Monthly Archives: April 2020

A Beginner’s Guide to Creating Engaging Digital Lessons

In the past two years I’ve been teaching online as well as in a brick and mortar school. I have learned that some things that work really well in class don’t translate very well to online learning. For example, in my class we use Task Cards as a way to move around the room and build in discussion and collaboration. But online, Task Cards don’t work the same way. So, how do you keep the learning substantive and keep the engagement high?

Just the other day, a parent emailed me after a one-hour introduction to Democracy class. She said, “Great class. I wasn’t sure if my eleven-year-old would enjoy it or not (she gets bored easily) but she was riveted to the screen the entire time. When the class was finished, she said she thought it was really interesting. That gets a thumbs up from me!” Here’s how to achieve that in your own virtual lesson.

Personalize the lesson – This is very hard to do. Keep in mind that I didn’t know that student before the class, and I may never see them again. Even in the classes I am teaching virtually to my brick and mortar students, it is hard to have that personal touch. I can’t look at them or use proximity. But you can build in personal touches to virtual lessons. I begin each Introduction to Democracy class with a map where we put an arrow to represent each student. About 10 minutes into the class, we revisit the map, this time in context of learning about representation from their own state. Within the first ten minutes I have made the information personal to the students twice and that helps to engage them.

I have another online class where I teach 4- and 5-year-olds to read color words. For that class, I embed their name into everything. Students love rhymes, so we begin with a color rhyme. Instead of saying the name of the color, I change it to a student’s name. At the end of the rhyme, a student’s name pops up on the screen. They love this, and right away they are engaged in reading their own name and the name of the other students in the class.

You can find this editable PowerPoint on TPT. I just change the poem to include the kids’ names. And find a free related practice page, also on TPT.

Names are powerful. When I see a student looking away from the camera or their body language signal dis-engagement, just as I do in my brick-and-mortar classroom, I ask them a question. I think it’s important to help them feel comfortable – remember, this is not a risk-free environment for them, so I always say, “Tom, I’d like you to take this next question.” Then I give a little information and ask them a question related to it. The purpose of the question is to re-engage the student, so it can be simple. Usually the student answers, I give them a high five or thumbs up, and we move on.

Be Positive – If you are using a presentation tool like Zoom, there are built in reactions. But if you are new to this, don’t dive into the deep end. A physical high five (right into your camera) or thumbs up works great. Also, your tone is extra important. Chances are, you are small on the screen, so your facial expressions carry less weight than your tone. Before I taught anything online, I opened my video camera and video-taped myself teaching a bit of the lesson. I’m so glad I did! Turns out my serious, I-love-this-content face and tone didn’t sound or look great on a video. So, I put a sticky note on my computer and I practiced until I remembered to smile – a lot! Another side benefit, it slows down my pacing.

A smile is worth 1,000 words!

Translate what you know about instruction to the screen – I begin by thinking about the old 10 and 2 rule. For every 10 minutes of a presentation, the kids talk for 2 minutes. Since I use PowerPoint and Google Slides as the bones of my presentations, I needed to translate that into slides. Think in terms of 2-4-8. One slide every 2 minutes, no more than 4 bullets per slide, no more than 8 words per bullet.

One slide every 2 minutes, no more than 4 bullets per slide, no more than 8 words per bullet.

If you do the math, that means every fourth slide it’s the kids’ turn. When I create a presentation, I try to build in a response every four slides. Again, if you are comfortable using the tools in the tech, that can be pretty easy. Ask a question like, “If you think that a representative democracy is a better system than a direct democracy, use the thumbs up tool. If you think a direct democracy is better, use the applause tool.” Offering a choice works as long as you hold every student accountable. But the tech isn’t the only way to hold everyone accountable.

I ask students to fold an index card in half. They write A on the first section, B on the second, flip the card over and write C and D on the sections on the back. Every few slides I slip in a multiple choice question and students show the letter of the answer they choose. It helps me formatively assess, but more importantly, every child has to engage. Again, holding them accountable is key.

