Virtual Classroom? 5 Best Practice Takeaways

Virtual Classroom? 5 Best Practice Takeaways

When the idea of a virtual classroom first became a very real possibility, teachers everywhere began to panic (I mean prepare)! Teachers are so resilient, determined and most of all reflective, so let's discuss the 5 best practice takeaways for virtual classrooms to be better prepared for an uncertain new school year in the fall.

1) Your Face Matters

First, traditional schooling has been ingrained in our students for years. Think of our seniors! The change that distance learning presented was radical. The first major takeaway is that students need to see and hear you! Normal conversations about life, laughing, and asking about a student’s day keeps scholars grounded. It gives an opportunity to build and maintain a human connection; something we have all learned is an absolute necessity after being thrown into an unexpected quarantine. When students are able to connect through that computer, their work ethic, their productivity, and most of all their desire to learn with you, increases tenfold. Who knew this would be such an essential takeaway? But, teachers matter, a lot, in our scholars’ lives.

2) Try Something Old, New, and Borrowed

The virtual classroom is, in a way, a new marriage that is the beginning of a whole new way of teaching, but don't forget to rely on good old Google Classroom, Canvas, or Schoology. They are great mainstays. Remember, virtual learning requires a new way of delivering instruction, so try something new. Start by taking PD on new technology. Check out a webinar, courses through school districts, and even join some Facebook groups about technology. Most importantly, borrow! Ask your colleagues what is working and of course read the blogs!

3) Explicitly Teach Real Life Skills

Ever receive a student email with the entire content of the email in the subject line? Students now need explicit instruction on communicating virtually! Students also have to learn how to be organized and utilize time management. Think about the last time you took six classes at once! Start by creating a schedule with them. In school students are told to be in certain classes at specific times, often with reminder bells! Use a planner or calendar. Google Calendar saves me with its alerts, but students need the explicit learning experience to be successful in the virtual classroom.

4) Less is More

Whoa. One of my very first realizations from digital learning was everyone was overwhelmed by the workload, teachers and students alike. Yes, we can fit it all in during a regular week of traditional school, but this is nothing like that! Less is definitely more. Want to save your sanity as well as the sanity of your students? Begin by taking a look at a normal (in school) unit and pare it down to just the essentials for virtual learning. Keep in mind the amount of time students are working on school work (all subjects) will not even be close to a whole school day. Become a minimalist. Think how collaboration may be different.The most loved project done in school, may not fit virtual learning. But, a version of that project will. Think differently and acknowledge the road blocks. What parts of the project are most vital to understanding the standard or content you were delivering? Virtual learning could be an exciting opportunity and challenge for all involved!

5) Share. Teamwork. Share Some More.

Getting through virtual learning should be no different than regular teaching. Keep in touch with colleagues. Share resources. Have conversations about what worked with students and ask for help when you are struggling! We are in this together as educators and we cannot go through it alone! Take a minute. Think about what are your best practice takeaways you learned from having a virtual classroom. It's time to make a plan! What takeaways are you going to prepare for in your next virtual classroom?

Top 5 Tools to Help Differentiate Online Learning

Top 5 Tools to Help Differentiate Online Learning 

Differentiation, although not a new academic term, it most definitely continues to be a top buzz word in the world of education. Differentiation in a nutshell is a teaching strategy where a teacher changes up the instruction to meet the needs of different learners.  Differentiation can take on many forms in the regular classroom setting as well as in the virtual world. Here are 5 tools to help you differentiate your instruction in your online classroom. 

The Power of PowerPoint
Tried and true, PowerPoint is the go-to presentation tool for many teachers and it is the perfect tool for differentiation in the virtual world.  One of the easiest ways to differentiate in PowerPoint is to use hyperlinks. You can jump from one slide to another slide with one click regardless of slide order. You can also hyperlink to a video, a file, or a website. If you have a student that needs extended help, you can hyperlink to a tutorial video or another slide within the PowerPoint specifically designed for small group instruction or extended help.  

Branch out
Google Forms is another great resource to differentiate within the classroom as well as in the virtual world. With forms you can “branch” to specific sections. If a student answers a question incorrectly, branching can take them to another section where they can get a mini lesson to remediate the question and then go back and try again. 

