How to Start a Distance Learning Class

Across the country, teachers are being required to alter their class structure to a distancing learning format. Actually, the district my wife and I work at are currently negotiating what that may look like, while we nervously wait. The path that lies ahead will be a challenge but what gives me peace of mind is that, as teachers, we are a resilient, compassionate, hard-working group and will rise to whatever challenges lie ahead. My hope is that my experience in online teaching may help teachers feel more at ease with the distance learning mind-shift.

From the beginning of my online teaching adventure to now, I have tested and learned how to teach successfully in a digital classroom. After much trial and error, I have come up with a formula for a structured online learning class flow. At the core, a shift in how frequently and in what ways I assess student learning has driven my success as a Google Classroom Social Studies teacher. 

Since Google Forms assessments are so easy to assign, providing students with immediate feedback, I assess students more often than I used to, allowing them to retake all quizzes to ensure content and skill mastery. Instructomania history activities and complete unit lesson plans have three skill and content-based quizzes along with an end of unit test that are all online learning ready. While I would never prescribe a one-size-fits-all approach, here’s how I use the curriculum in my World History classes:

1. Students study the geography of the civilization in a Google Slides and Google Maps based geography lesson. Then, students take a Google Forms quiz on key physical features. Instructomania also has Geography videos on our YouTube Channel for content instruction and review.

2. Students study key content and academic vocabulary with various activity options for teachers to assign, but I most frequently use the In Other Words Vocabulary Interactive activity because it’s proven to work overtime, with at least 90% of the students earning 90% or above on the assessment on the first attempt. In this activity set, students read vocabulary words, do Quizlet flashcards and online games, and then match slightly different definitions to the words in an interactive. After the assignment, students take a Google Forms quiz that always has a few short reading passages at the end.

3. Students then read the basics of the content through a Historical Snapshot two-page reading. While we do have an interactive Historical Snapshot online interactive option that allows students to annotate within the document, I have found that printing the resource works best for reading, because it’s easier for students to annotate and use as a reference. I typically have students define or infer the meaning of six unfamiliar words, highlight golden text, and summarize each section with a hashtag summary, billboard, or fictitious web address. Then, I assign the Google Form quiz. Since the quiz is a mixture of knowledge-based and skill-based questions, I allow students to use the reading in an open-note format. Sometimes, I even allow the students to take it in pairs. However, each student is held accountable for the answer he/she submits!

4. After the basic content quiz, I like to assign a few of the activity choices that are content reading and claim-evidence-reasoning writing-based. Honestly, what I assign is always different in any given unit. However, keep in mind that there are more activities available than I would ever assign on any given year. For some examples, sometimes students view slides presentations and do cloze notes while other times I assign the Online Reading Investigations (ORI lessons) for a more in-depth skill and content activity. In addition, the warm-ups parallel the end of the unit assessment question format while practicing the same skills too!

5. Lastly, it’s test time. To prepare students, I assign the Big Idea/Key Concept Matching Review and the Study Guide. The first part of the test is always key-concept matching so I like to get them thinking in terms of the key concepts for Social Science. The second part of the Google Forms test has students cite and find the best-supporting evidence from primary and secondary source reading passages. To parallel the test, the study guide has the EXACT same reading excerpts that are on the test! I found success in allowing students to preview the excerpts, that way they can make meaning and define words that are difficult before being asked to evaluate an answer. The test is not easy, but after previewing the excerpts students have less test anxiety and they always perform better!

Unlike the previous unit quizzes, I do not allow retakes on the end of unit tests because I learned that students did not take the study guide very seriously when that was an option. Since the reading portion of the test is difficult for some students I offset the test grade by making it one point per question for a total of 30 points ad by making the study guide value 10 points based on effort and completion. This offsets test grades while placing a high value on preparation! The two grades average together nicely for better overall student performance.

While the idea of virtual instruction can be daunting, frequent content and skill-based assessments helped me to measure student progress with ease. Essentially, I had a mental shift in the way I assess. Previously, when students were primarily taught on paper, I found that I had more low weighted assignments, but learning was always loosely assessed. Now, while I more frequently assign higher-weighted mini-assessments, I view them as activities, allowing for retakes and sometimes for students to take them in pairs or groups. Still, since they are titled “quizzes” student effort is heightened. 

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