How to Prepare for Back to School with Virtual Learning

The last few months have turned teaching up on its head. Never in a million years would I have guessed that we would close schools for months and suddenly make the shift from in-person to virtual learning and that our safety would require it. 

The fall holds a lot of unknowns and fears for each of us. What will school look like? Will we be in-person or still online? If we’re online, how can I even hope to connect with my new students in a meaningful way that will make them love learning and our classroom community?

As we move into online learning, the possibilities don’t have to be bleak. Through my own experiences as an online learner in graduate school, I know firsthand that there are ways to build connections and community in a virtual setting. 

Below is a list of tips and tricks that I’ve seen from the best and tried in my own classroom with success that have helped me build connections with online learners:

Tip #1: Start the year off by Intentionally building Community

Most teachers in the physical classroom don’t jump straight into academics on the first week of school, but rather spend a bit of time building connections. Students need to know and trust you and each other for the optimum classroom environment. 

This is even more true in a virtual setting where students can easily feel like strangers. Find creative ways to have students introduce themselves. Some of the following activities work well:

(1) Have students create a collage introducing themselves and sharing what they enjoy doing, what shows/books/movies they like, and what they do in their spare time. Then, share these collages using a shared Google spreadsheet or Padlet and have students comment on at least two of their peers’ work. [Word to the wise: Classroom management-wise, Padlet may be the easier tech tool to manage when it comes to monitoring student comments due to the ability to only let students comment when they are logged in.]

(2) Have students make flipgrid videos introducing themselves to their peers. Give them a list of icebreaker questions you would regularly have them answer in class and then have them respond. Then, once approving their videos on flipgrid, allow them to comment on each other’s work.

(3) Using Padlet, have them complete an agree/disagree exercise where you give them questions and then they have to respond to their peers’ opinions.

Note: As I do this virtually, I make every attempt to comment on each individual icebreaker my students post so that they know I’m here for them and want to get to know them as people.

Tip #2: See how they’re doing

We all know that old saying: “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” There are few places where this is more true than in teaching. Online learning is usually as overwhelming for students as it is for teachers and it’s important to see how students are feeling about their work, life, and online learning, so I give regular surveys through Google Forms to check in with my students.

I usually ask some variation of the following questions on each survey:

(1) How are you feeling this week? Explain.

(2) How do you think work in our classroom is going this week? How can I help?

(3) Is there anything you need from me to help you learn?

They’re simple questions and the surveys are usually relatively short, but they give me a lot of insight about how my students are doing and what they need from me.

Tip #3: Connect with them regularly

This tip may feel overwhelming in the hustle and bustle of switching to the virtual world, but I’ve noticed that it pays dividends – especially at the start of the semester or online learning – to take the time to regularly comment on all of my students work and add feedback. This helps students know what you’re looking for and that they can ask questions, if need be.

One of the best things I did at the start of online learning is to turn the comment feature on in my Google Classroom, so students could comment and ask questions if need be. I do monitor what they post closely, but I haven’t had a single student abuse the privilege and students use it to ask me questions even more often than they email me.

Timely feedback is important in any classroom, but even more so when you are online and can’t give verbal feedback. If you frontload your responsiveness at the start of the school year, you’ll realize your students have a better idea of what to do later on.

Before you begin to feel overwhelmed, some formative feedback can be automated (like Google self-grading quizzes to let students know what they understand vs. don’t understand or questions embedded into an EdPuzzle video). Pick and choose what to automate wisely.

Tip #4: Be Consistent

The best online classes I’ve taken have had one key thing in common: the teachers and organization of the class were consistent!!!

When setting up your Google Classroom or LMS, set up your page in a way that (a) you can stick to and (b) will make sense for your students.

Each week, my students can expect me to post the following components:

(1) A Weekly Agenda with Checklist of Tasks: This gives my students a clear idea of what’s coming up and how to organize their time. None of the assignments are a surprise and students can plan for the week ahead.

