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

Six Strategies I Apply to Make My Distance Learning Classes Not Terrible

By Larry Ferlazzo — February 16, 2021 10 min read
Images shows colorful speech bubbles that say "Q," "&," and "A."

This week’s question-of-the-week is:

What are your “go-to” instructional strategies and tools for making a virtual classroom work?

Most Classroom Q & A columns begin with some comments from me, followed by responses from several guests.

Today’s post is a little different—I’d like to use this space to succinctly list what’s been working for my students and me over the past year.

In addition, you can also read the well over 100 columns that have appeared in this space over the past 12 months written by educators and students about teaching and learning during the pandemic. Many have been collected at School Closures & the Coronavirus Crisis. However, you’ll have to scroll through more recent columns to find the ones that have been published since September.

For understanding more about the underlining research and reasons for what I describe here, you might want to check out a previous column, Four Ways To Help Students Feel Intrinsically Motivated to do Distance Learning.

None of these strategies is particularly new or unique. I suspect that many teachers are already using variations of most—if not all—of them now. Perhaps, however, they’ll spark a few new ideas. All of us, including our students, could certainly use some “change-of-pace” activities right about now.

I do want to preface this list by saying that, though my classes are generally working out OK, just as in my face-to-face classroom in normal times, I have more than my share of virtual duds!

Here is what I’ve been doing (not necessarily in any order of priority):

1.Developing student-leadership teams.

It became clear to me early that if I wanted my online classes to be successful, I was going to need help. And the best place to get it was going to be from my students.

I quickly identified those who seemed to exhibit some leadership skills (tried to get others to talk in breakout rooms, asked questions, responded when I invited suggestions) and asked them to be on a class-leadership team. Members would be responsible for leading breakout rooms, contributing to class discussions, identifying other students who should join the team, answering questions in the chat that I might have missed, and regularly evaluating with me how the class was going and what changes might need to be made to improve it. Leadership-team members also complete a weekly self-assessment form.

I have always tried to support student voice and leadership—informed by my prior 19-year community-organizing career—but never to this extent.

It’s been critical to the success of my classes and is a practice I will continue when school returns to “normal” times.

2.Using games for learning reinforcement and engagement.

I regularly use games in the face-to-face classroom with small groups using mini-whiteboards as the key elements for most of them. After teaching a concept, whether it’s when to use “has” and “have” to ELL Newcomers or the Dunning-Kruger Effect to IB Theory of Knowledge students (which also include ELLs, though not Newcomers), “gamifying” formative assessments are productive and fun.

In the virtual space, I’ve regularly used these tools:

  • Quizizz. It’s free, has thousands of games on just about any topic that have already been made by other teachers, shows the question and the possible answers on the same screen (which means students don’t have to split their screens to see both), allows for real-time monitoring of student responses, and has tons of other helpful features.
  • Though Quizizz is our class favorite because it engages all students all the time, Baamboozle works very well for small classes—I use it periodically for a change of pace. It’s a full-class activity where teams take turns answering the questions.
  • As most teachers know, it’s easy for students (and all of us) to “space out” when watching videos. In the physical classroom, when I had it in me, I would periodically stop videos we were watching, ask a question, have students share with a partner, and then invite some to comment to the entire class. FluentKey does a little of that and turns watching videos into a game like Quizizz or Kahoot, as well.

There are other games I use, as well, and you can find them at The Best Online Learning Games To Play During Distance Learning.

3.Having students complete weekly “Check-In” surveys and making sure I respond to them.

I send out simple bilingual Google Form surveys to all my students at the beginning of the week. They ask how they are feeling about their class with me, school in general, and their personal lives, as well as if they are having any technology issues. In addition, there’s a goal-setting question for the week and a reflection on the one they had previously set. Lastly, there’s this very important question: “Is there anything else that you think it would be helpful for Mr. Ferlazzo to know about how you or your family are doing?”

Sending out these surveys is useless or even harmful if students don’t see that I read them and take what they write seriously. If students rate how they are feeling about school or their personal lives very low, I’ll text them via the Remind app or from my personal cellphone (I’ve always given that number out to students, and it has never been abused). More importantly, I have learned critical information from answers to that final question, including family-member surgeries, COVID-19 infections, and job loss, and have been able to immediately respond with texts voicing concern, emailing meal-delivery gift cards, and connecting students to school counselors.

