Fall is here and with the COVID-19 pandemic affecting people all around the world, returning to school is a whole new experience for everyone involved—students and teachers alike.
You’ll need the flexibility to adapt to school guidelines as they develop and change and you can take this opportunity to model that adaptability for your students.
Indeed, a significant part of your work this year will be adjusting to the new normal that COVID-19 has brought into our lives.
In this blog, you’ll find tips for setting up your classroom for the school year and keeping students engaged and motivated, whether or not you’ll be teaching them in person or using distance-learning technology.
Back to School in the Classroom
First and foremost, you’ll want to seek out the best, most up-to-date advice and guidance from public health officials and school administrators to help keep your students safe. You’ll find current recommendations from the CDC here.
Create a Safe, Healthy, and Welcoming Environment
As always, you’ll want to begin by creating a positive and welcoming learning environment that prioritizes your students’ health, safety and education. Follow the COVID-19 guidelines above, and encourage healthy habits in your classroom.
You’ll also need to find new ways to navigate collaborative lesson plans, like creating a classbook. (See “Keep Your Students Engaged and Motivated” below.) Be sure to explain to students why these new rules are in place and emphasize the importance of following them.
If you’re starting the school year in person, you may be dealing with limited space in your classroom, due to physical distancing.
Evaluate your classroom space with the current guidelines in mind, and look out for any other issues that could compromise your students’ safety, including hazards like frayed electrical cords or pulls in the rug that could trip kids up.
You’ll also want to make sure that entry and exit ways are open and clearly defined, so as to help alleviate the stress of arrival and dismissal times.
Set Yourself Up for Success
This back-to-school season will be like none ever before, and it will be understandable if you and your students stumble a bit as class sessions begin. Go easy on yourself and your class and be honest about where you are in the process.
You don’t have to be perfect, but remaining collected and confident will help your students cope with their own fears and anxieties. Don’t be afraid to seek additional support at your school.
Tips for New Teachers
Get to know your school custodian and develop a friendly working relationship with them. They can prove to be a great help to you when you have questions related to furniture, storage or getting things fixed in your classroom.
Visit other teachers’ classrooms and get to know them as well. Let your colleagues inspire you. They may have some great ideas that you can use, and analyzing how they’re setting things up and using their space can spark some more great ideas of your own.
Measure and space desks six feet apart and have them all facing the front of your classroom. This will help maintain physical distancing guidelines, even as you encourage bonding and interactions between students from a safe distance (the emphasis is on keeping students physically distanced, not socially distanced).
With desks spaced six feet apart, students in the back of your classroom will find themselves farther away from your front boards than usual.
Be sure to increase the size of lettering on posters, bulletin boards, and when writing on chalk or white boards so that students in the back will still be able to see important information.
Think strategically when setting up your own desk. Will it be a central command station, or a work space for you before and after school?
Whatever the case, you’ll want to ensure that it’s not in an area where your students will be passing by constantly. You may also want to define your space with tape on the floor to help students understand that your desk is off limits.
Consider creating a teaching station in a more centrally located area where you can arrange your daily materials. You can also create distinct areas for different purposes, as space allows.
Find an area to set up your library and, if possible, build a quiet place near there where your students can read and write.
Make a space for students to work collaboratively—such as setting up a larger table for group projects—or an area where they can listen to music or talk quietly, but only if the most up-to-date health guidelines allow it.
If you have classroom technology, such as computers and units for audio and visual presentations, get familiar with them by turning everything on and practicing how you and your students may use it. This is the time to make sure everything works and is up to date.
Once you determine the layout of your classroom, create distinct areas, and arrange your desks and tables in accordance with current guidelines, it’s time to put everything in its place.
You can use clear dividers or bins to store personal materials for individual students and find different locations to safely store art and science supplies, depending on how accessible you want them to be.
Organizing books by different categories and reading levels in your library will help you and your students find just what they’re looking for during quiet reading time.
