12 Creative Ways to Connect with Students Online

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

Four weeks ago on a Friday afternoon, I left my 7th grade ELA classroom not knowing that I was saying goodbye. That weekend, I found out that my school would be closed until May. Like many other teachers, I went through a brief period of mourning. I was mourning the loss of my physical classroom and I was missing my students terribly, but there was something else I couldn’t quite put my finger on--something that staring at a computer screen and posting assignments on Google Classroom could not replace.

What was missing was the magic. I was missing the magic of face-to-face interactions with my kids, the magic of inside jokes, the magic of close proximity when a student struggled to pay attention to a lesson, the magic of eye contact and showing a student with a simple look that we would get through this together.

It’s important that, as teachers, we allow ourselves to feel that mourning for our classrooms and our time with students, but once we work through those feelings, maybe we’ll be ready to redefine the magic we felt in the classroom. I refuse to give up hope that we can still bring magic to our classrooms, even from a distance.

Together, I worked with 12 other Secondary English educators to gather the best ideas for keeping the magic alive in our online classrooms. We hope that these ideas will refresh your online teaching and help to bring joy to you and your students. Along with each idea, we provide ways to differentiate for students with limited access to resources.

With the pressure of high-stakes testing taken off your plate, now is the perfect time to add creative learning selections to your virtual menu! Ashley Bible atBuilding Book Love created thisFREE and editable Creativity Choice Board for distance learning. The creative digital learning projects provide the perfect opportunity for students and teachers to connect by showing off their creations together through digital platforms.

She also suggests shared listening experiences through podcasts because not only are podcasts free and easily accessible during distance learning, but they also provide fantastic online discussion opportunities!

Differentiation idea: Send home a paper copy or email a copy for families to print. Students can complete many of the projects with little or no Internet (crafting a piece of art with pieces from nature, writing a story book version of a novel, and more!). If sending work back to you is not an option, students or parents can take a picture of the work and email it back. All ideas are editable, so you can recreate some of the digital choices with similar paper activities.

Shana Ramin from Hello, Teacher Lady is currently using Google Meet to hold weekly “office hours.” Students can pop in to ask questions about the week’s assignments or just to say hi and share what’s going on in their lives.

If your district supports the use of Google Meet and you’re thinking about giving it a try, Shana suggests downloading a few Chrome extensions first. If you aren’t familiar with Chrome extensions, they’re basically little programs that enhance the functionality of Google Chrome. You can learn more and read about Shana’s favorite Chrome extensions for teachers and students here, here, and here.

Because so much of our face-to-face communication is nonverbal, not being able to see students’ faces or reactions online can feel a bit strange. The Google Meet Grid View extension helps by allowing teachers to see students’ video thumbnails on a single grid, rather than just a list of names off to the side. The Nod - Reactions for Google Meet is another helpful tool that allows students to virtually raise their hands and indicate how they’re feeling via pop-up emojis.

Lastly, the Meet Attendance extension allows teachers to “take attendance” during a Google Meet session. A time-stamped list of participants is exported to a spreadsheet, making it easy to log and reference later if needed.

Again, make sure to check with your district before using Google Meet or initiating any kind of two-way communication with students. They may have restrictions or additional guidelines to follow.

Differentiation idea: For students who struggle to make it to a Google Meet at a specific time, record your meeting to share through Google Classroom or email later. That way, students who are sharing devices with siblings or parents won't be left out. For students who struggle to access Google products from home, send a quick email or try to touch base by phone. Calling too many students would obviously be overwhelming, but most likely, the numbers of students who cannot access through email or a recording would be low. Dial *67 before any student phone numbers to keep your own phone number private.

Emily Aierstok, from Read it. Write it. Learn it., uses FlipGrid as a tool for keeping the magic alive in the distance learning classroom. Emily instructs students how to use FlipGrid to create short, creative video responses to their reading. FlipGrid is highly accessible to students through chromebooks, phones, or desktop computers. Here are Emily's best tips for using FlipGrid in the online classroom:

  1. Create fun, creative prompts: Emily's students post one FlipGrid each week in response to their reading. Last week, students had to create a three minute news story detailing the juiciest character gossip from their books. The videos were so much fun, and kids loved the idea of sharing character gossip. Students heard about Katniss Everdeen’s love triangle, the gossip surrounding the murder of Simon in One of Us is Lying, and the gossip about Matthew’s newest love interest in The Boy in the Black Suit. In another prompt, students had to create a FlipGrid from their character’s point of view. For optional fun, students could dress up like the character. Students then were tasked with sharing how the character would handle social distancing. The responses were so relevant and creative. Best of all, students demonstrated deep understandings of their characters.