These surveys don’t completely replace the frequent one-minute conversations I have during the school day in normal times—when I can notice a student demeanor or facial expression—but they’ll do for this virtual learning situation.

Post-pandemic, now that all our students will have laptops, I’ll definitely continue to use these weekly surveys—not as substitutes for those one-on-one conversations but as tools for refining them and making sure I don’t miss anyone who is facing challenges.

sendingoutferlazzo

4. Making sure students know that I miss them when they are absent.

In “normal” times, I don’t follow-up with a student unless they are absent from my class two or three days in a row. In distance learning, since we don’t meet every day, every absence takes on more importance.

Most of the time (I can’t say all of the time because some days I’m just too exhausted), I send a simple text either through Remind or my cellphone: “We missed you today. I hope you’re OK!”

Ninety percent of the time I receive a response, and it’s usually a tech issue, health concern, or caring for a family member. More important than the information that is gained is the fact that students know they were missed. If we don’t feel like we are missed at a class, a family reunion, or a gathering of friends, most of us will be less likely to attend the next time. We all want to feel valued. Now, students are so used to my contacting them that half of the time they will “preempt” me by texting me ahead of time saying they will be absent.

My virtual class attendance is usually between 80 percent and 95 percent. I have no doubt it would be lower if I didn’t send those texts.

5.Regular use of “breakout rooms” and student presentations.

In the face-to-face classroom during normal times, I use small-group instruction a lot—its benefits are almost endless.

This question is: How can those benefits—or, at least, some of them—be transferred to a virtual setting where students may or may not know each other?

To set the stage, I spent the first several weeks doing many community-building activities to help students get to know each other so that we could build a “community of learners” instead of a “classroom of students” (these can be done anytime during the year—certainly, I’ve done my fair share of “restarts” well into the school calendar!). These low-stakes lessons—some which required students to work together to produce something and some requiring them to make presentations in small groups—helped “break the ice.” Even now, every warm-up activity that students share in breakout rooms has one that is directly tied to the lesson AND an answer to a personal question (What is your favorite app and why? Tell us something about a family member).

In addition, thanks to my reading an Edutopia article, each class begins with a student sharing a story about someone who they are dedicating this class to….

Now, a typical agenda for one of my classes looks like this:

*Warm-up

* Class dedication

* Breakout room (each led by a leadership-team member) to share warm-ups

* Class sharing where students need to say something one of their breakout-room members said

* A short lesson given by me

* Breakout rooms (sometimes self-selected, sometimes with group members selected by me)

* Stretch break

* Students share presentations in other breakout rooms

* Full-class discussion where students share important insights they learned from their classmates

* Reinforcing game

* Closing class ritual (cameras on, everyone clapping because we’re all wonderful)

Adequate class time is always given to students to complete the breakout-room activity, so no one has to reconnect outside of class (which would be logistically challenging).

6. Last, but not least, always greeting students by name as they enter Zoom and, as much as possible, saying goodbye to them when they leave.

Students feeling a sense of belonging is critical to academic success. Several of the activities I’ve already mentioned increase the odds of that happening in the virtual classroom.

Saying their names always at the beginning of class and more often than not at the end is one more not insignificant way to help build that connection. During “normal” times, it’s possible that a student never hears his/her name said by a teacher during a full class day, and the odds of that happening are certainly greater during distance learning.

How do I know this is important? Well, sometimes I am distracted for a moment when class is beginning and I’ll miss someone who entered the room. At the beginning of the year, it wasn’t uncommon in those circumstances for the missed student to shout out, “Mr. Ferlazzo, you didn’t say hello to me,” after which I would obviously apologize and say, “Hello!” Interestingly, if that happens now, without me saying a word about it, students instead initiate saying, “Good morning/afternoon, Mr. Ferlazzo.”

Again, I don’t pretend that these six strategies are magical or even particularly innovative.

They are, however, working for my students and me.

I just hope I have enough “gas in my tank” to continue doing them until the end of the year.

studentsfeelingferlazzo

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 (The RSS feed for this blog, and for all Ed Week articles, has been changed by the new redesign—new ones won’t be available until February). And if you missed any of the highlights from the first nine years of this blog, you can see a categorized list below.

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

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.

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