepared me for the shock of going online with a weekend and two working days to prepare.

I am quick to admit that I do not feel 100 percent confident in the online-learning experience I have created for my students. However, I am happy to share my small successes and failures, my hopes and fears, in the hope that we as educators can find solidarity in this experience.

  1. Create a routine. The same way we use the first few days of the school year to establish routines, expectations, and procedures, we should be building consistency in our online learning. Personally, each day of learning is structured as its own online lesson. The lessons are available one day at a time, with due dates for that day. Students can turn in assignments late without losing credit, but I want them to feel a routine develop. In each lesson, students begin by reading an introduction about their learning goal, its purpose, expected lesson duration, and what assignments will be part of that lesson. Then students receive a small bit of instruction (a YouTube video, a short paragraph, etc.). They use that instruction to do a quick check for understanding before moving on to the core of the instruction. This instruction looks different depending on the learning goal, as it does in our in-person classroom. A student-led Nearpod works for some learning goals, whereas corroborating three primary sources works for other goals. Students almost always submit this assignment as a Google doc (which they have copied from my original), establishing a procedure that they will practice and use daily. Students finish the lesson with a summary video, check for understanding, or discussion board, as well as an opportunity to reread the learning goal and expected assignments. (This is almost a direct copy of the page they read as an “introduction” before beginning the lesson.)

  2. Be available. The home page of my online course includes various ways for parents and students to get in touch with me. I have included my school email address, my Remind code, my office hours, my Flipgrid join code, and my school website. I have had students reach out to me through ALL of these mediums. In this time of uncertainty, I am grateful this has happened toward the end of the school year when I have established meaningful relationships with my students. I know that whether I am with them in person or virtually, they count on me to be there for them when they need me.

  3. I feel a loss being unable to teach my favorite unit of the entire school year in person with my students. All year, I have been building up to this unit, knowing it is going to clinch the relevance of history in U.S. race relations today. I feel a loss realizing that I don’t have the time, energy, or skills to seamlessly re-create some of my in-person learning activities into online learning. And most of all, I feel a loss being without my students each day. I am struggling to cope with this new reality where students don’t casually strike up a conversation or ask meaningful questions about our content. I miss interacting with their humanity and giving them the chance to see that humanity in me.

All in all, I find hope knowing that this sudden transition to online learning is an opportunity to make necessary adjustments to 21st-century teaching. I believe that teachers will make magic out of the situation we have been given. I hope that by establishing consistent routines and being available and present with our students, we can face this brave new world together.

Three easy ed-tech tools to support distance learning

Benjamin Kelly is an award-winning STEM educator who teaches at Caledonia Regional High School, part of the Anglophone East school district in New Brunswick, Canada. Ben loves to explore new tools, let student interests guide instruction, and follow learning where inquiry leads. Follow Ben on Twitter at @BBTNB:

What if I told you that music, video games, and chatting with friends can provide engaging learning opportunities during the global pandemic? Would you be willing to hear me out and read further as I suggest some of the most empowering educational technology solutions available right now?

Here are three tech solutions that can engage your learners and allow them to maintain social interaction with friends while creating, collaborating, and thinking critically. We aren’t talking about curriculum here. We are talking about growing the global competencies needed by every student to be creative, impactful, and future-ready citizens.

  1. Soundtrap for Education, part of Spotify, is an online studio that allows students to create their own music or podcasts. Soundtrap is device agnostic, which means it operates on nearly every internet-capable device available via their website or their many apps. And the company has extended its free trial period to help schools through the challenges of COVID-19, so any school that signs up to try it with students this semester will have free access through the end of the school year. Educators that use Soundtrap can invite their students to join via an email address and begin creating music or podcasts with classmates in real time. They even have a video chat built into Soundtrap’s workspace which allows students to feel that next-level connection with their peers and teachers as they become the next Bach, Beatles, or Bieber. This solution is a great way to encourage students to become their own content creators through music production, storytelling, podcasting, and more.

  2. Microsoft’s Minecraft is the world’s most popular game for good reason. This sandbox adventure game allows students to work collaboratively with others locally or online through a “Realms” subscription—only one of the friends has to have a subscription to access. Students can create incredible blocky creations or endure their first night together in survival mode. The game is now available on nearly every device, including personal computers, tablets, consoles, or even Apple TV. There is even a free Minecraft Education Edition should your student’s school district provide the game as part of a Microsoft Office 365 program. My advice to parents, even if you have to buy the low-cost game: It will be some of the best money you ever spend on your child’s education. The game has become a culture itself, and the learning happening while students play is priceless. The game builds student creativity, critical thinking, collaboration, and communication skills from the start and will lead to the innovators of tomorrow fondly looking back on the game as their genesis.