Picture of our weekly agenda

(2) The assignments themselves numbered in the order I want my students to do them: My assignments build on each other, so if a student starts with task #5, they’re going to be confused. Numbering the assignments helps show my students how to organize their work so things don’t get out of hand.

I’m also very intentional about posting all of my assignments before the start of the week. As an adult learner, I always hate getting assignments sprung on me at the last minute. It stresses me out! Getting an assignment at noon and having it be due by midnight that night is simply not feasible.

In order to prevent student burnout and stress, students need to know what to expect from you and when you’ll post your assignments.

Tip #5: Explicitly Teach expectations

Just like you do in the classroom, clearly lay out your expectations. Come up with expectations for turning in assignments, late work, video chats, etc. and make sure you clearly communicate them.

I also had my students sign off on the norms that I created through a Google form. I set it up like a quiz so that it would be automated and I could make sure every student signed off.

Similarly to what you’d do in the classroom, be sure to reinforce these norms and to kindly correct students when they deviate from them. I spent my first few weeks of virtual learning watching my Google Classroom like a hawk and sending emails to remind students to submit on Google Classroom rather than email me and to press the “turn in” button when finished. I also intentionally put reminders on each of my assignments to make sure my students pressed “turn in” when their work was complete (see below).

Additionally, don’t just assume students are tech savvy enough to figure it all out. The tales of Gen. Z’s technological prowess are overblown: students have skills when it comes to their phones, but lack experience with navigating educational apps or word processors. Be sure to film videos to teach students how to log into new educational apps like EdPuzzle or Padlet. If you want students to annotate a PDF, then be sure to create a video and/or written instructions to show them how to do that.


Next year will be an adventure. That much is certain. However, having some tech. strategies in your back pocket will hopefully help! Good luck!

My Favorite Strategy for Building Student Close Reading and Comprehension Skills

One of the essential skills for being successful in AP Literature is close reading. To succeed on the AP Exam, students have to be able to find patterns, notice symbols, and make meaning of an unfamiliar text, completely independently of their ever-so-wise teacher.

Yet, as I think back on the start of the last three school years, this is the very task that students seem most unsure of. They’re anxious because how can they possibly know for sure that the bonsai tree mentioned in that poem is a symbol; how can they possibly guarantee that the author structured the text as a frame narrative for that purpose? Much of what we must do as AP teachers is help them test the waters and build the sort of structure and prerequisite knowledge they need in order to be successful.

How I Teach Close Reading: Reciprocal Teaching

When my principal (and educational role model) first suggested that I try reciprocal teaching with my AP students, I vastly misunderstood just what reciprocal teaching was. I assumed that it was giving students a task and having them teach their peers– sort of like a jigsaw activity, I suppose — but I was at a complete loss at how it might build student comprehension or understanding.

I was so wrong.

Reciprocal teaching was – hands down – the most revolutionary approach I had ever considered adding to my teaching toolbox. The first day I tried it, my students were singing its praises. It helped my students grow leaps and bounds and gave my students the agency they needed in order to be successful.

Step #1: Make Predictions

Basically, reciprocal teaching is a structured approach to analyzing a text. Students start by looking at the text and making predictions: these predictions might be based off the work’s title, the cover, the opening lines of a chapter, or even a prose or poetry analysis essay prompt. Regardless, asking to do this enables them to monitor their own comprehension and understanding as they work through a text.

Step #2: Clarify Areas of Confusion

As they read the text, have students mark any areas of confusion and then, after reading, have them take some time to clarify areas of confusion, whether they are questions about historical context or definitions of unfamiliar words

Step #3: Summarize

This is simple, but incredibly effective. Have students summarize what the text they’ve just read is about.

Step #4: Question

This is my favorite part of reciprocal teaching. Once students have predicted, clarified, and summarized, we begin to delve into the so what of it all. We focus on why the author chose to structure the text the way that he or she did; we consider why the author chose to use that particular metaphor when describing a character and why their choice might be significant.