Decorations, Posters, and Boards
Add personal touches to enrich the environment and reflect your own style. Put up art around the classroom, add rugs to distinct spaces, and bring pillows for your quiet reading area (if you’re able to and current guidelines allow it).
Consider bringing plants into your classroom, which your students may even enjoy helping you care for.
You’ll want to be strategic with what you put up and where, especially in light of space restrictions. Posters and bulletin boards are only as useful as you make them, so stick to focusing on visual aids that you’ll refer to in your day, and update them as necessary.
Again, keep in mind that due to new class configurations, you’ll want to use larger fonts on posters and boards for clearer visibility.
Avoid a cluttered wall that can be distracting to your students by prioritizing what goes up, particularly in the front of the class. Designating that space for the most important information, such as classroom rules and current health guidelines, will help guide you in this prioritization.
Setting Up Online Classrooms
With the new normal still developing in response to COVID-19, many schools and teachers continue to explore options for virtual learning, also known as distance- or remote-learning.
As you know and may have already experienced, distance-learning is technology-based instruction for educating students remotely, and it usually involves online class meetings and coursework using digital tools and applications, video conferencing and virtual platforms.
While some schools are starting with in-person classes, others are opting for some version of virtual learning, and still others, a combination of both.
Of course the route your school takes may differ from another, depending on your location, current case numbers and public health guidelines. As school administrators make decisions, parents should be made aware of all their options.
You’ll also want to develop your own understanding and practices, which you’ll need to be ready to communicate.
As the school year unfolds, it’s important for you to provide information to parents about how virtual learning works, and how they can talk to their children about learning remotely.
Depending on the technology you’re using, you may need to outline technical information, such as what applications will be used, how users can login, and how to use different features in the apps. You’ll also want to discuss how projects and assignments will be turned in and graded.
Creating a “Frequently Asked Questions” document can be extremely helpful. In addition, regular weekly check-ins with parents and students will be important for keeping everyone up to date in terms of student progress and as processes for virtual learning evolve.
Creating a Virtual Classroom that Welcomes and Inspires
As teachers, we know that nothing compares to educating our students in person in the classroom.
However, as we adapt to life with COVID-19, it’s good to remind ourselves that we have the technology for distance learning, and there are simple things we can do to create virtual classrooms that are accommodating and inspirational for all of our students.
As always, keeping positive and supportive lines of communication open with families will go a long way.
Virtual learning should resemble education in the classroom as closely as possible, especially at the elementary school level, where children depend on routine and structure to feel safe and secure.
Utilize your school’s distance learning technology to create a collaborative environment in which your students can interact with you and each other as they normally would.
Create an online classroom setting and procedures that work to facilitate regular check-ins with your students and parents and allow for group projects and individual student support.
Establish Virtual Classroom Rules
Many of your basic classroom etiquette and rules will translate to a virtual learning environment, while others will not.
Determine which rules will be absolute (such as no cheating), then allow students to suggest additional rules they’d like to see implemented (such as treat others as you’d like to be treated), using your distance learning technology.
Then, go over the new rules that are specific to your virtual classroom setting. You’ll find some examples below:
- Mute yourself when you are not speaking so as not to interrupt or talk over others
- Use the chat feature to send any personal questions directly to me (the teacher)
- No private chats or chatrooms between students unless authorized for group activities
Make the Most of Distance-Learning Tools
Focus on the possibilities that technology, like video conferencing, provides as opposed to its limitations.
You can create a fun and engaging background for your virtual classroom using personal décor, or by exploring the virtual backgrounds available on some video conference platforms.
Have fun and feel free to switch it up—you may be able to come up with themed backgrounds that match your lesson plans (just don’t make them too distracting!).
Another benefit to distance-learning with video conferencing is the ability to record and share your classes, so that students who were unable to attend or who could use a repeat of the lessons can watch or rewatch them later.
Digital tools and features like these will aid you and your students in making the adjustment to virtual learning.
