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Teaching Opinion

The 10 Zoom Commandments for Elementary School Teachers

What works in the classroom can still work for online teaching
By Justin Minkel — February 24, 2021 4 min read
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Remote learning can feel like trying to play soccer on the moon, but the kids are still kids, and teaching is still teaching. We can’t throw out everything we know about the world of the classroom: the importance of building relationships, the value of one-on-one and small-group time, the sheer insanity of expecting young children to listen to an adult talk for longer than 10 or 15 minutes. In fact, we need to hold to those principles even tighter.

Here are 10 ways to do that.

1. Build in one-on-one time.

These one-on-one interactions don’t have to be long—just a five-minute check-in once a week or “office hours” when kids can sign up for a time to talk to you.

When my school went to remote learning last spring, the weekly one-on-one reading conferences I held with each child were the only part of my day that still felt normal. After a student read to me for a minute or two, I’d ask them a couple of questions about the book. I’d give them a “glow and a grow”—something they’d done well as a reader and something to work on. After that, we’d just talk. I’d ask how their families were doing and what they’d done for fun that week.

Over the course of a school year—even this weirdest, hardest of years—moments of teacher-to-student connection accumulate. They work the gradual magic that turns a class full of strangers into individual children we know deeply and hold close to our hearts.

2. Meet with small groups.

Kids can tell the difference between a two-way conversation and a teacher monologue. True conversations happen a lot more naturally with five or six kids than 25 or 30.

Remote learners still need the same kinds of small groups they needed during face-to-face instruction: guided reading groups, literature clubs, and tutorials for struggling students who might need a little preteaching or remediation to keep up with the next day’s math lesson.

After a whole-class lesson, send the kids to breakout rooms to discuss the content in smaller groups, while you orbit among the rooms. These small-group settings are especially critical for shy students and English-learners, who tend to be a lot more comfortable talking in front of a few kids than the whole class.

3. Find informal ways to keep getting to know your students.

Some of the most meaningful conversations with my students happen when I invite a handful of them to have lunch with me in the classroom. The kids share all kinds of things, from their favorite superhero movie to how much they miss their older brother who’s deployed with the Army. Lunchtime hangouts can happen via Zoom, too.

4. Give the kids time to hang out on their own.

One of the best things my son’s teacher has done is to leave the Zoom open during lunch and recess for kids who want to hang out free of the watchful gaze of their teacher. They show each other their favorite Lego sets, play Minecraft in tandem, or gossip about new crushes. One of the things remote learners need desperately right now is unscripted social interaction with other kids. That happens more naturally when adults aren’t around.

5. Get students up and moving before they turn into zombies.

Incorporating stretch breaks, dance sessions, and snack breaks is even more critical in the Age of Zoom than during a normal school year. Send students on scavenger hunts around their house. Send them on little expeditions outside to get some fresh air and sunlight while collecting roots and seeds for a science lesson. Their bodies, brains, and tired eyes need the break. Ours do, too.

The author’s nephew takes a mid-morning break from remote learning.

6. Go for quality, not quantity, of time online.

Making a child of any age stay on a screen from 8:00 a.m. to 3:15 p.m. should be against the Geneva Accords. Four days a week, my son spends three hours on Zoom, with a 20-minute break in the middle. That feels like a good upper limit for a 9-year-old. The rest of the day is spent working on his own or meeting up in small-group sessions that last half an hour or so.

Make sure your whole-class screen time is purposeful—a combination of read alouds, 10-minute mini-lessons, independent work, and class discussions—and keep it as short as your district allows.
7. Give the kids a chance to laugh every day.

My favorite part of the morning is hearing my son crack up, usually when his teacher is telling a funny story or hamming up the characters’ voices in a read aloud. Read the kids books that will make them laugh—like Mo Willems’ Piggie and Elephant series for lower elementary or the classic Sideways Stories from Wayside School by Louis Sachar for upper grades.

8. Teach to this moment.

There has been a misguided tendency to cram as much regular content as possible into remote learning. We have to teach in a way that acknowledges a deeply traumatic pandemic, economic crisis, and ongoing violence against Black men and women.

My daughter’s teacher is doing a whole unit on epidemiology. Teachers like Jessica Stovall, featured in the documentary series America to Me, weave anti-racist education into the fabric of their classrooms.

9. Listen.

The kids we’re teaching this year have a lot on their minds and hearts. Sometimes what they need most is for us to stop talking and just listen.

Ask how they’re doing, what they’re thinking about, what most excites or troubles them right now. Then listen deeply to their answer.

10. Show yourself the same grace you show your students.

If teachers are going to make it through this relentless year, we have to be kind to ourselves. It’s hard to teach the way we want to while surviving a pandemic. But we show up for kids and families every day. We offer them our love, kindness, and reassurance that we will all get through this hard time together.

Our students don’t need us to have all the answers. They just need us to walk alongside them as they find their own.

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