  2. Create models: For each prompt Emily posts, she creates a model video response. Emily is known to dress up, get as creative as possible, and provide students with an example of the finished product she expects. Dressing up and being a little silly has helped to create a fun online learning experience.

  3. Give feedback: FlipGrid makes it easy to leave quick video feedback. After watching videos, Emily usually records a quick 10-30 second response. She recommends sharing specific feedback about student’s analysis. She also recommends responding to the parts of the video that make you smile! Giving feedback through video helps teachers to reconnect with students in that face to face way we all are missing.

FlipGrid reading responses are fun, accessible, and allow students to tap into their creativity. FlipGrid also provides a method of reconnecting from a distance. FlipGrid videos will help you to recreate the magic of talking about books face to face in your online classroom.

Differentiation idea: Provide an alternative to video responses for students who do not have access. Simply having students write their responses instead of creating a video is easy. Students can email responses or post them in Google Classroom. Emily's students have the option to post a video or a written response in the comment section. For students who are anxious to show their face on video, model how to have fun with emoji stickers. Emily models how to use the whiteboard option to write out a response or even draw an animated response. Encourage students to play around and have fun!

Engaging group discussions can happen outside of the classroom! In fact, with a few free tools, Jenna from Doc Cop Teaching found an easy and fun way to make the magic of literature circles appear in the virtual classroom. Literature circles are a great way to facilitate discussions virtually because each student has a separate role that they are in charge of presenting to the group. Having a designated role that they prepared ahead of time helps students feel more comfortable presenting in this new digital format. These discussions thrive on interaction between group members, and this interaction can absolutely happen in the virtual classroom with live video tools.

There are two free video chatting resources that work well for virtual literature circles: Zoom and Google Meets. Before deciding on which route to take, you should check with your school district about their policies and expectations.

  1. Zoom has a unique function for setting up breakout rooms. This lets the teacher split your larger class meeting into smaller separate rooms. Therefore, you can start in a full class meet by explaining directions and expectations, and then break up students into their assigned groups. What’s great about this is that you can bounce between meetings easily. You can read the directions for setting up the breakout rooms in Zoom here.

  2. Google Meet is another free resource for video chats. With this option, you’ll have to setup individual Google Meets and label them for each group so the students know which one to attend. It might also be helpful to schedule the group presentations at different times so you can attend all meetings. You can find directions for setting up a Google Meet here.

You can read more about how Jenna uses literature circles in her classroom here.

Differentiation idea: For students who cannot participate at a specific time, Zoom and Google both have options to record meetings. For students who struggle with access, encourage them to submit questions or quotes for literature circle discussions. Then, share classmate responses through email.

Whether you are doing synchronous or asynchronous online instruction, connecting with your students can be challenging. Maybe you feel like you are merely speaking at a screen during live or screenrecorded lessons, or you’re wondering if students are even reading everything you’ve posted for them. If you’re struggling with this disconnect and missing your students, try incorporating some form of online discussion. Here are a few suggestions:

  • If you are using Google Classroom, you can use its “Ask a question” feature as an online discussion forum. When you ask a question, students can not only reply, but they can also see their classmates’ responses and comment on them. If you want to take this feature a step further, consider letting students generate their own questions for a mini virtual Socratic Seminar.

  • If you are hosting live lessons through a video conferencing platform, you can easily facilitate discussions. If you feel like your discussions are flopping, try one of these fun strategies:

  • Flood The Chat: Ask students a question, and set a timer. Ask them to enter their answer only after the timer has sounded. This will create a “flood” of responses in the chat at once.

  • Virtual Turn & Talk: Depending on your platform and what it supports, you can create fun conditions for students to message peers with an answer to a question. For example, you can have students message the student above/below them on the participants lists or to the left/right on the grid view of screens. If those aren’t options, ask students to respond to someone whose name starts with the same letter or simply let them pick a friend. You’ll be surprised at how many students respond to each other.

  • Respond with Emojis/Characters: Post a multiple choice question on the screen, and designate each answer with an emoji or character (*!~+). Ask students to reply with the emoji/character in the chat.

  • If you are ready to try a new tech tool, consider online “backchannel” discussion platforms like Yo Teach (similar to the former Today’s Meet)or Kialo, a platform where you can browse public “debates” or create your own.

For more tech tools and ideas to connect with your students online, head to Abby’s blog here.

Differentiation Idea: Record online discussions for students who can't make it. For students with little to no Internet access, ask for prompts that can be shared in class chats or to start virtual turn and talk discussions, then share classmates' answers via email.