Put simply, we take some time to analyze all of the key elements suggested in the 2019 AP Curriculum Framework: character, structure, perspective, figurative language, and setting. Then, we tie it all together and consider how each of these elements impacts the overall meaning of the work as a whole.

How do I teach this?

To ingrain this process of looking at a literary text into my students’ psyche, I use the “I do, we do, you do” approach to reciprocal teaching.

To more deeply ingrain this process of looking at a literary text into my students’ psyche, I use the “I do, we do, you do” approach to reciprocal teaching. Each time, the classroom arrangement is structured like a socratic seminar: we all sit in a circle and share our observations, but the level of teacher involvement varies each time.

I do: The first time we use reciprocal teaching as a class, I lead the discussion. I ask students to predict what a short passage (1-2 pages) is about; then, I give them time to read and I have them mark areas of confusion. We then work through those areas of confusion together, using dictionaries and phones to find the answers we need.

Afterwards, I have a student summarize what they’ve just read, but it isn’t until we get to the questions that I really start modeling the process. I give students a graphic organizer with question categories and I let them know that in future discussions they will be the ones designing the questions. I ask them pre-prepared questions based on each category, like “How does the author structure this text?” and then, after they respond, follow up questions, like “How does the use of that frame narrative impact our understanding of Joanie as a character?” and “How does that impact the meaning of the work as a whole?”

The key is to keep asking the students why until they can cogently explain the author’s purpose in an insightful manner. This challenges students and allows them to delve into the text in a deeper manner.

We do: The next time, I give the students a little bit control over the discussion. Everybody is given a graphic organizer so that they can come up with questions about character, structure, perspective, figurative language, and setting as they read and everybody is expected to come up with insightful questions.

We predict, clarify, and summarize together. When we reach the question portion, students introduce their own questions rather than just responding to mine, yet it’s still important that I am hands-on at this point in the process. As students ask their questions and others respond, I prompt them to think deeper about the text and why the author makes the choices that he or she does. By the end of the discussion, students are often beginning to ask the “so what?” question themselves.

You Do: Finally, students arrive at the independent portion of the reciprocal teaching process. I still have students discuss their questions as a class (I always love whole class discussions), but I don’t ask quite as many follow-up questions and I start grading students on the questions they prepare and their responses.

I usually assign students a section, a character, a symbol, or a chapter from whatever book we’re currently reading in class and have them work through this process. This allows us to focus on close-reading while still working with the novel as a whole and keeps students even more engaged.

Final Thoughts

I use this process whole class, but this could easily be used for literature circles or small groups. You could have students work through the text in small groups and film the process using a tech. tool like flipgrid, or have them record their responses in an answer log. However you choose to use this, this is a highly effective tool for engaging students in discussions and deeper reading.

Related Resources:

Looking for more resources on Reciprocal Teaching? Consider checking out the resources below.

What I’m Doing to Prepare my Students for the AP Literature Exam

The testing season is upon us! I have a countdown ticking down on my board until the day of the AP Literature and Composition exam.

As I write this post, we currently have seven class days until the test. This is the week where we review the year and ensure that students are as prepared as possible.

This is my game plan:

#1 – Spend a week reviewing essay types and expectations.

AP Literature Exam Reminders

We’ve spent this year going over what to expect on the exam and how to effectively prepare, but my students had given me some feedback that they needed to review the similarities and differences between the three types of essays.

I started by making the poster that is pictured on the right, as well as making a simple Venn Diagram to help them differentiate between my expectations for each essay (You can download it here: Essay Graphic Organizer (AP)).

#2 – Essay Speed Dating

To prepare for the Q3 essay, I had the students memorize key elements of their book (the theme, symbols, characters, historical context, author, etc.) and take a quiz on it. After the quiz, I had students practice writing hooks and thesis statements for each of the prompts.

