This post originally appeared on the blog Science with Mrs. Lau.

All over the United States, teachers are being told to get ready to teach with e-learning if necessary, as many of us watch the news about the coronavirus beginning to spread in the community. In a bunch of countries in Asia, e-learning has already been instituted for over a month now, including one of my favorite places, Hong Kong!

In the U.S., we are faced with a bunch of questions: If we have to teach our students from home, what should we do? What tools should we use? How do we structure those e-learning lessons? What should be our expectations? How do we support our students from afar?

Here are some ideas and tips you can take and use IF it comes to the point when you have to teach online instead of live-in-the-classroom. (These ideas are also great for teaching individual students who need to learn at home due to illness or special circumstances or if your school closes for a long snowbound week! There are a lot of situations where these tips could come in handy.)

REQUIREMENT: Students (and you!) need access to a computer at home. Unfortunately, in some districts, students do not all have access and this is a problem that needs a solution as well. I hope to post more about this on my Facebook page in the future.

Tip #1: Have really clear expectations for students set from the beginning.

Having a set of expectations for student behavior online ready is really important! Teachers could use the first class to discuss these. Students will need to know when and how to mute and unmute themselves, use nonverbal hand signals to indicate agreement or disagreement or that they have a question or that they need to use the bathroom. (Tell them not to take their device TO the bathroom with them!). Teachers can help their students and their online classes run smoothly with expectations set from the beginning, just like teachers do at the beginning of the year. Here is a link to some sample expectations in a Google Doc that you can copy for yourself and adjust to fit your class needs.

Tip #2: Set a simple schedule — it does not need to be complicated!

Don’t make your online schedule too ambitious or complicated! Here is a sample schedule you could use to plan out your online teaching week:

  • Monday – introduce new topic, discuss with google docs or slides, youtube video
  • Tuesday – Menu Activity (free on TPT)
  • Wednesday – introduce next topic, discuss with google docs or slides, youtube video, other online resources
  • Thursday – Menu Activity
  • Friday – Google Form Quiz and/or Flipgrid video where they record themselves explaining a few of the answers to you AND add in a fun community activity!

Tip #3: Have some easy tech tools set up and ready for students to use at home.

Using your school’s LMS (Learning Management System), whether you have Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas, Blackboard, it’s actually super easy to have students learn virtually, complete assignments, and send them back to you!

I recommend having students write on PDFs directly with the Chrome extension Kami!  Any individual student PDF pages can be opened in Kami (a Google Chrome extension) and students can write, annotate, and type right onto the PDF, and then send it back to you through your LMS.

I’m a big fan of Google slides! Google slides are a great place for students to create their own curated notes on a topic or their own presentations about a particular subject you assign to them.

For assessments, I recommend using Google Forms and/or Flipgrid! Flipgrid is an easy platform to set up and you can have students film themselves explaining their answer to a question!

Tip #4: Have the goal and instructions for your e-learning lesson very clear from the start.

Tell students exactly what the goal of the lesson is and make sure they understand what the expectations are. There is nothing more frustrating for a student for the assignment not to be clear and if they have to contact you to clarify the assignment (multiple times even), that wastes their time and yours.

Here is an example of a NOT-specific learning goal/expectations set:

Create a google slides presentation about X-linked alleles. (This is not useful or helpful for students and they may really not know what you expect; they may spend too much time imaging what you really want or email you a bunch of times with questions…)

Here is an example of a good specific goal/expectations set for the same lesson:

Goal: To understand and be able to explain the difference between X-linked inheritance and simple Mendelian inheritance in genetics.

Instructions/Expectations: Create a 5+ slide Google Slides Presentation explaining the difference between X-linked inheritance and simple Mendelian inheritance which include two genetics problems they made up with a written explanation on how to solve those problems. Use real-life examples for the traits in your example problems. Use tables on your slides to show your Punnett squares.

I created this free activity menu that you can use to give students choice! The activity menu can be found here for free on TPT.

Tip #5: Set specific, but reasonable deadlines.

If a student has to e-learn at home, very often that student will be sharing a computer with other siblings who also may have e-learning assignments. It is also very possible that your students have parents who have to work from home during this same time period, maybe on the same computer!  The student may also have younger siblings to help care for at home, in the event that the normal childcare for younger siblings is not available.  Your student is also likely receiving an e-learning assignment for every other subject they are taking at school, alongside your assignments!  I recommend giving short, impactful assignments that can be completed in forty minutes or less.  I also recommend having a two-day deadline per assignment, to build in the necessary flexibility.

Tip #6: Don’t be afraid to assign an open-ended, creative assignment instead of a set of worksheet questions!

Giving students choices can be a great way to make e-learning more engaging! You could encourage your students to make a fun animated video with Chatterpix to explain a concept to you in their own words or even create a model out of playdoh or clay or other materials they have at home, in place of a Google Slides notes assignment.

Tip #7: Allow students to collaborate!

When students are stuck at home, they often would love the option to collaborate with a classmate virtually! Students who have to learn from home often miss the interactions they would normally have with their classmates and collaborating on an assignment can really help them connect with their friends in a productive way during a school closure situation.

Google Docs and Google Slides are terrific platforms that students can use to collaborate; it is super easy for students to share a document, work together on it, and submit to you with only a few clicks! With the genetics example explained above, you could give students the option to pair up, individually write three different challenging genetics problems on Google Slides, send and quiz each other, self-grade, and then send to you!

Tip #8: Have some fun!

This time is stressful. Even the grownups are a little scared and on edge. Students need you to give them a little taste of normalcy. I suggest doing something community-building or something truly fun on Fridays, something they can look forward to especially if there are weeks of this online teaching in a row.

I came up with this idea at a random moment when I was trying to distract myself with some TV channel flipping. I wanted to figure out a way to make learning fun and lighten the atmosphere a little with an activity you could do with your students over online meetings.

I realized that we see reality tv judges and other personalities with their sponsored coffee mugs or other soda bottles with brands on them and it dawned on me! When you go live on video, everyone is always wondering: what is in her cup she is drinking, what does it say on the mug (if the words are too small to see), what is on his/her shirt, etc etc. What if we made this into a learning possibility? Students could decorate their water bottles to illustrate a particular topic that they learned that week on Friday! You can download this Dazzle Your Water Bottle Challenge here for free on TPT.

Dazzle your water bottle challenge

Tip #9: Try to connect with your students as much as possible during the school closure

Depending on your LMS and your school district’s policies, the resources you have to connect with your students don’t have to start and end with email/Google Classroom!  I know that several schools in Hong Kong are having their teachers connect with their students over video once a day using Zoom or other similar video conferencing programs, even if the actual class can’t be live all at the same time for an actual online class.  Some teachers are using private youtube channels or other avenues to connect with their students through video and touch base.

Use whatever method your school district approves of, but try to let your students SEE you, in some way, every day.  I know high school and middle school students often complain about their teachers while they’re in school, but students in prolonged school closure situations actually really miss their teachers.  They miss your eye rolls, your corny jokes, they miss you scolding them for spilling coffee on their homework for the fiftieth time, and they miss saying hi to you in the hallway.  Connect with them, remind them that you care and you still are there, helping them learn, as often as you can! Have a good week ahead, take care of yourself, and go wash your hands!!


Bethany Lau is a science teacher, illustrator, and writer with over 15 years experience of teaching and mentoring students and other teachers in science, robotics, and mathematics. Bethany is known as one of the most innovative science educational resource writers and her resources are used in over 60 countries all over the world. She lives in Southern New Jersey with her husband and two small children.