Amanda from Mud and Ink Teaching has been focusing on two major goals: providing structure and creating normalcy. By doing these two things, she hopes to establish a foundation for learning to happen.

For structure, Amanda’s instituted a Daily Check-In using Google Forms, records a screencast video using Loom of the day’s agenda, and shares a calendar with both daily and weekly perspectives. Just like in-person learning, a predictable structure makes students feel stable and less anxious.

In an attempt to create normalcy, Amanda has tried to streamline instruction in limited platforms and focus on the ones that her class had already been using before school ended. The first platform that’s helped create normalcy is utilizing Actively Learn - a digital reading platform that does it all (check it out in Amanda’s insta stories highlights for elearning!). The other platform she’s used is a Google extension called Kami. Kami allows users to upload documents or images and convert them to PDFs that can be annotated in dozens of ways. Finally, Amanda’s team has decided to give writing assessments that look almost identical to ones that students have already done, just with a few updates. One of these assignments is to have students write an alternate ending to the book they’re reading in class using Google Slides! Each slide has clickable links for the reader to choose her own adventure and they’re so much fun to read and write!

It can be tempting to try all the new things (like a class “Where I’m From Poem”!), to jump on new bandwagons and explore every new free edtech resource being offered right now. Just remember, build a foundation, create stability, and then start to introduce new tools to students. We’re all in this together!

Differentiation: Mail paper versions of class work and agendas, or if your school has meal delivery, see if work can be sent home with meals. If the work needs to be slightly different and sent in bulk (one month at a time), that's okay. Keep it simple so work is both accessible to students and reasonable for you to create. Reading and response, like writing an alternate book ending, is easy to do with very few materials. Offer audio book apps like Audible and Sora to make reading more accessible.

Students enjoy hearing their teachers read, and Lauralee from Language Arts Classroom has incorporated read alouds into her lessons. As a wonderful bonus, reading aloud has helped her to connect with her students online. Primarily, Lauralee reads to students in two ways.

One, Lauralee created a YouTube channel for her students where she reads the first chapter of books in the public domain. The data showed her that students watch the videos. In the future, she can ask students to watch these videos if they are absent, if they are searching for a book, or if they need inspiration. Since the books are in the public domain, students can immediately access the books.

Second, Lauralee is still completing First Chapter Friday. When she transitioned to online learning, she began by pre-recording herself. She received emails asking her to read aloud. Since she is not sharing these videos publically, she returned to reading modern YA literature for First Chapter Friday through a Google Meet. Students join (this is not required!) and hopefully hear a new author, genre, and book.

Even though Lauralee is not in the classroom, keeping FCF has increased her connection with students online.

Differentiation idea: For students who need audiobooks to access their reading, audible is currently free during the emergency school closings. Along with providing books through the public domain or after reading aloud the chapter of a current YA novel, share the audible link so students have access to the audio version. For students with few books at home or limited Internet access, print and share paper copies of short stories from the public domain. Project Gutenberg has some great options!

Has your school tried a digital spirit week? Staci Lamb from The Engaging Station coordinated a week-long Digital Spirit Week, and students could send in their pictures daily for the different themes like pajama day, school spirit day, and crazy sock day.

You can also tie this kind of activity into content. Perhaps you can host a spirit week for your ELA classroom. Think about Dress Like Your Favorite Character Day or What Are You Doing? Day and have students free write about something that they are doing during this time.

We know that our kids (and maybe...admittedly, ourselves haha) are getting more and more into TikTok. If they’re going to be on it anyway, imagine how much fun and creativity they could demonstrate by blending content into short TikToks. Staci has so many ideas about how this could work with Romeo and Juliet (which is what Staci is currently reading with her students). To make the Digital Spirit Week idea more flexible, you could have a weekly content instead of daily content to allow time for creation.

Differentiation idea: You can check out this blog post for more links and resources for distance learning that are creative and require little prep/Internet access.

Whether it is in person, or online, Tanesha over at Love Tanesha is all about building a classroom community and teaching soft skills. She is intentional in providing students opportunities to interrogate their core beliefs about an ideal (e)learning environment, and developing life-long career habits.

Classroom Community Agreement– Tanesha prioritizes time for students to reflect on the feel of the classroom they want to be true. To provide a little choice, she allows students to reflect using 2 of the 3 templates provided in this FREE Creating a Digital Community resource. After students complete the reflection process, she administers a class survey that combines standing agreements with ideas captured from student reflections. Using Google classroom, she creates a classroom question for students to respond to the survey results, and hosts a Google Meetup to draft the community contract, or agreement. The community agreement is always presented as a “living” document that can be adjusted as needed.

