Student Engagement and Distance Learning

student engagement distance learning

Back to school this year is a bit of a hot mess, isn't it? Some of you are completely remote, others are face-to-face, and some are doing a crazy hybrid version of the two. And, whichever method you're using, it's been very difficult - for us and the kids. One of the biggest challenges in teaching has always been getting kids interested, but when they aren't in front of us it's that much harder.  Student engagement and distance learning is not an easy thing to create, but I have some strategies (and several freebies) to share that have worked for me.

My first priority last spring was to create lessons that made my kids want to show up and turn on the computer, and I knew that getting them to passively read something and answer questions certainly was not going to do it. 

I always build my in-school lessons around active learning, with everything supported by three pillars: student choice, movement, and fun. My challenge was to find a way to get all of those things into my distance learning lessons too.

For student engagement and distance learning: provide opportunities for fun

We all want to have fun and play, no matter how old we are. In fact, there’s a great deal of evidence that fun and play are an essential component of learning. That doesn’t mean that everything we do with our students has to be one big game or amazing learning experience. Nor does teaching online require us to use all kinds of bells and whistles and bitmojis. 

One easy way to add an element of fun to the learning process is collaboration with classmates. Most students like interact with each other as they work - and it makes those all-important connections that are missing with distance learning.

My favorite way to get kids to collaborate online is with Google Docs and Slides, so I created a number of opportunities for them to connect through that platform. For example, there is a a group exercise I like to use early in the year when I introduce my students to the importance of word choice. Usually they are moving around the classroom to do it, but now I have a way for them to do the same thing remotely. You can grab it here for free, and if you want to read about the face-to-face version, click here.

Student Engagement and distance learning

The slide below is from another group assignment that gets students collaborating to create a public service announcement  about wearing masks. Students do a little work on their own first and then they collaborate to create the PSA.  Click on the link above if you'd like to use this free activity with your students.

Collaborative Activities for Distance Learning

Whether my students are collaborating or working on their own, I try to make the assignments as engaging and interactive as I can. My learning stations had to undergo a serious update for distance learning, but I was able to recreate the experience and update many of the activities that we usually do in the classroom, like my  my Spooky Story Stations and Halloween Writing Activities. I have also put together a new bundle of my most engaging collaborative lessons, ones that have been converted for use online. Check out the freebies above, and if you like what you see, you can grab the bundle and have a variety of activities you can use to engage your students in online collaboration.

Increase the fun factor with a little competition

There’s something about healthy competition that creates a buzz in a classroom so I use group challenges a lot, and those activities were the first ones that I converted for online collaboration.  Anytime you tell the kids that the game is on, they get more excited about an activity. This can be something as simple as “Let’s see who can come up with the best answer” to a full on challenge. You could have weekly trivia contests or play online charades, anything that will build community make this home learning process a little better. Appoint a group of students to host trivia for the week and they can open the class with their questions. Students may be more excited about starting the class if they know there's something fun at the beginning.

These challenges can also be ones that work on skill building, like my Writing Challenges, which are always a hit with students because they get to learn and have fun in the process.

For student engagement and distance learning: give students some freedom:

When my students were learning form home, I assigned asynchronous work and posted the whole week's work on Monday. This gave them freedom to choose when they did their work for me. If they were ambitious, they could do it all in one day, or spread it out over the week. I know from talking to them that they really appreciated the freedom this gave them, especially those who were sharing computers or looking after siblings.

My students also appreciated a little guidance with time management. Yes, they like freedom, but most need a little help with managing it.

So my instructions broke their tasks into manageable chunks, and I gave them suggestions for how much time they should spend on each activity - this is so important when we aren't there to guide them. You can see how I did that with slides I used my IB class:

A big part of freedom is choice:

Another way you can provide freedom to your students is to give them some choice in how they learn. Last spring I had great success with my choice boards. Like a menu, they offer students a selection of  learning opportunities and activities. and do so in a way that offers students a choice in how they learn or develop that skill. In general, students tend to like these learning menus because they get the freedom to decide how to illustrate their skills. And we humans, whether we are sixteen or sixty, like to be able to make our own choices. You can find out more about how I used them here - and grab two free ones while you're there!

Student Engagement and Distance Learning


For student engagement and distance learning: provide action breaks

When my students are in school, they do a lot of moving to learn. This wasn't as easy to plan at a distance, but I did encourage them to take action breaks. If you are doing synchronous learning, build in time for these breaks between tasks.