For a video tutorial on Branching go here: How to Branch in Google Forms

Choice Boards
Choice boards are a great way to differentiate your instruction and can be used for any subject.
Providing student choice allows them to take ownership of their learning. Whatever virtual platform you are using, you can introduce your students to the options in a variety of ways. You can create a choice board using Microsoft word, google docs, PowerPoint, to name a few. A choice board can be compared to a tic-tac-toe board. Each square can be its own individual assignment, or the assignments can be used to build on one another. In addition, you can hit all learning styles while creating various levels of rigor.  And bonus! A choice board can double as a learning contract!

Create and Write
The 21st century student is typically tech savvy, visual, and will avoid writing activities because they simply “don’t like to write” or prefer writing text messages versus essays. However, a great
differentiation strategy is to create then write.  Have students complete a quick sketch (give them between 2 and 3 minutes) they can draw whatever they want.

Here are some examples: 
·         Favorite room in the house
·         Family
·         Cat
·         Neighborhood
·         Heart
·         Dog
·         Favorite food 

After time is up, they will write about their drawing. The rules are, there are no rules, just write,
whatever comes to mind, it doesn’t have to be complete sentences, don’t worry about punctuation, just write. Give them about 3 minutes.  This activity takes away the fear of writing and the fear of being “wrong” because there are no rules. Just write. 

There are tons of online educational games out there but Quizizz is one to reckon with when it comes to differentiation! Students can engage in the activity at their own pace as well as get instant feedback. It’s user friendly and mobile friendly which is perfect for learning anywhere at any time (Hello distance learning!)

For teachers it’s great because it collects data and provides a way to assess your students as to where they are at in their learning. There are millions of teacher made Quizizz to choose from or you can create your own. The possibilities are endless! 

Quizizz recently updated their platform going beyond multiple-choice questions and engaging learners critical thinking skills with a wider range of question types. As if that wasn’t enough, Quizizz has accessibility features including multiple languages, zoom and read aloud options. Did I mention it’s FREE!?!?! Check it out here:

Thanks to these 5 options, differentiation with distance learning and virtual classrooms just got easier! 

The Importance of Independent Reading

When you're a young adult you're constantly being told what to do both at home and at school. It's amazing that more young adults aren't rebellious with all the rules forced upon them. If schools truly want to foster a love of reading, independent reading is a necessity. Students are constantly being told what to read and often the books that are considered part of the canon were by written predominately by white men.

In recent years there has been a push to add female authors and multicultural authors into the curriculum across the U.S. This varies from school to school and sometimes there's no rhyme or reason for the books selected. The classics are extremely important, I'd be the first one to tell you that I insist on teaching Shakespeare every year, but there's no reason why we can't teach a mixture of classical literature and modern literature. The students we teach should be able to find characters like themselves in the literature they read in school.

Being a teenager is a confusing time in one's life even if you're "normal" whatever that means. How would you feel if every book you read was written before you were born, before your parents were born? How would you feel if none of the characters were like you? How many books contain strong female protagonists? (Not a love interest, the main character.) How many books are being taught that have major characters that are multicultural? What about biracial? What about LGTBQ books? If we present literature written solely by white men, what are we telling students? Are we telling them that their gender, race, sexual preference, etc doesn't matter? Maybe reading a book about a gay character could help that student with their identity. Maybe reading a book with a strong female protagonist could give a young girl in your class more confidence. I remember having a student look at the book Persepolis and saying to me "the character looks like me" and she smiled. Why can't every student have that feeling?

I've heard people say that young adult books aren't rigorous enough which is silly. First get them to like reading and then build rigorous activities around the literature. Once they are readers you can vary the texts more. You can take a book that isn't a difficult book to read and you can still dive deeper into the text. I remember the first time I taught the book Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson. I had a group of "repeater 12th graders." (Yes they were actually called that.) These students were in high school for a 5th year and they didn't want to read. I remember reading the first chapter of Speak out loud and the students loved it. They wanted to know more about this high school girl. They could relate to either her or other students in the book. The same thing happened when I taught the book Monster by Walter Dean Myers to a group of 9th graders who were mostly reluctant readers. They wanted to know more about this 16 year old boy and how he ended up in jail. These aren't your stereotypical school books but why can't they be?

Maybe your administration forces you to teach a certain list of books. We've all been there. Maybe there's no room for books that aren't part of the cannon.That's why independent reading is extremely important. You can plan a trip to the school library or have diverse books in your own classroom library. The school's library media specialist can help you by giving book talks and giving students suggestions. In the past while in the school library every book that the librarian mentioned was checked out. You can require one independent reading book a marking period or one book a month. It's up to you. Why can't you read Shakespeare together as a class and they can read a book they enjoy in their free time? When students are given choices they take ownership. Why can't you have independent reading time once a week? If your school doesn't allow it, try once every other week.  If we truly want to cultivate lifelong readers, students need to read books that they are interested in.

