Tips for Teaching on Block Schedule During Distance Learning

Although I’ve taught on a block schedule for 17 years and have many strategies in my teacher toolbox, the pandemic has made me rethink how I teach during long class periods.  Using my professional knowledge, teacher intuition, formative assessment, and reflection on successes and failures, I’ve adapted my teaching for hybrid and online learning.  In the process, I’ve developed new approaches until we get back to normal (or at least something closer to normal).  Read on to learn about them.

Keep Zoom Sessions Short

Just as I wouldn’t lecture for long blocks of time, I don’t Zoom with students for a 90-minute class period. My class Zooms last about 45 minutes or half of a class period, and with the remaining time, I tell students to complete their independent learning assignments.  Within the class Zoom session, I break up our work into two - three separate tasks.  It's a slower pace than instruction during block in my normal classroom, but it keeps me and the students from becoming too stressed.  During the activities, sometimes I am talking, sometimes students are using the chat feature, and other times students are working with annotation tools and/or breakout rooms.  One advantage of a 45-minute Zoom session is that I can provide support to individual students or small groups who need help with their assignments with any remaining time.

Provide Longer Wait Time

Although I keep Zoom sessions shorter than regular class periods, I’ve noticed that it’s essential to plan for additional wait time during online learning.  I pause for a couple of seconds longer than I would in my regular classroom.  During online learning, students need more time to process their thoughts.  Additionally, lags with technology may slow down communication in a virtual classroom.

Model with Videos

Sometimes, to better explain tasks, I make short videos that model for students what they should be doing independently. For instance, when recently teaching a speech given by Ruth Bader Ginsburg, I used my iPad to record how to annotate the PDF. With a video, students can manage their own learning and pause or repeat the video as needed.

Take Breaks to Look Away

Research shows that students shouldn’t be on screens all day long. I keep in mind the 20-20-20 rule, which says a person should look away every 20 minutes at an object that is about 20 feet away for a full 20 seconds.  On the rare occasions when I expect to have longer Zoom sessions, I schedule short breaks in between activities.  During these breaks, I direct students to look away from their screens and stretch so that we follow this rule.

Include Asynchronous Days

After struggling to get my students to attend Zooms consistently last fall, and with permission from my administration, I’ve added one - two asynchronous days in each week.  Students have specific assignments to complete on the asynchronous days, and I provide video directions for them.  In these instructions, I share the standards, learning targets, success criteria, and daily agenda.  During the short instructional video, I tell students what order to work on their assignments and show them where to find each of the activities in the daily folder on our Learning Management System. 

On these days, I often include lessons that are easier for students to do independently such as watching and analyzing a TED Talk or completing SAT practice.  I also make myself available for private Zoom sessions in “office hours” on those days so that students can meet with me for individual assistance.  (I’ve learned that many students don’t want to ask for help in front of their peers, but they will ask for help in a private session.)  To manage the office hours, I simply create a Microsoft Form and students sign up for 10-minute time slots. (This could easily be accomplished with a Google Form too).

Start with a Warm-Ups

Whether you call them bell ringers, starters, or warm-ups, these are great activities that can be used in virtual and hybrid teaching (particularly for longer class periods).  By giving students a task to complete immediately at the beginning of the class, I accomplish multiple goals.  First, these discussions and activities hook my students and introduce the day’s topics.  Recently, I taught a lesson using the book How to Read Like a Professor.  Since my students had never used it before, they made predictions on what the title told them about the content of the book in their warm-up discussion.  We discussed their predictions and when we read a chapter later in our class, they had a better understanding of their purpose.

Another benefit to warm-ups is that it improves my classroom management.  Since we are currently hybrid, it gives my in-class students something to focus on when they get seated.  It also allows me to take attendance and add virtual students from the waiting room into the Zoom. 

Vary Technology

Just as I would vary modes of learning in my traditional classroom for a 90-minute block, I alter online learning with different types of technology.  I use online discussions and assessment tools in my LMS platform, add videos and media albums, incorporate Word documents and PowerPoints, create polls and forms for surveys, and link to other tools such as Padlet and EdPuzzle.  We also have our online textbook, MyPerspectives, and Khan academy resources. 

I’ve heard that NearPod and PearDeck are wonderful apps, also, and hope to learn them soon.  However, I think it’s okay to use one or two main apps consistently to simplify learning online.  I’m careful not to overwhelm students with too many different technologies in one day or week.  In fact, I create structure and routines for virtual learning just as I would in my regular classroom.

Provide Opportunities for Interaction

In my regular classroom I frequently employ cooperative learning, movement, and group activities, and I know my students need to interact socially in a virtual block, too.  At the beginning of my Zoom session, I start with a “chat” question to prepare students to participate and work together with their peers.  These low-stakes questions are easy to answer and can also act as icebreakers.  For example, I may ask students to share what pets they have, tell about their favorite music, movies, and food, or set goals for the day. 

Use White Board Activities

During whole-class reading and discussion, I check for understanding with white board discussions.  Recently, I used the white board to introduce the abstract concept of freedom at the beginning of the unit.  Students had to brainstorm words and we created a “word web” by writing words that seemed related to the idea of freedom.  In another lesson with a white board, I asked students to type what they thought was the most important line in the poem “Theme for English B” after we read and analyzed it.  Then I asked each student to unmute their microphones and share why they selected those lines. 

For my hybrid students, I muted myself and put in headphones so I could better hear what everyone said.  I’ve gotten in the habit of plugging in speakers for my in-class students, too, and I project the Zoom on my front screen for days when our bandwidth won’t allow everyone on the Zoom together.

Incorporate Breakout Rooms

For group work, I’ve been frequently using breakout rooms.  Just as I would with my students in the regular classroom, I give them directions to productively accomplish their tasks together.  For instance, I ask them to choose one student to be a  leader and manage their time, another to type their answers on a shared Power Point slide or other document, and another to share aloud with the whole-class when we end the breakout rooms.  I will join each room briefly to make sure they don’t have questions, but I think it’s valuable to allow them to work without my presence, too.  I do keep these breakout rooms timed, usually anywhere from 10 – 20 minutes depending on the tasks. 

Most of the time, I create groups of about four students, but I’ve occasionally made breakout rooms with two - three students for more informal discussion and activities. No doubt, by varying the ways students interact during their virtual learning, it helps me manage the 90-minute block.

As the school year proceeds, I will continue to adapt my instruction and learn new strategies for teaching 90-minute blocks during hybrid and distance learning at my school.  Ultimately, keeping instruction active rather than passive is my number one tip for hybrid and virtual instruction, particularly with longer class periods like blocks.  

Do you have tips that you can recommend too?  Please add them in the comments.

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