Teaching ELA Remotely: 9 inspiring ideas for digital instruction

Apr 01, 2020

Teachers all over are trying to navigate teaching ELA remotely, and this post is full of inspiring, innovative ideas for digital instruction.

('10 Inspiring Ideas for Digital Instruction': you can watch the full Facebook Live featuring all these ideas and more by clicking HERE.)

Are you wearing your digital hard helmet (?!) because our classrooms are officially under 21st-century construction!

As overwhelming as it can be to shift toward teaching ELA remotely, we aren't going to spend this post talking about our limitations, fears, or concerns; instead, we're going to shift the emphasis on embracing and recognizing opportunities, sharing them, and making sure we all have the resources we need to implement awesome learning in our ELA classrooms. 

By now, experience has likely told you that virtual learning is not like classroom learning. In other words, you can't simply 'transfer' what you're doing from physical space to digital. Rather, it's a matter of transforming those methods.

In order to engage learners, let alone online, we need to understand what intrinsically motivates because that's the spark that lights off self-direction. The activities they work on and the problems we ask them to solve need to have genuine meaning and true value.

The 9 ideas I share for teaching ELA remotely here are focused on students creating more than they consume, offering digital experiences with real-world transfer, and embracing the interests of the whole child. Remember, students should always have a voice and a choice in what they are learning no matter where they are!

These ideas will hopefully help you not just manage the switch from a physical classroom to a digital space, but totally rock the virtual classroom like the instructional superhero you are!! 

1| Digital literature circles via Zoom. 

Zoom--an online conferencing tool--is used by companies, classrooms, and colleges all over, even when there isn’t a virus infecting the world. More and more, job interviews are even being conducted via online meet-ups, so it makes real-world sense for students to gain experience in using this kind of platform.

(Pssst: if you’re hesitant to use Zoom, I get it.  And that's why I’ve got you covered, brave teacher! Click here to access our Free Resource Library and watch a ‘teacher-specific Zoom tutorial!)

So, how can we use Zoom to recreate the close-knit collaboration of a task like literature circles? For starters, Zoom offers an option to create ‘breakout sessions,’ where students can keep the collective vibes high while meeting with you live.

During a breakout, students can use the same questions, roles, and processes you’ve already established in your classroom (it just takes on a more pixelated hue!). 

Remember, students can build a lit circle around anything! Documentaries on Netflix, podcasts they are listening to, books the class is reading, the digital sky is *virtually* limitless!

App Recommendation: Padlet.  A virtual whiteboard, your students can prepare for discussion by posting relevant questions that arise while they read, notable quotes, literary device-spotting, favorite parts, etc.

Keep in mind, too, that Zoom calls can be recorded for progress-tracking and accountability’s sake, plus you can assess speaking and listening skills in watching the playback.

2 | Hyperdoc Escape Room? What?!

In a previous post, which you can check out here, we tackled the how-tos of using Escape Rooms in your classroom, an in-class critical thinking, and collaboration activity. 

And while it might feel like escape rooms are reserved for physical-space-only, a little creative thinking can challenge this notion, for sure. While teaching ELA remotely, using a Hyperdoc model + some Google Forms magic, you can create an escape room for your students digitally. 

A Hyperdoc taps into our learners' curiosity by sharing different resources which center around a given subject or theme, allowing them to organically explore. But it’s way more than just a Google Doc with links. Hyperdocs allow students to self-pace and individualize their learning.

Hyperdocs can be used in plenty of ways, but they’re especially useful if you’re trying to create a *digital* escape room. 

Here’s how that works…

Once you select a theme for the escape room, you would build your hyperdoc links around that theme.  Students would sift through the document’s curated collection of articles, videos, images, graphics, memes, etc. in search of answers to the clues you provide.  Once they have the ‘key,’ they can tab it into Google Forms to ‘unlock’ the next clue!

Check out this example we made just for you by visiting our Free Resource Library!

There’s no doubt Hyperdocs have all of the qualities of a ‘choose your own adventure’ style unit, giving students plenty of choice in what they encounter during their learning journey.

3| Mystery meet-ups

We may be practicing social distancing during the Covid-19 crisis of 2020, but when you are teaching ELA remotely there is literally no better time to invite someone into your classroom because you’re doing so in the safest way possible...virtually!

Reach out to primary sources as part of a research unit, contact a stakeholder who’s connected to a topic your students are curious about, or reach for the stars and tweet a big name (the glory of social media...what do you have to lose?!).

Work with students to develop questions, practice interview etiquette, and take advantage of the opportunity to talk to people locally, nationally, and internationally, as well as up the ranks of social and professional influence!

4| Use MyMaps on Google for, well...anything!

MyMaps on Google, which you can access through your Google Apps button (the one that has the 9 little boxes), is a pretty neat way to get students to think differently (‘geographically’, even) about research and the texts they read.