NewCovers.004Each student and their partner was given a prompt. They had seven minutes to write their response; two minutes to silently review their partners; and then one minute to verbally debrief on what the other student did well and what needed improvement.

Then, they would swap seats, gain a new partner and prompt, and repeat the process all over again. It was simple, but it provided the quick meaningful feedback that students needed.

#3 – Q1 and Q2 Essay Review

My review for the Q1 and Q2 Essays was a bit simpler. I started with a quick overview of how to structure their essays and their thesis, and then we went through the reciprocal teaching process (you can learn more about that process here) with passages that had been used on the AP exam previously.

AP-Literature-Reciprocal-TeachingOnce students were finished discussing, I had them practice writing hooks and and thesis statements for their essay, as well as writing an outline. We spent two days of our 50-minute class periods working on timed writings, which seemed to help put both my and my students’ mind at ease in regards to the AP exam.

#4 – Practice Multiple Choice Games

Lately, I’ve been making my own practice multiple choice questions and uploading them to Kahoot to help students prepare for the timed nature of the test without completely stressing them out. One of my students pointed out that the timed nature of Kahoot kept them from stressing too much about picking the right answer and wasting time, so I’m planning to spend at least one day this week doing this as a class.

Additionally, my students have always been a big fan of escape rooms and I’m planning on wrapping up this year with my own AP Literature version of one. Mine can be found here: Whether or not you choose to check it out, TPT has some great templates for creating escape rooms and you may want to create your own.

The following items are included in mine:

(1) Words in context: I plan to give students a poem or passage and have them have to identify the meaning of the word as it is used, similarly to the question types.

(2) A section for matching literary and poetic terms.

(3)  Practice Multiple Choice passages. 

#5 – Vocabulary and Lit. Term Review

Vocabulary is often one of the biggest obstacles in preparation for the AP Literature exam, so I’m having my students make flashcards to prepare (see here: AP Lit. Study Guide) and giving them a cumulative test on all of the literary terms we’ve learned thus far.

In addition, I’m giving them access to a review quizlet to help them learn key literary devices and common words on the AP Exam (see here and here).

In conclusion…

I hope this helps as you prepare your students for the AP Exam. As I continue to think of ideas, I’ll be sure to add them here. Feel free to leave any suggestions or additions to my test prep. schedule in the comments.


Teamwork Makes the Dream Work: Ways to Make Student Collaboration Actually Work

Collaboration is kind of a big deal, especially in 21st century American education. 

It’s no wonder if you think about it: its benefits range from enhancing critical thinking to developing self-management skills to fostering interpersonal communication.  Yet collaboration also represents a significant paradigm shift in education, from a teacher- to student-centered classroom. Regardless of how eager we are to jump into this new world of educational delights, both modern teachers and students need support in order to do this effectively or else results will be less than stellar.

Here are some of my best tips and tricks to enhance collaboration, specifically in a project-based classroom.

#1 – Start with a group contract.

Group contracts are one of the best kept educational secrets when it comes to successful collaborative assignments. In the real world, you don’t enter into a working arrangement with another person without some sort of agreement. There are rules set in place so that if one person, say, doesn’t show up for work for a week, they won’t be keeping their job very long; yet we often ask students to work in an environment where no such agreements exist. It is naive to assume that students will productively collaborate without a contract or written agreement when adults can’t.

Whenever I launch a longterm collaborative assignment (for instance, a PBL unit), I begin by having my students draft a group contract that includes the following things:

  1. Who is in each group.
  2. What each person is responsible for
  3. How each group member can get in contact with one another
  4. What students will do if a group member is absent
  5. How they’ll ensure every group member’s voice is heard
  6. How they’ll make decisions
  7. How they’ll handle conflict
  8. What they’ll do if someone isn’t doing their part

Yes. I know that this is a lot to include in one document, but these are the issues that come up every time, so students have to be prepared for them. It is better to come up with an agreement beforehand than to just assume everything will be hunky-dory once the project begins. 

