Six Tips for Distance Learning This Fall

by, Jennifer Lawson
Hands-On series creator

Like many teachers and university instructors across the country, the pandemic has forced me to teach my courses online for the first time. I am used to teaching in-person university classes with a lot of student participation, so this has been a challenge!

As the creator of the Hands-On series, this experience also has me thinking about the teachers, students, and parents who are navigating these unusual circumstances. As we move forward, distance, remote, or blended learning is likely to be the norm for many of us. How can we create engaging learning opportunities for students, even from a distance?

Below are some of the questions you might have, along with a few thoughts on how to successfully plan for distance learning.

  1. This is all very overwhelming! Where do I start?

No matter what subject you’re teaching, start with the curriculum, just like you would for any other lesson. Both in the classroom and online, create your lessons to address your specific curriculum.

Before you begin planning, review your curricular documents and use them as the foundation for your lessons. And as you plan your year, remember to give yourself credit for doing the best you can under these challenging circumstances!

  1. I don’t know what this school year will look like. Things might change partway through the year. How do I decide what to teach when?

Remember: curricular topics do not need to be taught in a particular order.

With that in mind, try to choose topics based on the season or time of year. This is especially true for science, but is a consideration for all subjects that encourage nature-based, land-based, or place-based learning.

For example, in science, lessons on plants and animals are best when students can observe and explore living things in their natural environment, such as spring and fall. On the other hand, learning about magnets can occur at any time, since it is likely to be done indoors.

Develop a year-long plan to help you determine which topics make the most sense based on the time of year. This helps address uncertainty because you will have an overview of what needs to be accomplished, and can modify that plan as the school year rolls out.

  1. Many parents are trying to work from home while also helping with school work. How do I choose activities that are practical to complete at home?

Once you have selected a topic, think about the lessons you usually teach in the classroom. Look for ideas in the suggested activities in the curriculum and your educational resources.

If you are using lessons from a Hands-On resource, it is a good idea to scan the lessons in order, since they have been developed to scaffold skills and concepts.

Regardless of the resource you are using, remember that not every part of every lesson needs to be taught. Pick and choose activities that are most appropriate for distance learning, such as activities that

  • students can do independently or with minimal assistance
  • require only a few materials
  • could include the whole family in the learning experience

Once you have chosen tasks, adapt the activities to be more easily completed at home.

  1. How can I adapt activities for students and parents to complete at home?

Given that this approach is new to all of us—teachers, students, and families alike—we need to maintain a positive and encouraging relationship with our partners in the learning process. The more family-friendly the instructions, the more success students will have in completing the tasks you assign.

When planning activities for distance learning, create simple and clear instructions for tasks. Like a very basic lesson plan, you might consider a format such as the following:

Materials Needed

Include a list of easy-to-access supplies that students have at home, or that will be provided in a distance learning package.

Task

Provide step-by-step instructions that students and parents can follow. Word these as simply as possible to help students work independently. Make sure the instructions can be understood by families learning English.

Show Your Work

Explain what students need to do to demonstrate learning. For example, students might complete a journal entry or activity sheet, draw a picture, or take a photo of a project. Photos can be taken with any digital device, but make sure to include options for students who may not have access to cameras.

Here is an example of a distance learning task, based on an activity from Hands-On Social Studies for Ontario, Grade 6:

Materials Needed

  • a variety of Canadian coins and bills (or images from online sources)
  • Activity Sheet: Symbols and Images on Canadian Currency 

Task

  1. Look at each coin or bill. Identify the symbols or images you see on each one.
  2. Talk about these symbols and images with family and friends.
  3. Complete the activity sheet.

Follow-Up

  1. Record the value of the coins and bills in the first column of the activity sheet.
  2. In the second column of the chart, record the symbol that is shown on the coin or bill.
  3. How is this symbol significant? Share ideas with your family, and check references. Record your ideas in the third column of the chart.

For example:

  1. How can I infuse nature-based experiences and help students focus?

As much as possible, encourage students to learn outdoors!

Current research (Jordan & Chawla, 2019) suggests that nature-based learning inspires students, helps them stay focused on tasks, and encourages them to get exercise. Be sure to intentionally select tasks that require students to explore nature (with adult supervision as appropriate). This is another time when the whole family can be involved.

For example, during a family walk in the neighbourhood or a local park, students can play Eye Spy to learn about colours, or take photographs of three-dimensional objects they see while studying geometrical shapes.

Source: Cathy Jordan and Louise Chawla. A Coordinated Research Agenda for Nature-Based Learning. Frontiers in Psychology, published online April 22, 2019.

  1. How can I foster accountability and celebrate learning?

One of the biggest challenges of distance learning is helping students stay engaged. As much as possible, encourage students to provide work products that show what they have done and what they have learned. This provides you with evidence of learning to track progress and achievement. Submitted work might include

  • an activity sheet
  • a written story
  • a book report
  • a video presentation
  • photographs (for example, of a makerspace project)
  • a slideshow
  • an audio recording or podcast

Since many families have access to digital cameras on phones or tablets, photography is a great way for students to record their learning process. Sharing slideshows and photographs with classmates can also help students stay connected with one another.

And, of course, for students who might not have access to technology, have them submit hardcopies of their work (for example, drawings, activity sheets, or written work), which you can then photograph to share with the class.

Try to plan a variety of tasks to maintain students’ interest, and celebrate their successes each step of the way. Stay connected and provide feedback regularly. Celebrate learning as a class by sharing experiences and accomplishments.

These six tips are just a starting point. What have been your successes and challenges with distance teaching and learning? Let us know in the comments!

Looking for curriculum resources to help you with your planning this fall? Check out the Hands-On series, and find the resources for your province and grade level here.

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