Book Review: Spill Zone

Spill Zone by Scott Westerfeld and Alex Puvilland takes place in Poughkeepsie, NY 3 years after the mysterious spill. The main character Addison illegally goes into the zone and takes pictures of the aftermath and sells them in order to survive. She acts as a parent to her sister Lexa that has been mute since the night of the spill. Lexa has a doll named Vespertine that she talks to and the doll needs to recharge in the zone. Addison is offered $1 million to get an object out of the hospital, but she’s hesitant about going in there because she fears seeing her parents.
While reading this book the saying “a picture is worth a thousand words” comes to mind because the graphics are beautiful. There is a big supernatural element to this story (a psychic connection to a doll, meatpuppets, other mysterious creatures in the zone, etc.) and this is truly shown through the drawings. I don’t think this story would be as good if it didn’t have the graphics.

This book would be a great addition to a secondary ELA classroom library. We should have a mixture of regular novels and graphic novels. I love that this book is a science fiction graphic novel and the pictures are incredible. There are two books so far (Spill Zone and Spill Zone Two) and I can't wait to see how the series continues.

5 Alternative Methods for Long Distance Learning

Everything has changed in the blink of an eye. Stores have closed. No one is advised to mingle. The world is becoming a place of fear. With all of the changes, one of our students’ constants has also been taken away: the classroom. While students may not be in our classrooms, they are still “here” and they need to learn. If your school is going into a flex learning process, what are some options you have as a teacher to ensure your students are getting the best education without you in front of them?

#1: Create a YouTube Channel
If your students have access to a computer, gaming console, phone, or smart TV they will have the ability to get onto YouTube. Put your links on your school page and teach your students how to do a variety of topics. In order to ensure students are getting something out of the videos, require them to post a comment or email you a video or response of some kind.

#2: Turn to Technology
This is one of the times our students being technologically driven is actually to our advantage. Various programs like Google Classroom and Schoology are free to use for teachers and their classes. The best part about Google Classroom is the ability for it to be used on gaming consoles. On both of these forums, teachers can post lessons, videos, and assignments. In addition, students can also submit work and teachers can give feedback and assign points.

#3: Learning Packets
If computers aren’t something that your school has, you can always turn to learning packets. A learning packet is a folder that includes notes, examples, and assignments for your students. When going to learning packets, you still have to be mindful of germs, so I would suggest having a specific drop off and pick up time that would allow people to stay in their cars. You can have a staff member available or a few available (depending on your school size) to help hand out and collect work for students.

#4: Co-Teach with Parents
One of the biggest assets you will hopefully have during this troubling time are parents. If you can connect with parents via text, phone, email, or in any way, you can give them tasks for their students to do throughout the day. No matter what a student is doing during this time is better than nothing. Plus, spending extra time with family is not a bad thing! Encourage students and parents to do something together like bake and write an equation for the amounts of each ingredient needed. Then have them send that recipe to a friend or to you along with a picture of the finished product.

#5: Go to Project-Based Learning
Being independent is going to be very important in the coming days. Designing lesson plans that are project-based will be incredibly helpful in ensuring students are still working and learning. Projects you can have your students do include: novel studies, science projects, conspiracy busters, etc. If you’re struggling to come up with project ideas, reach out to the world of TpT and don’t reinvent the wheel!

The COVID-19 virus has rocked our states and our classrooms. We need to stand together for our students and try to implement a form of normalcy for them and for ourselves. Without education, our nation will crumble; we can’t let a virus take away one of the most important parts of our society.

5 Money-Saving Tips for Teachers

5 Money-Saving Tips for Teachers

We all know that teachers do not make nearly as much money as they should. Their less than extravagant salary leaves a little to be desired for sure. I know that teachers work very hard and I am a big believer that they deserve to treat themselves as often as they can! I also know though that treating yourself can cost a lot of money.  No teacher should have to stress about money when they are focused on working hard teaching our children.  

That is why I wanted to take a moment to talk about these 5 money-saving tips for teachers. Let’s work together to boost the bottom line and improve our financial standing!

Check out these 5 Money-Saving Tips for Teachers

Take advantage of the tax deductions available to you

There are tax deductions available for teachers and you need to make sure that you take advantage of them! When it comes tax time this spring, make sure you remember that there is a deduction available for teachers' expenses, as well as deductions for tuition and professional development expenses. 

