How to Structure a Virtual Classroom

March 23, 2020

It’s easy to take for granted the stabilizing role that teachers play in students’ lives. We are so much more than guides through curriculum; we also provide a safe and predictable environment where our students anticipate learning, like a learning incubator. Students can focus on the task in a predictable environment that is primed for success; they know what is expected of them. Learning is scheduled out, and in these environments learning is possible. It may include accomplishments and failures, but we can measure the full distance of growth once students leave our classes at the end of the year.
When we move the learning online, there are bound to be hiccups. But I have to say, in crazy times like these, I am always impressed by how much teachers rise to the occasion. 
I teach AP Government in the online environment. I still have an incubator for learning just as I would in my classroom, but there are some unique challenges. With that in mind, I want to share some tips on how we can rise to the occasion before us successfully.
Before I get to specific points of advice, let me say this. Online learning is rooted in inequity. Successful online environments have to anticipate all the ways in which inequitable access to resources may impede learning. This is especially true in this moment. In person, we can really act as a guide through the content. We are right in the center of learning. We roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty in learning. But now that we are remote and distant, we’re more like an observer, separated and unable to steer our students through learning well. Success will require more deliberate efforts to create community and know your students and their vulnerabilities. Touch base. Ask questions. Interview your kids in the distance learning environment. Be ready to answer them outside of "office hours" as learning happens outside of the traditional school day.
Here is how I recommend adapting to distance learning:

  • Strive for asynchronous: While our community is resource rich, we have no idea what the climate is like at home. Kids who appear thriving in school may start to flounder for reasons that are beyond our control. While synchronous instruction is great to catch kids where we know that they will stumble, there will be reasons why kids cannot attend. Many learning management systems allow us to record, which is great...so kids who need help can get it.
  • Less is more: Remember, kids will be at home with everyone in their household for the foreseeable future. Spending time in front of a computer screen is exhausting, and your kids are not prepared. They will probably have little to no support in learning as they move through the curriculum as many parents either are working, managing the change, or do not have the content knowledge to help their children. This means that the more hoops you give them, the more likely they are to not be successful. Which leads to concerns about mental health and stressful homelife situations, and that leads to burnout and other, more nefarious problems. Make your expectations light. 
  • Learning should be concrete: More than ever, announce your intended schedule. Tell students what they should learn. Give them stuff like video watching and resource reading before they walk in via entrance ticket; have two or three simple questions to ascertain that they did what they needed to. Get to business in the chat, have it be interactive, and have an exit ticket. Give an option for the exit ticket that has an asynchronous viewing skill measurement.
  • Break skills down into small parts: Focus on one point rubrics, microtargeting of skills, and make sure you give feedback during and after instruction.
  • Leave space for students to have a back channel: I always ask what they have questions about before and after the discussion, and encourage the use of the chat function as a back channel.
  • Provide for customization of learning: Choice boards are really great here (like a bingo board or some other form of choice). Encourage kids to tackle both the things that they don’t understand and the things of personal interest, with the ability to propose options.
  • Allow kids wait time and group work before you discuss: Use breakout room functions if you are able to, as they allow kids to discuss and try the content, and then flex in and out of the rooms, catching mistakes and misconceptions. Ask particular kids to share their work so they are prepared.
  • Avoid reproductive workIf you incentivize grades that can be achieved via copy and paste, that is what you will get. It’s not personal, but you have to anticipate it. Think of the stress of being at home largely alone; it makes conditions ripe for copy and paste. Make your demonstration of learning geared towards original work that requires answering larger, open-ended questions. DBQs, moot courts, etc. work best. Something where kids have to take a stand. And tell them to cite their work. Other great ways of touching base would be Harvard’s Project Zero Visible Thinking Routines.
  • Try to balance time: I am working on one or two less tedious, more meaningful experiences where kids are showing mastery of the essential knowledge in a way that is of interest as opposed to a lot of small things. It is also really helpful if you are specific in what you want (i.e. a 300 word response that provides evidence from both your text and one outside resource with citations) as opposed to a simple “respond to the following question.” The work improves. Even better to model work you like so you can train them on how to work.
  • Anticipate server overload: Learning with cool digital tools like Quizlet Live, Quizizz, Kahoot, etc. are bound to backfire. Be careful and be aware that servers for all of these experiences are overloaded. I have several resources that I like, but try to be sparing. If you have to use stuff like Pear Deck, Study Edge, Socrative, Poll Everywhere, Mentimeter, Flipgrid...do it asynchronously in case you are in a synchronous chat. It eats up time if you are troubleshooting technology. Maybe give options that are not digitally based. 
  • Students can still show signs of mental health crises in virtual learning environments: In fact, they may be more likely to share because there is less social blowback from admitting to people in person that they are vulnerable. If kids fall off the face of the earth in the virtual learning environment, most often it is because there is some kind of mental or physical health issue. I cannot tell you how many kids share mental health concerns with me virtually. There is so much less pressure.
  • Again, build community purposefully: Let them know you care, but there is such a thing as too much unfocused community building. It can cause people anxiety when they feel like their time is being wasted. Consider building community through social media challenges that are fun, which allow kids to be creative and true to themselves. Pepper in socioemotional learning themes like yoga, or maybe even checking in with our emotions in a forgiving way - I like the Ruler Method and the Mood Meter from Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

Written By Jenifer Hitchcock
Jenifer teaches 12th grade AP Government at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. She has been a member of the iCivics Educator Network since 2017.

Need more? iCivics has compiled enrichment activities, our most popular and timely games, and lessons into a Remote Learning Toolkit so you can easily find resources to support remote learning and share them with students and their families.