Let’s say your class is sixty minutes long. Break your lesson and activities into thirds, and after twenty minutes of on-task time, tell your kids to stand up and stretch, go for a walk, or dance it out. You can actually do the activity together, or tell them to turn off cameras and mics, choose an action break, and come back in two or three minutes.

If students are working through your lessons at their own pace, include action breaks in your instructions. Tell them to set a timer and take a break every fifteen to twenty minutes. You can provide them with ideas for action breaks, or send them to sites like this one: Move 2 Learn.

If you’d like some ideas for building action breaks into your lessons, I’ve got a bunch of suggestions and some slides all ready for you to use – access them here.

There is no perfect solution to getting students excited about turning on the computer. The distance between us will always be an obstacle, but there are simple ways to make the experience better. Don't spend hours creating an online version of your classroom or learning new technology. Just add in a little choice, movement, and fun, and your students will be more engaged in the process.

My friends here at the Coffee Shop have some excellent ideas for engaging kids online. Check them out below:

Presto Plans: The Classroom Floor is Lava Escape Room

The Classroom Sparrow: Career Exploration Bingo

The Daring English Teacher: Digital Collaboration Ideas

Nouvelle ELA: Terminus-Digital Escape Room Series



How to Teach Writing During Remote Instruction

Teaching Writing with Remote Teaching or Distance Teaching

Whether you are teaching 100 percent remotely, teaching in a hybrid setting, or teaching in a socially-distanced classroom, this school year is unlike any other. Because of all of the unique challenges that this school year brings, teachers must take a moment, step back, and reconsider every instructional decision.

One area of secondary ELA instruction that teachers should reconsider this school year is how to distantly teach writing, the writing process, and essay writing.

At the time of publication, I’ve been remotely teaching my high school English students for seven weeks, and I’ve also assigned, taught, graded, and provided feedback for a full essay assignment. Through that process of teaching students how to write an essay remotely, I learned some things. Above all, I learned reconsideration.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering the Assignment

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering the Assignment

Any way you cut it, distance teaching and distance learning are challenging for both teachers and students alike. Because of all of these unique challenges, we must reconsider assignments and only assign essential work. With the essay that I recently assigned to my juniors, my grade-level team and I significantly modified the essay to suit our students’ needs better. We looked at our objective for the assignment, evaluated which skill and standard we wanted to assess, and pared the assignment down. Featured in the picture: SMARTePlans Digital Controversial Essay Assignment

Considerations for Modifying Remote Learning Writing Assignments

  • What essential skills do you want to focus on?
  • What standard are you assessing?
  • Can the assignment be modified in terms of length requirements?
  • Can the assignment be adjusted in terms of how many sources you are requiring?
  • Can you provide the sources to the student in advance?

For our most recent essay, we shortened a multi-page, synthesis essay to just three paragraphs: an intro, body, and conclusion. Also, since teaching writing can be an overwhelming task, to begin with, try to focus only on one or two essential skills at a time and build from there. For this essay, I really wanted my students to understand how to embed quotes in their writing and write strong commentary. Why assign a three-page essay when you can assess the skills in just three paragraphs? During this time, we have to keep our most vulnerable students in mind. If an assignment is more accessible, students will be more likely to attempt the work and less likely to shut down completely.

By focusing on just a couple of essential writing skills at a time, your writing instruction becomes more focused. It provides students with more time to practice learning how to write academically. My digital Writing Spotlight series takes this instructional approach. Each unit focuses on a different writing skill, such as writing about the quote, writing in the third person, writing in the literary present, and focusing on including a quote in writing.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering How to Present the Assignment

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering How to Present the Assignment

Once you’ve modified your writing assignment to fit the needs and challenges of remote teaching, it is time to present the assignment to students.

I had a lot of success presenting my students with their writing assignment toward the beginning of the unit before reading some of the sources together. One of the main reasons I did this was because I wanted my students to see the end game. I wanted them to understand where our classwork during the prior weeks was leading.

I reviewed the assignment project in chunks. We talked about and discussed the prompt. To check for understanding, my students sent me a private chat message in Zoom telling me what the prompt was asking using their own words.

From there, I went over the requirements slowly and paused several times to check for understanding using the chat feature. I had my students type one requirement for the essay in the chat. With teaching 100 percent remotely, it is so difficult to gauge student reactions. It is tough to see if they are getting it. That is why I made sure that I had frequent checks of understanding in the chatbox.

Another benefit of assigning the essay early is that it provides you with ample time to revisit parts of the essay as you work toward it. Since our essay was a synthesis essay, we would take a couple of moments to discuss how the article related to the prompt after we read an article together.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering the Pre-writing Process

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering the Pre-writing Process

Writing is a process, and when we introduce large writing assignments to our students, we should always teach it as such -a process. Brainstorming and pre-writing is such a big part of teaching students how to write essays, and with remote teaching, I encountered another unique challenge. How was I going to complete group brainstorming exercises with my students?

