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

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