Track your expenses

Everyone needs to track their expenses in order to get their finances under control, or at least to stay on top of their finances. To best track your expenses, create a spreadsheet and start recording everything you spend.  Be sure to take a few minutes at the end of each day to go over your receipts and input them into your spreadsheet. Once you start doing this, you will be able to see exactly where your money is going and where you may need to cut back on your spending.

Skip the restaurant and meal plan

This is another one of the budget-saving tips that everyone should be following through on.  Planning and creating your own meals is one of the easiest ways to save money. I know that heading to a restaurant is tempting and easy, especially on those busy school days when you work for hours, but trust me, your wallet will thank you for skipping them. Making your own coffee, bringing your lunch from home and having a set meal plan can save you hundreds of dollars per month. I like to meal prep on Sundays. I'll prepare a few different meals and portion them out in containers in my fridge. I don't mind eating the same thing for lunch every day. Making your own food is both cheaper and healthier. As an added bonus, you will have a lot more time on your hands since you will no longer be wasting your time trying to figure out what to cook every night. 

Ask for donations

Do not be afraid to ask for donations. No, not for your everyday expenses, but for your classroom needs.  There are a lot of people out there that want to help teachers out. When you have classroom needs, make sure to ask around.  Ask your teacher friends if they have leftover supplies, send out a letter to parents asking them to pitch in, create a Donors Choose account and post it on social media, etc. You can also create a wishlist on amazon for your classroom. These expenses should not lay solely on your shoulders. There are options out there for you to get help with your classroom needs. 

Take advantage of educator discounts

There are quite a few businesses out there that offer educator discounts, many of which you may not even be aware of. These types of discounts are offered at businesses such as retail locations, eyewear companies, craft stores, travel companies, and so many more. Whenever I'm traveling I ask if there's a teacher's discount. Don’t buy something just for the discount, of course, but if you are going to be buying something anyway, be sure to check and see if there is a discount available to you. 

Being a teacher is hard work and you deserve to not struggle while working so hard! Are you a teacher? What tips and tricks have you learned that have helped you keep your budget under control?

Independent Reading Tasks to Get Your Students Thinking

As secondary ELA teachers, most of our readers can read texts independently. Their levels may be varied, but giving your students ownership over what they read and the tasks they choose can help them go deeper when it comes to analyzing and understanding what they read. Whether your students are reading fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, you can try these independent reading tasks to get your students thinking.


When it comes to reading novels, let your students try some independent tasks that help with exploring characters in the book. Young adult novels often focus on dynamic characters, characters that change throughout the novel. Coming of age stories are particularly popular in YA lit. Use fiction task cards to have your students focus on character elements like realism, how the characters are involved in conflicts, and which characters are their favorites or least favorites. 


In addition, fiction task cards also explore elements of the setting. The time and place of a story can influence so many other elements, such as theme, character, conflict, and plot. Have your students explain why they would not (or would) like to live during the time and in the place of their book. Also, have them describe the setting. Get them thinking about descriptive words and phrases they can use to evoke powerful imagery.

Autobiography, Biography

Explore informational text through nonfiction task cards. Nonfiction texts are as varied as fiction. Your students may read autobiographies or biographies. Have your students think about questions they may ask the subject of the book or a gift they would give the person.  

Author’s Purpose

Is the text your students are reading meant to inform, entertain, or persuade? The author’s purpose is an important part of comprehending and analyzing text. Have your students reflect on why the author wrote the nonfiction text with nonfiction task cards.

Poetry can be a difficult genre for middle school students to dissect. First, start by expanding your students’ ideas of what poetry is. Poetry can include songs and verse novels. Give them a choice in their poems and have them think about poetry in a new way with poetry task cards. Your students can answer questions about the meaning of the poems by reflecting on the author’s particular choices. Think about the time period the poem is set (if applicable), the details the poet includes or leaves out, and the use of figurative language. Poetry is a powerful genre when it comes to independent reading.

Thinking About Reading

Your readers are ready to explore their own book choices. Let your students choose fiction, nonfiction, or poetry texts and think about what they are reading with independent reading task cards. Use the cards in small groups or for early finishers. The independent reading task cards bundle comes with cards for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. With 140 task cards and 67 pages, these standard-based question cards will help your students think about what they are reading every day! Try these independent reading tasks to get your students thinking in your secondary ELA classroom. 


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