If you’re a teacher preparing for the new school year in Fall 2020, you know just how different things will look this semester. Teachers preparing to conduct most or all of their teaching remotely – even if the school year begins in person, are aware that it could change next week, next month, or next quarter. This preparation looks different for every subject too. And if you’re a General Ed teacher, like most elementary school teachers), your job is even more complex.  

I’m going to focus on e-learning preparation strategies that can apply to all subjects. I talked to Denver area 5th grade teacher Adin Becker about his own preparation for remote learning in 2020, materials for virtual classes, and extra efforts to get ready for the unprecedented fall term. Here are some of your biggest priorities for the 2020 classroom.  

  1. Trim your videos for shorter attention spans
  2. Prioritize Social & Emotional Learning
  3. Use Zoom backgrounds in new ways
  4. Read-pair-share using Zoom Breakout Rooms
  5. Make materials that serve visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners

1. Trim your videos for shorter attention spans

Students, especially elementary schoolers, have limited attention spans and it’s difficult to monitor their participation from my end. This is probably the hardest part of preparing e-learning materials like lesson plans. In the virtual classroom, the structure needs to be more compact to effectively use students’ shorter attention spans.

Depending on the lesson and the material, taking Becker’s advice might look very different. If you’re able to conduct classes real-time in Zoom or a virtual classroom setting, it simply means that your lesson plans need to be structured fairly densely & actively, keeping students’ limited attention spans engaged for the whole class.

But not all school systems and students are equally equipped to institute regular real-time remote class sessions, so you may need to think of other ways to keep your students as engaged as possible, with even less control over their attention. With younger students, this is as simple as creating rich digital content that is nonetheless highly accessible. E-learning videos, for example, may be more effective with younger students than PowerPoint presentations or simple documents & worksheets. A shorter lesson video with questions interspersed may be a better option than a longer video lesson – this way, you can keep your students as focused as possible even though you can’t monitor their engagement directly.

2. Prioritize Social & Emotional Learning

Social & Emotional Learning, or SEL, has been a hot topic for many years now as a vital approach to teaching younger students and preparing them for future success, but the stakes are higher than ever in a remote learning setting. Becker elaborates:

More than anything, students miss their peers and the routine of going to school. I will introduce more in-class discussion between students, make use of online academic games, and show interest in my students’ well being. Furthermore, some students are traumatized after losing family to COVID or getting sick themselves. For that reason, social-emotional learning will be front and center this semester to address trauma.

Prioritizing social-emotional learning can take many forms. Because it will be exceedingly easy for students to tune out during online learning, class will need to be hyper-interactive. You may also need to schedule socially-distanced in-person visits with your students, check in with them regularly over Zoom, loosen some of your class requirements, and advocate with your school district’s educators for mental health resources for students. Here are some free mental health resources for students to begin with:

A list of free, remote mental health and counseling services for students.

3. Use Zoom backgrounds in new ways

E-learning materials don’t only include the things you send to students, but also the materials that students use to show you their own work. During an in-person class, you could have students hold up their assignments or use whiteboards, and you could circulate through the class to check on students’ work. But during remote sessions, Becker explains, it’s much harder:

In literacy lessons, it’s hard to expect students to both be looking at their book and paying attention to Zoom. It’s also harder to monitor student work as it will be hidden behind their screen on Google Drive. I can check on their google drives, but the process is much slower and requires me to stop paying attention to Zoom.

Remote class platforms like Zoom, however, give you some other options to check on your students’ work during class sessions, and even have some fun while doing it. You can create assignments to be filled out in a 16:9 format, send students templates to customize, or have them take horizontal pictures with their phones.

A screenshot showing how to add a virtual background to Zoom.

Anything formatted with a 16:9 aspect ratio can be quickly turned into a Zoom virtual background that students can display behind them during class, so students can display their work the whole time, and you can monitor the entire class while you teach. Not all devices can support Zoom virtual backgrounds, so you need to be flexible to your students’ varying needs, but most machines are likely to support the feature.

4. Read-Pair-Share Using Zoom Breakout Rooms

As a Zoom host, there are a lot of tricks you can use to make remote learning a bit more like in-person classes, with the help of other easy software. Becker elaborates on the usefulness of smaller breakout sessions during Zoom meetings:

Read, pair, share. In other words, we will read the texts, discuss them together as a group, and then students will have the opportunity to discuss a variety of text-dependent questions together. These will verify whether or not students were paying attention and understood the text. I will then ask students to share out so that they can learn from each other.

To use Zoom’s breakout rooms feature, make sure you’ve enabled them in your Zoom settings. Go to your Meeting tab in your settings, select Breakout Rooms, and toggle them to “Enabled.” This way, you can assign your students to their own breakout rooms during your class sessions and turn them off when you want to reconvene as a class.

5. Make materials that serve visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners

Some students learn best visually, some learn best with verbal instruction, and others are best served by tactile, interactive techniques. These are common, general distinctions: visual, auditory, and kinaesthetic learners. Apart from the various social aspects of learning that are removed from students’ experiences in 2020, kinaesthetic learners also lose access to the learning methods they need most.

An infographic spotlighting the three types of learners.

Becker likes to use manipulatives to help young students learn more difficult subjects in elementary math, like fractions. But in the absence of physical manipulatives in 2020, you’ll have to look elsewhere. Online math games add a kinaesthetic aspect to digital learning that can’t be achieved by class recordings or Zoom sessions.

Creating e-learning materials for your visual and auditory learners also takes some work. Your e-learning videos should always include subtitles, image overlays, and graphic aids so visual learners can absorb your teaching more efficiently. And for auditory learners, it’s a good idea to speak in an engaging way, include sound effects, and even use unobtrusive background music at appropriate times.

I hope this article has helped you move forward with your Fall 2020 class preparation if you're involved in remote classes or e-learning. You'll certainly have more questions – take time to discuss and share 2020 teaching techniques with your fellow teachers and educators in your community, whether it's your school, district, or social media groups.