At TpT, we’re committed to helping teachers navigate all sorts of new experiences. This includes moments like right now, when schools across the U.S. and around the world are grappling with the consequences of the coronavirus, facing potential school closures, and exploring the possibility of distance learning.

Over the last few weeks, we’ve heard from teachers that they’re being asked to prepare options for distance learning. To help teachers and parents who might find themselves in this situation, we talked to some experts in the TpT community who have experience with distance learning (which we define for this post as learning that takes place outside of the classroom for an extended period of time). They shared some of their tried-and-true strategies and tips for engaging students in alternative settings. 

#1: Make sure students have materials in the format they need

According to high school special education teacher Jessi from Creative Resources, educators should not assume that all students will have a computer at home to complete work. Therefore, many educators will need to first determine whether to provide a “paper-only” or “paper-and-computer” curriculum. “Once you have determined whether you are providing a ‘paper-only’ curriculum, or a ‘paper-and-computer,’” she says, “you can figure out how you will deliver instruction.” 

For paper-only, sending a large bulk packet home is the most efficient way. However, this can often be overwhelming for students. To avoid this, many of the Teacher-Authors we spoke to recommended batching the work. When teaching homebound students, long-time social studies teacher Luke from Students of History said that one strategy he used was to provide weekly lessons in sealed manilla folders that were dated on the outside and that students were not supposed to open until that date. This helped keep homebound students on pace with kids in school and helped ease their apprehension.

If you can use the computer with your students, speech language pathologist and teletherapist Belinda from BVG SLP recommends getting very familiar with the types of digital resources available (e.g., Static PDFs, Interactive PDFs, Interactive PPTs, Boom Cards, Resources for Google Drive) and how they interact with video conferencing software. She frequently assigns digital interactive notebooks to her students using Google Drive. “These are a great tool because I can periodically check-in to determine if a student is working on the notebook, what has been completed, what may have been skipped, and offer feedback on ways to successfully complete the notebook,” she says. “Digital Interactive Notebooks are also an excellent carryover tool for continued practice and reinforcement after they are completed.”

#2: Communicate guidelines and expectations clearly

In her experience, Jessi from Creative Resources believes that communication and clear guidelines are the keys to successfully helping students keep up with work from a distance. “Students need to know how much to do, especially if a large chunk of work is being sent home at one time,” she says. “High achievers may have no problem sifting through information to determine what needs to be done, but students who struggle, or who have little support at home will have a difficult time navigating their workload unless it is clearly outlined for them.” Here are some ways that she suggests that teachers do just that:

  • Clearly state the dates of all deadlines and the details of each assignment (e.g., titles of Google Classroom resources or specific page numbers in a printed packet) so everyone is aligned on daily expectations. 
  • Create a spreadsheet or tracker for the student to self-reflect every day, if they have done what is expected of them.
  • Choose a specific color of paper for each day of the week (i.e., Monday is yellow, Tuesday is blue, and so on) so that younger students know exactly when they are done with their work for the day.

Similarly, Luke from Students of History emphasized the need for clear communication and guideline setting. “One of the most important things teachers need to do is to help students to know *how* to learn at home,” he says. “This is a new concept for most kids. They won’t know how much time they should spend on your class. Explain your expectations clearly at the start and provide guidelines for each assignment. These should include time estimates, links and resources for where students can find extra information, and how they should ask you for help (i.e., email, Remind texts, and message boards).”

#3: Be prepared for distractions

Elementary online ESL teacher Tanya G Marshall The Butterfly Teacher advises teachers not to underestimate the amount of distractions for students who are using technology when learning remotely. “Don’t assume that students will be engaged with you just because they are learning with a device,” she says. “You will need to keep them focused on you with a few extras added into your teaching.” Some of her suggestions and examples include:

  • Providing lots of visuals with images, videos, and props.
  • Including movement with your teaching, and getting students physically involved in the lesson. “We will stand up and walk to a rhythm when reading to increase engagement,” she says. “I also use movement for teaching cues and signals. For example, I cup my ear with my hand to signal that I expect to hear my student speak. I use lots of hand motions like this which forces my students to really watch me and pay attention as I teach.”
  • Incorporate props and rewards to keep students motivated. “For example, I have a student who loves Hello Kitty. At different intervals of our lesson, I will reward her with Hello Kitty gifs, stickers, or other paraphernalia to keep her excited and engaged with me.”

#4: Partner with parents, when possible

Most Teacher-Authors noted that establishing a strong line of communication with family members is an important component to the success of a distance learning environment. Linda from ELA Teacher Toolbox — a middle school teacher who taught for many years in a 1:1 device school — recommends that, when possible, teachers use their learning management system to communicate with parents. “Briefly tell them the goals of each lesson — maximum of three, brief, easy-to-understand goals — and emphasize that you are there for them to answer questions and provide support and guidance,” she says. “Many parents will have anxiety about doing this. Make it as easy for them as you can. Be clear. Provide examples for everything you want the student to do!”

Have more ideas, resources, or experiences to share for supporting students in alternative learning settings or circumstances? Share them here.