Additionally, I have the students write in a firing clause. The agreement in my classroom is that if a person disregards the contract, then they will be a given a warning by their group, which I have to sign off on. If an individual is given three warnings, they are fired from the group and have to complete the assignment individually. Does that sound harsh? Yes. Is it effective? Also yes. Students need more supports, not less, to be effective collaborators. 

#2 – Explicitly Teach Your Expectations

When you begin a group project, don’t assume that students already know how to be effective collaborators or that simply being in a group will jumpstart their collaboration skills. Most students need support and clarity in regards to what you expect from them during this project. 

Before I give my students any project development time, I provide them with a list of “look fors” that will help them be successful. My primary “look fors” include:

  1. Getting started with the task immediately. In the computer lab, that means logging in immediately. In the classroom, that may mean getting out their supplies. Wherever they are, though, they are immediately getting started with the task at hand. 
  2. Coming up with a plan of attack. At the beginning of each day of project work time, students should check in with each other, identify what still needs to be completed, and assign tasks. If I don’t see students checking in with each other, there’s something wrong. 
  3. Remaining on task and continually working on something with your group. This is one “look for” you might not feel like you have to teach, but it is so, so important. Less motivated students might finish one task (out of the many required for the final product) and just decide that they’re done, but effective collaborators must check in with their teammates and see what else needs to be done in order to be effective. 

These provide students with a clear idea of what they need to be doing, even while working on a more open-ended task. 

#3 – Make Liberal Use of Checklists and Rubric

My last piece of advice is this: give your students regular feedback on their collaboration skills using a collaboration checklist or rubric. Both PBLWorks and New Tech Network have awesome collaboration rubrics and you would be amazed to see how impactful passing back daily completed collaboration rubrics to your students are. It allows students to see what they’re doing well and where they need to grow so that they can better work with others. 

In conclusion, collaboration is a skill that must be taught, not one that will just be picked up through osmosis. As 21st century teachers, we must be intentional to look for opportunities to build these skills in our students. 

Building Your Students’ Relationship with Poetry

Poetry should be powerful. As William Wordsworth wrote, “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings” — yet often, as we introduce our upcoming poetry unit to our students, their groans seem to imply anything but enthusiasm. Somehow the link between poetry and passion has been severed and replaced with a sort of anxious bewilderment. Is this a symbol or just a hill? Is the theme this or that?

This bewilderment, I would argue, is a direct result of a lack of personal connection to poetry. Poetry is the “language of the soul.” It taps into the very essence of human experience and – at least as of yet – all of our students are human and thus should be able to find at least one poem they can relate to. How do we guide them to such a poem? I’m glad you asked: through a student-led thematic exploration of poetry.

Introducing the Assignment:

At the start of the unit, I work on introducing relatable poems to my students. John Updike’s “A Dog’s Death” or Nikki Giovanni’s “Allowables” are often favorites of my students. I seat them in groups and have them complete a “poetic carousel” activity, where each student reads a different poem, analyzes it, passes it on to the next student, and then debates its interpretation. It’s a lot of fun and it peels back a lot of the stress my students feel surrounding poetry; they often independently begin to make connections to their own lives. 

Then I introduce students to some of my favorite spoken word poems on Youtube and we talk a bit about the power of poetry. We talk about what makes a poem powerful and worth reading. Before introducing the assignment, I may mention my own favorite poem (“On His Blindness” by John Donne, which has some personal relevance due to my own battle with chronic illness) and how poems encapsulate pieces of the human experience and moments of human comfort that might not be conveyed otherwise. 

Finally, then, I challenge them to think of themes that are significant in their own lives: for some, it might be nature; for others, it might be the loss of a family member; and for others, it might be coming out. Regardless, I ask them to find something personally significant. 