Harness the power of the technology – An image can often carry more meaning than your words. Be sure to embed images in interesting ways. I love this blog post on where to find free images and how to manipulate them in interesting ways. And kids love bells and whistles. I know the prevailing wisdom is to keep it simple, but I think interesting transitions, colorful and interesting fonts and animations, used strategically, engage students.

And don’t under estimate the power of video and music. It is certainly possible to overuse them. But a quick, 3-minute video embedded into an hour-long lesson can provide a great break for kids, and engage them in the content in a new way.

Tell a Story – I recently created a series of online classes to teach grammar. Not the most interesting content for most students, but entirely necessary. I wove a story of a search for Missing Mayan Medallions throughout the story. For five days those kids logged on and we spent an hour traveling through Guatemala and Mexico, learning about parts of speech and types of sentences. They completed 20 pages of grammar practice, all embedded in the story. And their motivation was high because along the way they found 24 missing medallions.

Humans love stories. Our brains are hard-wired for them. Use short stories, anecdotes, and longer stories to keep kids engaged for longer periods of time.

Don’t be overwhelmed by the transition from classroom teaching to online learning. You can do this. Start small.

  1. Personalize the lesson.
  2. Be positive.
  3. Translate what you know about instruction to the screen.
  4. Harness the power of the technology.
  5. Tell a story.

Start small, and remember, your students love you. Taking a risk and trying something new is a powerful model for them, and they will give you grace.

You got this!

Be sure to check out my other blog posts on digital learning.

Digital Tools for Distance Learning – Google Forms

Eight Things I’ve Learned about Virtual Teaching in the Past Two Years

Happy teaching!

ID 29899410 © Sabina Pensek | Dreamstime.com

Fraction-a-Day

UPDATED with a Distance Learning version!

As a fifth-grade teacher, I’m becoming more and more convinced that fractions are the hill students die on. This conviction comes from my experience as a teacher, and also as a student. A little flash to the past….

Over 30 years ago I entered fourth-grade feeling pretty good about math. I could add, subtract, multiply and divide, and I thought math was just fine. Then, I hit fractions. I didn’t have a strong understanding of what fractions were, and from that time on, I felt like a math fraud. I went on to advanced math classes and I made A’s and B’s, but inside, I knew. I was a FAKE! People thought I understood math, but I didn’t. I memorized it.

When I got to college, I pushed my math methods class to the final semester before student teaching, avoiding it until it had to be faced. Our professor introduced us to the idea of using manipulatives to understand mathematical concepts. One day he asked us to multiply fractions by folding paper. Dutifully, I followed the instructions, and then, I dropped my paper and gasped. All of a sudden I understood why fractions got smaller when you multiplied and larger when you divided. It was a pivotal moment for me as a human and as a teacher.

Unfortunately, not much has changed since I sat in a fourth-grade classroom in the 80’s. Students still struggle with the concept of a fraction. This blog post from NCTM suggests that they still struggle with it in Algebra class in middle and high school. Here is one strategy I’m using to help my fifth graders scale that mountain.

Fraction-a-Day helps students build fluency with fractions.

To help you navigate to the different parts of the multi-day exploration, use these links.

Fraction-a-Day Introduction

I begin math instruction with a Week of Inspirational Math from Jo Boaler, and then I launch into this fraction series. It is a great way to set the stage for the learning we will do and to build protocols like Expert Groups and Centers.

I introduce Fraction-a-Day with a model (included in the resource!). I model 2/3 because it is a familiar fraction to many students, then I ask all of the students to complete the page for 3/4, another familiar fraction. Over the next few days I ask students to complete a page as a warm-up for math, and we go over them together. I give them just 5 minutes to work. While they work, I rotate around the room and recruit student teachers to present different parts on the document camera so that the students have an opportunity to practice speaking about fractions and using correct vocabulary. I collect outstanding examples of each fraction and save them for a later lesson. After 3-4 days of guided practice, the students are ready for more independent practice.