An Approach to Soft Skills - Tanesha takes a proactive approach in “teaching” students soft skills that will be valuable beyond the classroom. She understands the challenges with time management for students in a digital world. Many students need additional support with balancing their home and school responsibilities. She walks students through the process of prioritizing their time and planning ahead using templates found in her free Time Management resource. Most importantly, Tanesha gives herself and students grace when it comes to remote learning!

Differentiation: Tanesha's ideas ARE differentiation techniques. To spread these resources even further, offer students paper copies of the Digital Community resource and allow students to weigh in on how to include students who have limited access in the classroom community.

Another great digital platform is Padlet, and it is completely free as long as you don’t plan to have more than three active Padlets at a time. Think of it as a chart you would typically have students add sticky notes to, but with the capability of including graphics, videos, hyperlinks, drawings, and even voice recordings!

Staci from Donut Lovin’ Teacher likes to use Padlet to create, connect, and collaborate with students. Here are a few ways she likes to engage with students:

  • Response to text: Think, collaborative “double entry journal.” Using a Padlet Wall, students can share a meaningful quote from a selected text and respond with connections, inferences, predictions, etc. The fun part is seeing how students choose to share their commentary!

  • Anchor charts: On a Padlet shelf, content can be organized in columns. This one is a game changer. There are many different ways it can be used, depending on your area of study. Let’s say you’re practicing character analysis, make different columns such as personality, appearance, thoughts, and interactions with others. Then have students add their ideas with evidence and explanations within each column. Another fun way Staci has used this layout is to create an A-Z Guide to Being at Home where her students posted different ways they are staying busy during this time at home.

  • Final Projects or the Planning Stages of Writing: Use Padlet Timelines for literal comprehension, like tracking events in a story, or ask students to get more creative by making a timeline of a character’s life based on textual evidence and inferences. How about writing? Organize ideas for a narrative in chronological order or use it like an outline to plan a more structured essay.

Staci likes to create a Padlet and have students share, so responses can be visible to the entire class, but students also have the capability of making their own for full customization and a deeper analysis! Staci also uses the above mentioned Padlet layouts to help students respond to a picture prompt.

Differentiation Idea: Use the print screen feature on your computer keyboard to screen shot a Padlet conversation to share with students through email if their Internet access is limited. Give students with limited access the opportunity to create questions that students on Padlet can answer. Then, highlight responses through a whole-class email. Email students with limited access posing specific questions, then copy and paste answers into Padlet so classmates can add to the discussion. Give students the opportunity to answer similar questions on paper.

As an English teacher experienced with grades 6-12 and a current instructional coach, Melissa recommends focusing on what is most important right now. Less is more. She suggests one of the most important ways we can be connecting with students online is by encouraging them to continue their reading lives.

While we are not in the classroom with students at the moment, reading volume is still critically important. Melissa created this free Our Digital Classroom Bookshelf resource so that students can share book recommendations and inspiration with peers.

As a certified reading specialist, Melissa has no shortage of ideas for using books to build relationships with students and create positive classroom cultures for older students. You can read more of her ideas on her blog, Reading and Writing Haven.

Differentiation idea: Use Audible or Sora for students who need or prefer audio books. For students who have limited access to books, Sora also has eBooks that can be borrowed for free. The New York Public Library has also recently released free access to their digital collections here.

As a high school English teacher who is currently teaching more than 160 students remotely, the best advice I have, besides keeping these10 considerations in mind, is to use a Google Form to check in with your students daily. I use the same Google Form throughout the link, and I have my students check into every day. Using the Google Form allows me to add in some social and emotional learning aspects into my remote teaching, while also providing my students with a way to easily ask me a question.

Using Google Forms for daily or attendance check-ins has many benefits.

  1. I can export the data to Google Sheets to easily sort the information.

  2. I can edit the form each day to include new pictures or questions related to that day’s content.

  3. I can share the shortened link via Remind so that students have easy access to the Form.

  4. Finally, it saves all of the data so that I have a record of my student check-ins.

Teachers can download my Free Daily Attendance Student Check-In Form here. This Form is fully editable, and you can customize it to suit your own needs!

Differentiation: For students who cannot attend online classes, see if your school has an easy way to deliver paper copies. For students with limited access (just email, for example), create a regular schedule with any students who need that accommodation. For example, ask students to share work or responses every Tuesday and Thursday.

I hope these ideas inspire you to find the magic in your online clasroom. We fell in love with teaching because our goal was to reach the human beings who enter our classrooms everyday. Yes, it's definitely different teaching on a computer, but those same humans are behind the screen, and we can still find ways to connect and spark a love for learning.

For even more ideas for creating magic in the classroom, check out Emily's post on Building a Community Read Aloud.

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