19 Back-to-School Tips for Virtual Learning

19 Back-to-School Tips for Virtual Learning

The beginning of the school year is all about building a classroom community. But how do we build community in virtual classrooms? In this blog, Dr. Laura Wilhelm provides words of advice and practical strategies for educators seeking ways to build a sense of classroom community amid the COVID-19 pandemic and the new realities of remote learning.

As schools and centers consider the safety of reopening classrooms, and experiment with new learning formats, teachers are searching for ways to connect with new classes this fall while keeping everyone safe. With virtual, or remote, learning becoming the new reality at many schools for students of all ages, educators are now asking the question: "How do I create a classroom community if my students aren't in the classroom?"

Here are 19 tips for building strong classroom communities:

  1. Keep this quote in mind as you approach the unknown: "Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better." — Maya Angelou
  2. Assign homework to watch an animal webcam and talk about what you observed the following day. Children will love taking virtual trips to the San Diego Zoo or the Smithsonian's National Zoo. Engage with children through games like BINGO, providing them with BINGO cards that showcase words, sounds, or pictures ahead of time. You can download free BINGO cards here. You can even share a virtual storytime with your class by listening to celebrated actors read children's books as a group.
  3. Create lesson plans for when you have an online substitute teacher, just like you would if they were subbing in your classroom.
  4. If you have a PE teacher, maybe they can host a virtual class on yoga, exercise, jump rope, or another movement activity. It could be recorded and shared with all your classes. This would be a great way to start the day!
  5. Consider partnering with another teacher or an assistant teacher during your online instruction. One teacher could take the lead in some sessions and then act as a monitor to keep the other participants muted, help with the chat, or answer questions in later sessions.
  6. Schedule time for parents to call in or do a short update via Zoom to the group. Set some boundaries. Give families specific times that you can accept calls and respond to emails.
  7. Plan some one-on-one teacher and child connection time just to catch up on things that are important. Perhaps schedule a lunch each day or once a week with one or two children.
  8. Remember that it often takes longer to deliver a lesson online than it does in person.
  9. If after school activities get canceled, encourage parents to try these new hobbies out at home with their children:
    • Start a garden in some containers on your porch or patio
    • Learn to sew a simple pillow
    • Make a frame for a family picture using sticks and rocks from the yard
    • Learn to do some simple weaving
    • Set up an art area outside
    • Have a family scavenger hunt
  10. If you end up teaching from home, try to take a walk prior to beginning the day and/or at the end of the day.
  11. Suggest that parents working from home pack lunches and snacks prior to beginning the day. This way families can take a break and eat together. Go outside when you can, and when you can't, spread a blanket on the floor and have a picnic.
  12. Remind parents that when some children are in school for 7 hours they do not spend the entire time on task. There are bathroom breaks, recess, rest, snack, lunch, carpool, etc. Encourage parents to incorporate these breaks into their daily virtual learning schedules.
  13. Teach and practice grace and courtesy with yourself, families, and children. Everyone will be dealing with physical and emotional health issues in their own way.
  14. An advantage of Zoom and FaceTime is that you get to do a virtual home visit where everyone can meet each child's family members and pets. Some families aren't comfortable or may feel their rooms compare poorly to others. Give instructions to families ahead of time on how to change the background if they choose, so their rooms aren't visible.
  15. Things will be different and that's OK. Children will not get behind because everyone around the world is navigating these new waters together. Provide interesting activities and children will learn. They are born scientists, always eager to find out more information.
  16. We find comfort in routines. Let children and families know what to expect, in what order. Repeat favorite songs and stories even when you are delivering distance learning. Play a signature song that you and the children can dance and sing along with at the beginning or end of each session, like "We Are Family" by Sister Sledge.
  17. Lots of emotion is conveyed through the face. Children need to see our faces, or we need to exaggerate our eyes and gestures to communicate clearly. If your school will be wearing masks, consider buying or altering them to have a clear plastic window, like those for people who are deaf and hard-of-hearing, so that children can see facial expressions better. Face shields may be a better option for some teachers.
  18. Talk with children about their feelings. Let them know that we have all kinds of emotions and feelings do change. We may feel sad or worried right now, but might feel better when we run outside or have a snack. Even babies pick up on and respond to our emotions even when we think we are hiding them.
  19. Remember to breathe. Stress comes from unexpected and unpredictable situations. So much is unknown right now. Focus on what you can take care of today while hoping for a better tomorrow. Practice gratitude each day. For example, "Today I am thankful for the way my students share silly things that make each other laugh."

About the Author

Laura Wilhelm, EdD, is a semi-retired professor returning to her first love, childcare. Starting this fall, she will be directing a new early learning center. She has taught in public schools, graduate and undergraduate courses for teachers, administrators, and childcare providers. She has led study tours in Germany, England, Wales, Belgium, France, and Italy. Her research interests include best practices for people under three, nature literacy, and urban education. The upside of social distancing has been spending extra time with her husband and teenagers.