Usually, with in-person instruction, I include various group brainstorming activities in my essay writing units. Some of the best in-person group brainstorming activities include a shared piece of large paper, a group of kids, and some markers. Easy peasy! However, this group essay brainstorming method just isn’t an option during the pandemic.

I used two different group brainstorming strategies to help my students prepare for their first remote essay. We used the discussion feature in Canvas, and I also went back to the basics and used my document camera to record students’ live ideas as they shared them aloud in our Zoom call.

Remote Teaching Group Brainstorming Part 1

First, to prepare students for the group brainstorming session, I provided them with a graded Canvas discussion assignment. I made the settings so that students had to answer before they could see their peers’ responses. For the graded Canvas discussion, students had to answer a question that was essentially the essay prompt and provide one piece of cited evidence. I gave them about 5-7 minutes to complete the discussion question in class. And, since our work leading up to this included a quote organizer, students should have had quotes ready to go.

If you don’t have Canvas or don’t utilize the discussion feature, here is a list of other tech options for this type of group brainstorming activities.
  • Google Classroom questions
  • Padlet
  • A Collaborative Google Doc or Slide
  • Jamboard
  • Flipgrid

Remote Teaching Group Brainstorming Part 2

Then, once my students completed this task, we moved onto another form of group brainstorming. For their essays, students needed two reasons to support their claim. Since the Canvas discussion board question only included one reason, I wanted to provide students with a list of potential supporting reasons from which to choose.

To introduce this exercise, I explained that we would be brainstorming reasons for our essays. Then, I showed students the Canvas discussion board assignment that they completed and pointed out that they could use any of the reasons in the discussion thread for this assignment. Then, I switched to my document camera, asked my students to unmute themselves when they wanted to participate, and told them to shout out the answers. We would typically do something like this in class on the whiteboard, but I had to modify it since we are remote. Students participated and shared. Together, we had a list of supporting reasons. It was awesome.

At the end of our group brainstorming session, I had the students select two reasons for their essay. Also, through the group brainstorming activities, students had quite a few different quotes to choose from for each supporting reason.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Writing Instruction

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Writing Instruction

When teaching students how to write an essay, I like to focus on specific sections of the essay at a time and then provide students with dedicated class time right after direct instruction.

For example, once students select their reasons and quotes, I begin with focused instruction on the thesis statement and introduction. Using various writing instructional strategies via Zoom and the doc cam, I try to provide students with as much detailing and scaffolding as possible.

Instructional strategies for remotely teaching essay writing:

  • Color-coding: Color code different parts of the paragraph or color-code corresponding reasons and evidence.
  • Mentor sentences: Provide students with exemplary mentor sentences to show students exactly what topic sentences, evidence sentences, and thesis statements should look like.
  • Scaffolding: Provide students with sentence frames and sentence starters to help them organize and write their thoughts.

Here is how I breakdown the multi-paragraph essay for instruction.

Each of my digital essay writing units breaks down essay writing instruction into manageable chunks for students and teachers.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Use of Class Time

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Use of Class Time

Whenever I assign essays, I always try to give students as much in-class time to work on the assignment as possible. Providing students with a chance to work on their essays in class is a great way to walk around and monitor student progress. It’s a great way to see how students are doing and provide much needed one-on-one support.

With remote teaching, I still provided my students with dedicated class time to work on their essays, and I attempted to have an online writer’s workshop. To do this, I sent every student to their own Zoom Breakout Room. I hopped from room to room, checking on on students, asking how they were doing, and reviewing their essays with them. Students shared their Google Docs with me, and I went over what they did well and how they could improve. 

With remote instruction, positive student affirmation is so important. Students need to know what they did well and why it was so great specifically. It will help them continue to try, make an effort, and be involved in your classroom. One of the best ways to streamline feedback is to keep it short and only focus on a couple of things. For each student, I pointed out one area of excellence and one area of growth. For the area of growth, I focused on an actionable step the student could take to make an immediate improvement in their essay.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Peer Editing

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Peer Editing

Just because we are teaching remotely doesn’t mean that we have to forgo peer editing completely. Peer editing is a critical part of the writing process because it allows students to see other students’ writing and read student writing in a different light.

For my peer editing activity, I assigned a digital Peer Editing station assignment and grouped students into breakout groups in Zoom of 4-5 students. In their breakout groups, students shared their essays and worked on finalizing them.

