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Teaching Strategies

Virtual Teaching Practices With Staying Power

Remote teaching prompted teachers to find new ways to reach kids and build a feeling of community, and some of those will be well worth keeping.

April 28, 2021
Elementary school students in classroom with hands raised
skynesher / iStock

Like so many other teachers, I’ve found that keeping my third-grade students engaged in virtual learning has been a bit of an uphill climb. Along the way, I’ve experimented with new strategies that worked so well in my virtual classroom that I will use them in my physical classroom. Not only do they engage students, but also they promote feelings of inclusion and belonging, both of which are so central to social and emotional learning and a positive classroom climate.

Strategies That I’ll Be Keeping

Encouraging writing by hand: When we went virtual, my students still needed ways to tangibly engage with the material, and they needed to continue to practice their fine motor skills. So I decided to go old school: We took notes in actual notebooks using pencils, crayons, and markers.

We take notes about what we are learning each day in actual notebooks, and we do it together. Rather than copying what I write, my students provide input and examples as I write, so we are co-creating notes.

Since there is compelling evidence that writing by hand rather than on a keyboard promotes better recall and comprehension of new information, I’ll continue this practice long after remote learning winds up.

As a bonus, this practice can have a family connection and SEL aspect: My students’ homework is to share their notebooks with their caregivers and explain what we’ve covered. They can ask questions that extend the learning—for example, “Mom, today we learned how Cesar Chavez stood up for the rights of migrant workers. Can you tell me about a time when you stood up for someone or someone stood up for you?”

Soliciting feedback: When I solicit students for feedback, I ask, “What can I do to make virtual learning more fun for you?” Typically I get requests for more classroom jobs, more opportunities to eat lunch together, and more time to play games (Kahoot is a favorite).

Going forward, I’ll continue to ask them for their feedback via chat and Google Forms, and I’ll likely ask them to share video responses, too, with Flipgrid.

Encourging students to keep a diary: When my students shared that they would like more time to write about a topic of their choice, I created a blank Google document for each one that could serve as a diary.

Things got really interesting when I realized that I still have my own writing journal from when I was about their age. Now, before I send them off to write on their own, we often read an entry or two from my journal as a mentor text. Turns out sharing my 11-year-old self’s cringeworthy musings motivates my students to write in their own journals.

Welcoming international visitors: One unexpected bonus of virtual learning is that it’s much easier to welcome visitors to our classroom. In addition to occasional visiting instructors and motivational speakers, we’ve hosted several students from around the world. These exchanges with students elsewhere provided us with authentic opportunities to study geography, maps, and languages—and reminded my students that they aren’t alone in experiencing the pandemic.

Organizations like PenPal Schools and ePals can connect your class with other classes around the world; Narrative 4, a nonprofit dedicated to telling and sharing stories, can help build connections and empathy between groups of students.

Guiding students to have a study buddy: During remote learning, some students showed up for class but didn’t hand in their assignments. To remedy this, I asked students to choose a study buddy with whom they could work in a breakout room; study buddies took turns sharing their screen and talking through their assignments together. Since my students are happy to have some one-on-one time with classmates, and I see more of their work getting done, I’ll continue this online practice, and I may pair study buddies in the classroom as well.

Holding virtual concerts and celebrations: One of the biggest losses for children during the pandemic was that of events to look forward to. During one particularly miserable point in the pandemic, my grade partner and I planned a virtual performance that our students could invite their families to. We spent weeks practicing a song and dance related to the book we were reading (Charlotte’s Web); then, when the big day came, the kids were giddy with excitement.

While I imagine that once we go back to in-person learning, we’ll still be able to squeeze in one or two in-person performances a year, I’ll continue to create virtual performances so that we can do them a bit more often.

Incorporating music: In their book Burnout: The Secret to Unlocking the Stress Cycle, Emily and Amelia Nagoski suggest several activities that can help us to move through the stress of difficult experiences. They suggest engaging in some form of artistic expression; since my students love music, I raised funds to buy them plastic recorders so that each one had a holiday gift from me. Now, during lulls in instruction, we sometimes pull out the recorders and play the couple of songs we’ve learned—I’m sure much to their parents’ delight.

Dance has been another hit. My favorite playlist of songs comes from Playing for Change. Many of these songs and videos get the kids excited to move; more self-conscious students have the option to turn their cameras off while dancing.

The kids also love to participate in what I call “Guess Whose Song.” I collected a list of their favorite songs and play one during lulls in instruction or while we wait for everyone to sign on after lunch. The kids take turns guessing whose favorite song it is. That challenge gets everyone participating, and it’s been fun for me to discover their musical tastes.

These brief musical interludes can easily be used as brain breaks back in my actual classroom, so I will keep them in my toolbox.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • 3-5 Upper Elementary

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