Expert Groups Protocol

That’s when I pop the video in the Google Classroom and we use our Expert Groups protocol. (Click the link to find the video on my You Tube channel – FREE!) The video is just over 10 minutes. For this lesson I choose 5 different fractions that I want the students to focus on. By now they are familiar with the routine. As they watch the video, students complete the fraction they’ve been given independently. After 15 minutes, everyone should be ready to meet in their Preparation Groups.

Students meet in Preparation Groups with students who have practiced the SAME fraction. The purpose of this group is for students to compare their work with each other and make sure that everyone in the group becomes an expert on that fraction. Students generally have good conversations about the different ways they represented the fraction visually and check each other’s division – usually the toughest thing for students at this point.

Once everyone in the group is confident, I regroup the students in Expert Groups. The Expert Groups consist of one student from each Preparation Group. That means, everyone has a different fraction. Now the experts take turns presenting their fraction to the other students in the group. The listeners ask clarifying questions and offer feedback. This handout is included in the resource to guide students through the protocol.

This protocol builds students’ ability to understand and talk about fractions!

As the students finish up their Expert Group presentations, I ask them to put their fractions in order. This gives them another opportunity to practice talking about fractions as they compare the five fractions in their Expert Group. I collect one stellar example of each fraction to use on our class number line.

Number line

By now students have completed 3-4 Fraction-a-Day pages independently and they have completed 5 more within their Expert Groups. At this point if students are feeling very comfortable with the routine and the concepts, I want the activity to become more independent. I choose another 15 fractions to put in a Math Center. For four days, my students rotate through this center (and others, like my Unit Fraction Puzzles and Pirate’s Gold) completing a few Fraction-a-Day pages. I let them know that I am looking for high quality examples for our Number Line. As the week goes on, I collect a few each day until I have 25 – 30 fractions (it’s important to have one for each student).

Then, usually on Friday, I pass out one fraction to each student. I don’t give them one they completed so they have an experience with a new fraction. Our class task is to put all of those fractions in order! This human number line generally stretches around most of the classroom. All of the fractions in this resource are less than one, although there are many fractions that are equivalent to one. Students have to have conversations about size and equivalence in order to do this task, and it is generally 15 minutes of buzzing work and activity! Once we have it organized, I ask each student to announce their fraction, and we make any necessary adjustments. We also have to decide what to do with equivalent fractions. Do they stand side by side or in a column? I ask students to tape their fraction on the wall where they are standing.

Then, I give groups of students a large piece of butcher paper and ask them to create their own number line. Again, they have to wrestle with how to order the fractions and what to do with equivalent fractions. This is also a good time to talk about Anchor Fractions like 1/2, 1/3 and 3/4.

Finally, following the Guided Release model, I ask students to create an individual number line in their journals with their favorite fractions.

Fraction Friday

By now we are usually about three weeks into the school year, and I’ve built some routines and protocols, so we are ready to launch the math from the our district curriculum. It does NOT begin with fractions, but I think they are so important that we continue with this practice every Friday. The warm-up for our math lesson is for everyone to complete the same Fraction-a-Day page. They have 5 minutes, and then we do something fun, like Stand up, Hands up or Snowball to go over it. It only takes 8 minutes or so, but it keeps the fractions fresh in students’ minds. My hope is that none of my students will feel like frauds (as I did for many years) because they will have LOTS of opportunities to build understanding of fractions.

UPDATED – Distance Learning Lesson

So, we are implementing Distance Learning right now, just as I was getting back to fractions for the year. I’ve decided to dust this off and use it in a new way!

Each week I’m uploading 5 Fraction-a-Day pages into my Google Classroom. I ask the students to choose one and complete the work for their favorite fraction of the week. Then, in 2 min. or less, they present their fraction to the class on Flipgrid. My students ADORE Flipgrid, so some of them are doing all of the fractions each week! Since we’ve done all of the fractions less than one, I’m adding in some fractions that are greater than one. Check back soon and I’ll have those on TPT too!

In the meantime, please enjoy the FREE video for this lesson and check out the resource on TPT.