How to Teach Online: Strategies for K-12 Educators Amid School Closures

With the closings of schools and the possibility of having students out of classes for months, many school districts are asking teachers to transition to online learning for their students. If you are a classroom teacher now tasked with figuring out how to teach online, the change may seem challenging, but we’ve got you covered with some helpful tips.

I taught secondary science online for six years and was a department head, a national subject area specialist, and someone who trained teachers who were new to the online arena. The most commonly asked question I received during this time went something like, “Science…online?! How could you possibly teach science online?” My answer was, and continues to be, that we can teach almost anything online “surprisingly well!”

Strategies for Online Teaching

Here are my top six strategies for online teaching to ensure an engaging and impactful experience. 

1. Use videoconferencing tools to host online live lessons.

Especially because we are in quarantine and students (and all of us) may be feeling emotionally isolated, it’s important to stay in front of your students as much as possible, which can be done with videoconferencing sites such as Zoom, Skype, Facebook Live, WebEx, Google Hangouts, and YouTube Live. Set a specific time of day to conduct live lessons online, but don’t just talk at the kids. Keep it interactive and fun. Some tips:

  • Remember that most videoconferencing sites include chat functions and screen-sharing options so your students can chat with you and each other while you show a presentation slideshow, take them to a website, or walk them through problems or writing examples—anything you would normally show them in your classroom.
  • Remember that most videoconferencing sites allow you to control participant privileges—you can turn off everyone else’s microphone, only allow them to chat with you, or turn on and off the privilege as needed. Remember all of the classroom management you’ve had to do in the past? Not online!
  • Start your lesson with a bell ringer—just like in your brick-and-mortar classroom, you can begin your lessons with something fun, like putting up a presentation slide that asks a trivia question and having students privately chat the answer to you for some extra credit.
  • Use your webcam. It takes some getting used to, but students pay more attention if they can see you speaking to them, and they really enjoy seeing where you are working from—if your family pet wanders into view, you are teaching in your pajamas, or you have fun art on the wall in the background, all the better to connect with your students as a "real" person!
  • Record your lessons, and require students to prove that they watched the recordings. A student who watched the recording can then email you a list of specific words from the lesson or descriptions of pictures used.
  • Send out the recording link and your presentation slides to help students who need to review the information again for mastery.
  • Invite experts to share in your online lessons. From scientists to musicians, in this time of quarantine, many are looking for ways to help and would be happy to speak to your students.

To supplement live videoconferencing sessions, you can send students recordings of yourself providing relevant information about the coursework, giving instructions, or engaging students with a fun activity like a virtual read-aloud, as this teacher did!

2. Use online discussion forums for interaction.

To continue combating those feelings of isolation, use a discussion forum, and require your students to respond both to you and to each other on content related to the lessons. Keep it creative, and you can improve critical-thinking skills and deepen the learning.

For example, ask a question like, “If you could clone a pet, what kind of pet would you clone and why?” Students then are required to reply to the discussion prompt using at least 50 words, and they must reply to at least two of their peers—again, using at least 50 words—by either agreeing with their post, respectfully disagreeing with their post, or adding to what the classmate said.

Be sure to include word minimums and limits in your requirements to avoid students replying with only “I agree,” or, at the other end of the spectrum, go on to write a short novel.

3. Take your students on virtual tours.

Many options exist for either leading your students on a virtual tour during your live online lesson or assigning them a tour or activity to complete on their own. HMH has even built in Google Expeditions lesson plans into the different disciplines (learn more about HMH Field Trips). Below is a list of some of my favorite and most recent options:

Screenshot from HMH Field Trips, powered by Google Expeditions

4. Use real-world learning.

Just because the classroom is virtual doesn’t mean you can’t have your students doing hands-on and real-world activities. Give students assignments that require them to think about the phenomena around them and guide them to use what they have on hand to explore and learn more. Remember to use your webcam and do hands-on things as demos for your students too.

5. Encourage (and practice) collaboration.

Give students assignments that require them to get in touch with each other either through chat forums on a learning management system, social media, videoconferencing, or the phone.

Don’t forget that, as teachers, we all need to be collaborating, too. Share your successes and struggles as well as your lesson plans and resources with other teachers.

6. Hold virtual student clubs and opportunities for social interaction.

Again, remember that your students are likely to feel isolated both physically and emotionally. The good news is that this opens a door for you to get them thinking about how they can continue online with the clubs and activities in which they usually participate in person.

  • If you have led your drama club, consider doing a radio show through videoconferencing. Your actors and audience can all be online to enjoy.
  • Host an online art gallery.
  • Have a virtual talent show.
  • Gather online for book clubs.
  • Hold discussions for science clubs online.
  • Make the school newspaper an eNewsletter and keep on printing.

Please know that the entire HMH team is here to support you. It’s a priority of ours to help you make this transition and keep your students engaged and learning.