You’ll want to ensure that your distance learning platforms are mobile-enabled, as not every student will have the same access to devices and the Internet.
Keep your students’ computer literacy and typing skills in mind, too, and be flexible with timing and deadlines for kids who may take longer to complete typed responses.
Consider using video chat formats and messaging tools to improve communication between yourself, students, and parents.
Keeping Your Students Engaged and Motivated
As the landscape of learning shifts in light of COVID-19 and we all wonder what comes next, your students will likely need more help and support than ever before with staying positively engaged, open and motivated.
Watch for engagement in virtual classrooms and call on individual students to contribute to the lesson or activity by sharing their work or thoughts with the rest of the class.
If attention wanders, re-engage your students by asking them to hold up two fingers in the peace sign on screen once they’ve heard you and understand what you’ve said—or ask them to virtually raise their hands using that feature on your video conference platform, if available.
With new technology comes new ways to play and have fun so get creative and keep your students motivated with some of the morale-boosting activities below.
Use Props and Fun Visual Aids
Base activities on props and visual aids that can be shared over video conferencing platforms. This can include drawings and posters, picture books read aloud, items that match themes in your curriculum and anything your students may want to share.
You can also present visual aids by sharing your screen to show examples or instructions for what you want students to do.
Play Learning Games
Highlight a “Star of the Week”
One game you can use to get to know your students is “Star of the Week.” Ask for a volunteer or select any student to be the classroom “star.”
Let everyone know that each student in the class will have a turn. (This is not merit-based.) Have your “star student” compile attributes and information about themselves that they wouldn’t mind sharing with the class.
Next, have them make a poster that represents themselves and references that information. During your next class session, have them present the poster to the class, while having your “star student” explain what they chose to share.
This fun “getting to know you” activity enables you to highlight each and every one of your students while allowing them to build confidence in speaking to the class.
Go on a virtual scavenger hunt
For a fun break, take at least five minutes to lead your class on a virtual scavenger hunt. You can call out items related to your lessons and ask your students to identify objects in their environment that begin with the same letter.
Students can point or grab the items and show them on screen, or they can simply call them out. Let students know that if there is nothing around them, they can just imagine it.
Take a virtual field trip
Select a location related to your lessons or ask students to share different places they have been or would like to go—anywhere in the world. Find and save images and prepare informational captions for each location, then schedule your virtual field trip. Explore these locations by sharing the images on screen and reading the captions aloud.
Create a Class Book
Whether your class is learning virtually or in-person having a keepsake of the year together is something your students will treasure!
Creating a classbook is a great way to capture this unique time. When you are ordering your free classbook publishing kit you can choose to publish online or with physical pages. If you opt to publish online you will receive an email with information on getting set up. If you selected a paper publishing kit option your kit will arrive at your school. Make kit pages for text and illustration available to your students via download, pickup, or delivery by mail.
With either kit option, the next step is to agree on a topic as a class, and have brainstorming sessions to generate ideas for your book pages. Set aside time for your students to work on their pages individually, or split them into virtual groups to discuss their ideas and work on their pages together.
You can do this by enabling breakout rooms on your video conference platform or utilizing messaging tools for virtual chats. Set a deadline for your students to complete their pages.
Once done, they can either upload scanned or photographed files, send pages through the mail, or make them available to you for pickup for physical pages or if you are working online your students will digitally submit their work to you. .
When you’ve received all of the pages you can present on screen to the class and then send them off to be published. Finally, once your classbook is complete, throw a virtual party to celebrate.
These are trying times, but we can’t let COVID-19 take us completely off track—our students are depending on us. Though we may struggle to adapt to the new normal, it’s important to keep in mind that we have all the tools we need to be successful.
The same skills you’ve developed in the classroom will transfer to any new learning environment. Just do your best to remain flexible, honest and supportive of your students, and help each other to adjust. We can do it.
Click here to learn more about how the process works and see how your students can become published authors!