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I have been regularly documenting what’s been working and what hasn’t been working, along with my fears and concerns for the future.

Now that the semester is ending next week, I thought it would be useful – for both readers and for me – to share some practical reflections.

Before I do that, however, here are some of my past pieces (that have appeared here, at the British Council, and in The Washington Post, in case you’re interested:

Distance learning and English Language Learners

A teacher’s deepest fears about 2021: Students who disappeared, covid-19 myopia and six more

First Quarter Report On What I’m Doing In Full-Time Distance Learning & How It’s Going

I’m Worried About My Students – Very Worried. And Here Is What I’m Planning To Do About It

Personal Reflections On My 2020 Professional Experiences


Okay, now for some key recent practical realizations and changes I’ve made related to teaching online:


1) Don’t require homework outside of Zoom classroom time.

This has been my policy all year with my English Language Learners classes since I teach them five days a week.  That’s because I voluntarily teach four extra classes each week for no pay.  I point that out not to demonstrate how “wonderful” I am, but to point out how empty much of the rhetoric from our district leadership is about equity and justice.  Our school’s ELLs are thriving with this extra support, and it’s unfortunate ELLs in our other schools may not be receiving the extra instruction they need.  I’m not holding my breath that this will change even with the many, many millions of extra dollars our district is receiving from the state and from the new federal stimulus.

However, I had been requiring homework in my IB Theory of Knowledge classes.  After consulting with the “Leadership Teams” (eight-to-twelve students who meet with me weekly and who take responsibility for leading breakout rooms) in those classes, I changed the policy to creating enough time in class for students to complete all homework.  Since that change (along with the change I list under number two), attendance, engagement, and class energy are all at higher levels, and student feelings about the class in weekly anonymous class evaluations are at their highest levels since the beginning of the school year.

I should point out that I eliminated “required” homework.  I still offer “enrichment” extra credit that a small number of students complete.


2) Increase the use of learning games.

Again, I had been doing that in my ELL classes, where it was easy to find pre-made ones to fit the content I was teaching.  For Theory of Knowledge, however, I had to make the time to create them from scratch.  It takes time, but the positive student response has made it clear that, along with the new homework policy, incorporating games has been a key element of the classes “turnaround.”

There have been two primary tools I’ve been using in TOK (which are also the two I use in my ELL classes): Quizizz and Fluentkey (which is like Quizizz – well, really like Kahoot since the questions have to been seen on a separate screen – but for videos). Quizizz can be played in breakout rooms with competing teams. Fluentkey has to be played individually since everyone has to see the video I’m playing

Another that has worked in my ELL classes but I haven’t yet done in TOK (but I will), is one where I first set up a Whiteboard.fi so that each small group has a board; I ask a question, which I repeat twice; students go into breakout rooms; I close the rooms immediately so they have one minute to figure out the answer and write it on their whiteboard; and then I close the rooms and we figure out which teams have the correct answer and win the point.

These games are fun, excellent opportunities for retrieval practice, and great formative assessments.


3) Increase opportunities for short writing in my ELL classes.

Each week I provide a simple prompt (in my English class, it could be “Write about what you did during the weekend”; in History, it might be “Write what you remember about what we learned last week”).  Sometimes I have them do it on a class Google Slides (when I’m feeling confident some won’t copy from others since they can see what their classmates are writing) and sometimes I have them write on Whiteboard.fi (where they can only see their own whiteboard).  I only ask that they don’t use Google Translate to write sentences and just use it to look up words.  I can quickly meet with each student, review what they wrote, and give them feedback on one key point.  Students also can share what they write in small groups.


4)Provide extra support to ELLs for their content classes.

Building on the framework of what we’ve done in the past to support our Long-Term English Language Learners (see Research in Action: Ramping Up Support for Long-Term ELLs) I’ve invited some content teachers to share with me what they will be teaching in future weeks and what prior knowledge would be helpful.  I’m trying to fit in some teaching of that material into my own ELL classes, and students (and teachers) are greatly appreciating it.


5) Though the previous four points highlight more major changes I’ve made, I’ve also made several smaller ones, and they’ve all added-up to make positive differences.

They’ve included:

* Having students take turns dedicate each class to someone who inspires them (see I THINK THIS IS A BRILLIANT IDEA FOR AN OPENING CLASS RITUAL – HERE’S HOW I’M MODIFYING IT FOR DISTANCE LEARNING)

* Adding a simple question to a weekly Google Form “check-in” students do, where I just ask them if there’s anything else I should know about what’s happening with them or their family (see I’VE BEEN HAVING STUDENTS COMPLETE WEEKLY “CHECK-INS” & I CAN’T BELIEVE I DIDN’T THINK TO ASK THIS QUESTION UNTIL NOW!).

* Texting students each time they miss a class just telling them I missed them and asking if they’re okay (it’s easy to do with the Remind app – now, I do it much more consistently than I did before).

* Adding a “song of the week” to my ELL English class.  It’s often a challenge to get students to sing in the physical classroom, and I had thought it would be impossible in a virtual classroom.  In fact, it’s a lot easier – I think some students feel less embarrassed about it when they have their cameras off….


I’m not holding my breath about getting vaccinated and our physical schools opening up any time soon, so I suspect I’ll continue to gain realizations about teaching online for months to come…..