  3. Face-to-face communication is so important for mental health and our humanity. However, finding a school-appropriate solution that can work reliably and is easy to navigate for educators, parents, and students can be difficult. Zoom allows your students to create a unique contact number and have friends join them in an audio or video call by privately sharing this contact code. Imagine your students working in Minecraft or Soundtrap and having Zoom running in the background to add that next-level, lengthy, and FREE humanity element we all need during school closures. I’ve personally watched for a week now as 9-year-olds manage Zoom themselves and use it as a constant communication solution behind whatever creative activities they plan. Both technology and nontechnology learning can be enriched by Zoom starting immediately. Remember not to share the contact code publicly to protect your student’s private communication capabilities. Zoom is currently offering its video-conferencing tools for free to K-12 schools.

As we all self-isolate longer and longer, technology-enabled creative pursuits mixed with human-to-human communication will become even more important. These three solutions can lead to a happier home and strengthened global competencies.

Strategies to try

Mrs. Lauren Dykstra is a 2nd grade integrated co-teaching teacher at Oakside Elementary School, in the Peekskill City school district in Westchester County, N.Y. She has been teaching for eight years, first starting as a charter school teacher in New York City, working there for four years, before stepping into a leadership role. She has taught 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th grades and acted as a mentor and coach for many teachers. Learn more about Oakside Elementary School on Twitter by searching for #oaksideawesome:

As educators in my district, we have all done our part to keep up with the times and provide online-learning opportunities for our students while in the classroom and at home. That being said, no one could have prepared us for the shift we were about to make into the world of virtual learning.

I am excited and thrilled to say that our team of educators came together in a time of crisis to get our message out there to our students and parents with minimal tech support and minimal training. While participating in “distance learning” the past week, I have come up with some strategies and tips to help keep your students engaged online. Keep in mind, I teach 2nd grade, so some of these strategies may or may not be applicable to secondary education.

Strategies to try:

  • One of the things I found about online learning that keeps my students engaged is creating a Google Classroom that highlights the work they’ve done while online. When students complete assignments, with parent permission, I post their picture on the Google Classroom with their assignment and give them a “shout out.” Students become excited seeing their picture posted on our class site, and they are more inclined to keep up with their assignments. Other students see the pictures of their classmates and peers completing their assignments, and they work hard to get their online assignments complete so they can have their picture posted as well.

  • Another strategy and tip I find handy is to use the Flipgrid app. I am able to record myself asking my students a question or reading a story to them, and then students can respond back to me with a video posting. The students find this engaging, and they are excited to post their video back to me with their response to the lesson. At one point, I even read a story to them with my 3-month-old son, Niklaus, and the students were so excited to watch the video and respond back. For those students without access to a camera on their computer, they can respond by typing in a “chat” section.

  • I have also found that making myself available for communication throughout the day with my students on my Google Classroom has made my students feel more connected to me and my co-teacher. I frequently use the Screencastify feature on my Google Chromebook to provide students with tutorials on how to use certain online programs like InferCabulary and Zearn so they better understand the programs and can use them without a hassle. By making myself available during the day, like an average school day, my students can ask for help from me on the Google Classroom wall, and I can post tutorials and demos on how to work and operate certain programs from home.

I hope you find these strategies helpful, educators!

Thanks to Patrick, Carina, Benjamin, and Lauren for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

Just a reminder; you can subscribe and receive updates from this blog via email or RSS Reader. And if you missed any of the highlights from the first eight years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below. The list doesn’t include ones from this current year, but you can find those by clicking on the “answers” category found in the sidebar.

This Year’s Most Popular Q&A Posts

Race & Gender Challenges

Classroom-Management Advice

Best Ways to Begin the School Year

Best Ways to End the School Year

Implementing the Common Core

Student Motivation & Social-Emotional Learning

Teaching Social Studies

Cooperative & Collaborative Learning

Using Tech in the Classroom

Parent Engagement in Schools

Teaching English-Language Learners

Reading Instruction

Writing Instruction

Education Policy Issues


Differentiating Instruction

Math Instruction

Science Instruction

Advice for New Teachers

Author Interviews

Entering the Teaching Profession

The Inclusive Classroom

Learning & the Brain

Administrator Leadership

Teacher Leadership

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Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

Professional Collaboration

Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

I am also creating a Twitter list including all contributors to this column.

Look for Part 11 (which should be the last post in this series) in a day or two ...

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The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.