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Grading Essays

Teaching Writing Remotely: Reconsidering Grading Essays

Finally, the element of essay writing to reconsider when it comes to remote teaching is how you grade each essay. Since I can’t sit next to my students, since I can’t see if they are struggling or not, since I can’t help them in real-time at the moment they get stuck, I am grading with grace this year. I have EL students and SPED students and students struggling in other areas, and the last thing I want to do is bring them down with strict grading. Teachers can still have high expectations in the remote classroom without having unrealistic expectations.

More Distance Writing Instruction Resources:

Using Text Pairings to Deepen Understanding of Complex Texts

Curating Learning Experiences:

Using text pairings to deepen understanding of complex texts

By Vennieta Grant from @loveteachrepeat

Let’s be honest; most middle school students are more interested in being “done” versus seeking endured knowledge when reading an assigned text. As an English teacher, this realization continually fuels my desire to create engaging text pairings that provide students with an opportunity to apply their newfound knowledge. By creating a solid text pairing, students can deepen their understanding and strengthen their ability to recognize universal themes and concepts presented in a curated text set.

Here are my top three tips for creating engaging text pairings.

Tip # 1: Create a critical thinking “pathway.”

To create a critical thinking pathway for my students, I heavily rely on Sandra Kaplan’s Depth and Complexity framework. The Depth and Complexity framework consists of icons, each representing a specific analytical tool designed to help students develop a critical lens and create a particular pathway for analyzing text, complex ideas, and concepts. [CLICK HERE to access the Depth and Complexity Icons and Content Imperatives Chart]

In my experience, when introducing paired text to my students, I customize annotation guides for students to use as lenses to analyze the author’s purpose, style, universal themes, and more, presented throughout the text. 

It is also of great importance for teachers to model their thinking using the Depth and Complexity icons specified in the critical thinking pathway designed to accompany a text pairing. Students benefit significantly from the experience of witnessing teachers share their instinctive, metacognitive process of making connections, applying analytical skills, and recognizing both the bold and nuanced relationships between the anchored text and the newly introduced multi-genre text pairings. 

Tip # 2: Diversify your Text Set.

I invite you to seize the opportunity to make your curriculum more culturally relevant by exposing your students to a wide range of diverse voices, perspectives, experiences, and layered representations of universal themes and concepts. Text pairings can provide a unique opportunity for students to explore opposing viewpoints on issues or themes presented in the anchor text. It also gives teachers a logical segway, and students an additional reference point to understand the context and discuss parallels between the selected literature and current events and issues affecting students’ home and school communities.

Often, while reading a complex text, students lack reference points required to understand the purpose or themes presented in a text. Text pairings can help students visualize and develop reference points to establish a better grasp of the background information and new reference points needed to understand the anchor text on a deeper level.

Text pairings are not limited to text from the same genre; think outside of the box! Explore ways in which you can appeal to the various learning modalities and interests of the students in your class. My rule of thumb, when creating and developing text pairings is to try and include a minimum of three resources from the following genres: social media posts, songs, speeches, podcast, graphic novels, films, TED Talks, artwork, spoken word,  speeches, and items ripped from last night’s headline news.

Tip # 3: Become the expert 

When adding a paired text set to your lesson, examine the anchor text as if you are experiencing the text for the first time, through a targeted, specific lens. Become an expert on the text.

For example, I chose to use Representative John Lewis’s posthumous opinion piece, “Together, You Can Redeem the Soul of America,” as an expository anchor text for a lesson on the universal themes of justice, conflict, and power. Throughout the article, Rep. John Lewis eloquently crafts an argument, filled with allusions and references to historical events to illustrate the purpose of his life’s work and deliver a call to action for all Americans. [CLICK HERE to access the See Wonder Connect activity]

To understand his connection to George Wallace, students visit “American Experience: 1968 Campaign” on PBS’s website. To provide personal anecdotes regarding the life and legacy of John Lewis, students will watch and analyze the eulogy delivered by Barack Obama at Rep. John Lewis’s funeral. Through Kadir Nelson’s painting entitled, “American Uprising” to see an artistic rendering, not only the sentiments expressed by Rep. John Lewis, but also depicting images that students see on social media, from news outlets, or have experienced first hand. 


Vennieta Grant, M. Ed., is an ELA teacher and social justice educator at Lynwood Unified School District in CA. She has been researching, designing lessons, creating units, and sharing her ideas for a welcoming and empowering ELA classroom for years—both as a classroom teacher and in her work with beginning teachers at California State University, Dominguez Hills. Find her at @loveteachrepeat.

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