Opinion Blog

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

Classroom Activities to Start Your Online or Hybrid New Year Strong

By Larry Ferlazzo — July 26, 2020 7 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

(This is the first post in a multipart series.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What introductory activities are you planning to do, or have done already, with students to begin this highly unusual new school year (specifically—first day, first week, second week)?

We’ve got a crazy year ahead of us.

And the first question we’ve got to figure out is what do we do on the first days of school?

This series may help with some ideas.

Today, my colleage and co-author Katie Hull Synieski and I share a book excerpt from a chapter on long-distance learning with English-language learners. It’s coming from our upcoming second edition of The ESL/ELL Teacher’s Survival Guide. The publisher, Jossey-Bass, has agreed to let us release a full draft of the chapter early and free-of-charge (with no registration required). You can download the full chapter here.

Though the focus of this excerpt and the entire chapter is on ELLs, many of the ideas are applicable across the board. Remember, good teaching for ELLs is good teaching for everybody!

In addition, you might find these two resources helpful:

Links to all related previous posts appearing here can be found at School Closures & the Coronavirus Crisis.

You can see tentative remote teaching plans I’ve developed for all my fall classes at Here Are Detailed—& Tentative—Distance Learning Plans for All My Fall Classes.

Emphasize relationship-building

Researchers have found that “relatedness” is a key element needed to create conditions that support student intrinsic motivation. In other words, will the activities that students do bring them into relationships with those they respect and like?

The first step toward respecting and liking someone, of course, is getting to know him/her!

Whether you’re in a hybrid-teaching situation (two days face-to-face and the rest of the week online) or working entirely online, we think that it is critical to spend substantial time on relationship-building at the beginning of a school year—more than we would ordinarily do in a normal school situation.

That being said, however, it’s never too late to build or solidify relationships! Though it’s ideal to start the year with these activities, they’re good to use at any time during the school year.

Working online creates obvious barriers to getting to know someone well. When you add to that challenge the complication of teachers and students speaking different languages, then it’s time for teachers to put on their creative “thinking cap.”

Consider having a “question-of-the-day” that students can answer about themselves. If the responses are just a sentence or two (teachers may need to provide sentence starters), it’s fine to do it as a class. A key is making them simple and accessible even to Newcomers with no background in the English language. If answers are going to be longer ones, rotating groups would be the way to go. Doing this online could make this activity less intimidating to students, so there are some advantages to distance learning!

Here are some potential questions:

What was your best experience in school, and why was it so good?

What was your worst experience in school, and why was it so bad?

What do you like to do in your free time and what do you like about those activities?

What is your favorite subject and why?

What are your future goals?

In the best of all worlds, teachers are able to use these relationship-building activities to also help teach English. However, remember that relationships are the primary focus at this time. If that’s the case then, once again, being online offers some advantages. If you have students share their responses in small groups, after they answer in English, they could be encouraged to become more expansive in their home language while all students use a tool like the free Microsoft Translator. The Translator lets you speak in your home language while others see it simultaneously (more or less) translated in the language of their choice.

“Show and tell” can also be a nice relationship-building activity. Ask students to identify three-to-five items they have that are important to them. Provide them with this sentence starter:

This is __________________ It is important to me because ________________________.

Students can make these 20-second class presentations once a day for a few days. Teachers could even provide “question starters” for the “audience” members to ask, like:

“When did you get the ___________?”

“How much time do you spend using _____________?”

“Where do you keep the ___________________?”

“Two truths and a lie” is another old standby that can be used to help students get to know each other. Once a day, a student can share two things that are true about them and one thing that is a lie. The teacher can model it the first time and offer to help students ahead of time with how to say their “truths and a lie” in English. Classmates can write their guesses in the chat box.

If ELL students have not been born in the United States, it’s important for teachers to know their immigration “story.” However, if they have been in the U.S. for awhile, they might be tired of telling it—it’s an assignment they might have had to do countless times in multiple classes. In class, we’ve had students tell it in different formats—like in comic strip form—to make it more interesting to both those telling and those listening to it. Here, again, teaching online might offer advantages—there are many tools available for creating online slideshows, comic strips, and animations. These same tools, of course, can also be used on devices if you are in a physical school.

All these activities can help build relationships. In addition, learning students’ personal stories and interests can be helpful when teachers are developing lessons. By taking this information into consideration, teachers can increase engagement by tying into another critical element needed to create conditions to support student intrinsic motivation—relevance. In other words, the work must be seen by students as interesting and valuable to them and useful to their present lives and/or hopes and dreams for the future.

It’s also important for teachers to make time for individual conversations with students—in the physical or virtual classroom. A weekly or bi-weekly 10-minute video conference call to review student work and to check in on their social-emotional lives can go a long way toward building and solidifying a relationship. Obviously, the frequency of these calls are dependent on the number of students you have in your classes.

We think that staying in touch outside of school hours is also an important way to solidify relationships. We have given our cellphone number to all students and their parents for years, and it’s never been abused. If we get a text when we’re doing something else, we just don’t respond until we have time. And if you’re not comfortable giving your number out, just have everyone sign up for Remind or a similar app where you can send a text to any student, or to the entire class, and they can send one to you, but it goes through the app so no one knows anyone’s real number.

And we can’t forget about building relationships with parents! They can be critical allies for teachers. Look for reasons to call home with positive comments about their children and ask for their advice, too—for example, learn from them about the times they think their kids have felt most positive about schools and what their teachers had done at those times (learn more here).

It’s going to be a crazy year. Positive relationships we had built earlier in the year are what sustained many of us teachers and our students during the spring emergency closures. Now, we’ve got to build them from scratch and we will.

We must.

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.

All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis

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

Relationships in Schools

Professional Development

Instructional Strategies

Best of Classroom Q&A

Professional Collaboration

Classroom Organization

Mistakes in Education

Project-Based Learning

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.