The Assignment Itself:

Students are then tasked with finding ten poems that relate to their topic, writing a poetic précis for each poem, and then presenting how each poem deals with their topic in various ways. 

My students loved this. It allowed me to connect with my students in a deeper way, but also allowed them to connect to poetry. It’s easy for us as teachers with standards to cover to neglect the emotional connection students feel to a literary work, but the emotional connection is often the most powerful part. It’s what allows our students to become readers of poetry. 

Do your lessons have “talkability”?

How you can inject joy into your daily lesson plans

True story: I’m a bit of a nerd.

I like to spend my mornings looking up random facts that strike my fancy and researching things that have very little relevance to my actual everyday life because it’s fun and it’s interesting.

Recently, my current research hobby has been marketing. From random blogs and podcasts to Seth Godin’s book, This is Marketing, I feel as if I’ve learned a lot, and a lot of what I’ve learned is actually surprisingly relevant to teaching.

As 21st century teachers, much of what we do involves “selling” education to our students: why do you want to learn this? How does this apply to your life? Why do you need to know this fact I’m trying to teach you?

It is when our marketing fails that our students become disinterested.

Seth Godin, in his TED Talk on spreading ideas, noted that it is no longer acceptable just to market “average things to average people.” Our products must be remarkable, meaning that people must have talkability; people must be driven to remark on our products.

When I think about my best “products” (i.e. lesson plans), there’s an element of talkability inherent in them. Students feel driven to tell their friends, their parents, and other teachers about what they did and what they learned. Maybe talkability takes the form of a whole-class debate over whether technology is forever damaging society; maybe it takes to form of a horror story unit where we discuss the nature of fear. Regardless, talkability is one of the modern teacher’s greatest tools.

So then, this begs the question: How can I build talkability in my own classroom?

Here are a few strategies and ideas that may help…

1. Identify relevant and engaging connections between your students’ world and your lesson plans

We are blessed to live in an age of connections and information. Even though it can be overwhelming and distracting, information is always at our fingertips in the form of television shows, news articles, podcasts, etc. With a little bit of your own research power, you have the ability to find connections between your content and the world your students are engaged in.

Are you doing a short story unit including horror stories? Make connections between American Horror Story, Castle Rock, and other great horror stories/movies/shows/books of our day and age.

Are you doing a unit on dystopian worlds? Make connections between the dystopias they are already familiar with (Black Mirror, The Good Place, Hunger Games, etc.) and the ones they are about to study.

If you’re doing a unit on Shakespearean language, engage students through having them adapt pop songs into Shakespearean pop sonnets.

Making those meaningful connections is the first step to talkability.

2. Similarly to my previous point, look for ways to break the mold with your teaching.

Do something different than students might expect.

Many times this “something different” takes on the form of student choice,, debates, movement, games, or challenge.

It may seem simple, but, instead of giving students worksheets, give them task cards. Let them move from station to station while answering questions.

Instead of just having students learn how to write a persuasive paper, give them something to debate and have them debate with one another.

Rather than having all students work lock-step on the same nonfiction text (which can also be spiced up to break the mold), have students choose their own books on their own interests and seek to conference with each of them.

Rather than just writing a research paper, have them plan and research for a TED Talk on the topic of their choice that they have to present to an audience of their peers. Have students create something that they’re proud of and they will be so excited to share that discovery with others. This is what makes learning stick.

3. Finally, recognize that every student is different and that “remarkability” varies from student to student.

My last caveat is that – in order to be talkable – we must keep in mind our “consumers” (students) wants and needs. They vary from year to year, so we as teachers must be intentional about identifying what connections or challenges will be more pertinent than others.

We’ve all had those lesson plans that worked wonderfully with one group of kids and flopped with another. We must intentionally learn about our students and what brings them joy in order to serve them.

There are many ways that we can do this. We can have regular chats with our students about what makes them tick, give them interest surveys, ask students about what they want to learn, and give them choices.

Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed!