Keep Students Working in the Virtual Classroom

Since it is raining, there will be no bike monologue today. Instead, I offer you this typical post.

One complaint about school last quarter was that the asynchronous method of teaching and learning did not work well. There were several reasons for this.

  • Students were not accustomed to the way content was delivered, and they were not able to get assistance from their teacher in real time so they could ask clarifying questions.
  • Students did not find delivery methods to be consistent among teachers. While this is certainly true in normal times, as we all have different teaching styles, combine that with the first point and it caused confusion.
  • Students and parents were confused as to how the learning management system (LMS) worked.
  • Students may have been confused as to expectations, including deadlines, depending on how the content and expectations were presented.

Why did many of us resort to asynchronous methods? The answer is simple and complex at the same time.

  1. When we flipped the switch, there was a lot of chaos. Many of us did not know it was going to happen until the end of our last day. We were told to go home for spring break and prepare for virtual learning. We were also facing the real possibility that the school year had ended on that very day.
  2. Some districts tried to use web conferencing services that were hacked by disgusting individuals who posted pornography and racist comments, which forced many off those platforms and into another mode of teaching altogether.
  3. Some students at the secondary level were called into work as they were considered “essential workers.” For example, those who worked after school at grocery stores were needed. Schools decided to accommodate these workers by offering more flexible options. Those students often found their parents out of work, too, so they had to contribute to the household since they still had a job.
  4. Some older students had to care for younger siblings because their parents had to work. This situation also called for flexibility. While the older students helped the younger ones, they were not able to attend to their own schoolwork until later in the day.
  5. Teachers with school-age children needed to teach those children. It was part of the vicious cycle of this crisis: those who taught their children didn’t have as much flexibility because they had to teach their children because those who taught their children… and so forth.
  6. Families were not faring well in some cases. Parents were unemployed. Food insecurity was common. Children were at home all day going out of their minds. There were so many unknowns. The Internet was intermittent or non-existent. There wasn’t enough technology to go around. Sitting in front of a computer all day was exhausting and frustrating. Family members argued with each other to vent their frustration.

There are more reasons, I am sure. Teachers and administrators worried constantly about the well-being of the children and checked in on students via telephone or email. Districts provided free meals to families. Counselors became involved in domestic situations. Many of us were so involved in the mental health aspects of this crisis that learning took a back seat. To be flexible, attendance during class conferences was optional, but also triggered phone calls and emails home to make sure that the child was all right.

In other words, for many of us the normal way of doing things simply could not work.

Fast Forward to the Upcoming School Year

Many of the same problems remain for a number of students, but there have been developments that could help them. Districts received funds from the CARES act to acquire technology for the students, for example, which could result in everyone receiving a device and an Internet hotspot if needed. Students may now know their way around the LMS. Teachers have new ideas on delivery of instruction. Districts are trying to figure out how to deliver synchronous instruction in a way that makes those who choose to stay home feel more a part of the class in real time. The number of free webinars available to teachers to learn how virtual teaching and learning works grows exponentially (it’s actually overwhelming). Teachers are wracking their brains to figure out how to retool their curriculum for this new reality.

Few of us think that anything will ever go back to the way it was. We hope it will, but I think we know that for the near future our routines have changed drastically.

We can make this situation better by ensuring that virtual classroom time is active time. We need to keep the students working while they are with us. We can take the flipped classroom pedagogy and employ it in our classroom in a number of ways.

  1. Preparation for class can include watching a short lecture, reading the material to be discussed, or watching a recording of a process and trying a few practice questions before class. There are other preparation activities as well; these are just a few.
  2. Students come to class. They listen to a very short introduction of the activity, then watch the teacher model the activity for them, and then go to work. The teacher can field questions or put students into breakout rooms to discuss the activity, generate questions, or help each other.
  3. Work is “collected.” For example, students can take a photo of their work on paper and upload it to the LMS. I have recommended in previous posts that students work on paper as much as possible because of the eye strain that results from staring at a computer screen. While the teacher randomly scans the submissions, students are engaged in a self-evaluation.
  4. The end of class is a debrief session during which the teacher addresses the remaining misconceptions, reiterates that no question is a bad question, and tells them what they need to do for the next class to prepare.

It might look like this in my ELA class.

Homework: Read and annotate the poem “Introduction to Poetry” by Billy Collins. Review the definitions of metaphor, free verse, stanza, and tone.


  1. Introduction to the day’s activity: Structure and Tone in Poetry. Introduce the essential knowledge components of the activity and the essential questions. (< 5 minutes)
  2. We all listen to Collins read the poem. Discuss how listening to the poem has possibly altered our interpretation. For example, do we find it funnier now or sadder? How does our experience with poetry affect how we react to the poem? (Personally, I think the poem is hilarious and sad at the same time, but I am a teacher who loves poetry and a student who is terrified of it.) Also discuss how the structure belies or supports the speaker’s wish to have students take risks with poetry, to appreciate poetry for more than what it says and rather what it means. (5 — 10 minutes)
  3. Writing component: Students write a thought piece about the poem’s structure and tone. How does the free verse structure affect the poem’s meaning? How is the tone (the speaker’s attitude toward the subject of the poem) conveyed? What words or patterns lead you to your conclusion? How has your attitude toward poetry changed as a result of reading the speaker’s lamentation? Has the speaker created a different mood? (10 minutes)
  4. Upload thought pieces. (2 minutes)
  5. Breakout rooms to talk about thought pieces. Meanwhile, I scan the results of a handful of students. (5 minutes)
  6. Debrief, Exit Slip, and Homework.

This example is for a lesson at the beginning of the year. As the year progresses, part of the preparation would be to review the essential knowledge and essential questions, listen to the poem, and analyze it using a method such as TP-CASST (Title, Paraphrase, Connotation, Attitude/Tone, Shifts, Title). The class can take more time for discussion via chat or verbally or more time for a thought piece as a result.

The point is that students are working most of the time. It will make the virtual learning experience easier and even more enjoyable. Students will also be engaged in active learning. Teachers will also be able to address misconceptions much faster, before they have a chance to take root.

Thank you for reading!

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