So I’ve got two different options for using Google Maps while teaching ELA remotely. 

Fictional Text Option: 

If students are working on novels, have them drop pins on the map to indicate where the story takes place. Even dystopian books frequently refer back to ‘the time before the fall’ or name their cities in relation to real locations.

If the book’s character travels, students can continue to drop pins as the character moves to see how different authors and characters from various fictional texts use our world to fuel or complement plot development.

Try, for instance, tracking the trek of the main character in Paul Coelho’s The Alchemist; or pinpointing historical context in novels like Animal Farm, A Tale of Two Cities, To Kill a Mockingbird, or In the Time of Butterflies.

When placed on a map, students can see how authors tend to use the world we live in when creating the setting and situation for their original works.

Nonfiction Text/Research Option:

As students research, ask them to document where major discoveries are made, where the universities conducting the research are located, and where they are getting their test samples, or even where milestone moments took place in the evolution of an issue. 

Just think of the possible conversations that could stem from this in-depth research. For example, if a researcher from the University of Iowa is studying the tendencies and side effects of cell phone usage as it relates to teens, but all of her research is done on inner-city kids in Miami, Florida, students can then ask questions about why the researcher made that choice and what the choice says about the researcher’s goals and expectations. 

Extra Cool Features: The pins can be color-coded to represent different students/books, and the pins can be layered! 

Seriously, check this one out; or, better yet, have students brainstorm how they might be able to use this as part of their learning.

Watch the full Facebook Live featuring all these ideas and more below!

5 | Creating PDF e-books while teaching ELA remotely

E-books are ‘all the rage’ in online marketing, and many online business owners use e-books to get more followers or subscribers.

An e-book is an inexpensive way to share valuable information with the world and to warm up an otherwise distant audience.

If you have informational writing standards to tackle while you are teaching ELA remotely, have students create their own e-book focusing on a specific passion/topic/area of interest.  You could post the e-books on the school website or blog for other people to check out because nothing makes writing more 'real' than sharing it with an audience of peers.

Or, if you want to infuse an even deeper layer of genuine, real-world application, have your writers reach out to local businesses to see what kind of informational resource they could create for them and how they might help them market their creations to the general public. 

App Suggestion: Use Google Slides. Slides can be adjusted to portrait mode, so they become a more robust version of a Google Doc. Within slides, students can add shapes, layer text, manipulate images, etc. It is also something students are super familiar with already, so win-win!

6| Brainstorming via Google Slides

Have you ever seen the ‘shape’ in Google Slides that looks like a post-it note? If not, let this little discovery be the driving force of your students’ next digital brainstorming experience!

Following a mini-lesson via Zoom, use the breakout feature to sort students into groups, then ask them to brainstorm ideas for whatever related project you’d like to follow up learning with.  (As a source of inspiration, you can apply the same brainstorming strategy discussed in this blog post about color brainstorming!)

One way to digitally conduct this lesson is to create a set of Google Slides and share with the entire class, assigning a specific slide to each group.  Students use their sticky-note graphics to contribute to their slides (and in response to their writing stimulus). Then groups can ‘gallery walk’ the other slides to see how different groups responded to the task.  

As a tip, you might assign a color to each group. That way, when they interact with other slides during the gallery walk, you can track this engagement.  Or, you might assign different colors to students *within* a single group in order to hold each member accountable for contributing to the task.

Shazaam!  Collaborative brainstorm complete, just as they would have in the classroom.

7| Infographic for informational research

Infographics are awesome. 

Hang on...can I just say that again? Infographics are AWESOME

Infographics are easily accessible online and appeal to visual learners. As they determine the most important details to be shared with their audience, they're building synthesis skills and pondering visual literacy.

Meanwhile, the creation of an infographic requires students to cite sources via links, use concise language + purposeful word choice, while considering the needs and tendencies of an audience.

Have your students 'google' infographics created by different companies and organizations such as Pew Research or Time magazine as models of possibility and inspiration, or have them simply scroll the templates on graphic design platforms like Canva to get started.

Need to assess a speaking skill while teaching ELA remotely? Pair infographic creation with a video walk-through via Zoom, Loom, or Flipgrid

(Psst...don't know much about Loom? In the Free Resource Library, check out this awesome, teacher-friendly tutorial for using this free screen-recording software!)

8| Student tutorials (‘Area of Genius’ Reference Library)

The part that makes us so uniquely human is that we’re gifted with different talents based on our diverse interests. Every single someone has something to offer, it’s true. Yet when we ask our learners to share what they’re ~good at~, it’s either ‘hey, I got this,’ or, ‘yo, I don’t know?!’

Never fear, my friend. This digital activity will teach our learners just how valuable a resource they all are.

Since they are more ‘digitally native’ than we are, encourage your students to own that!  Share with them the different digital platforms you’re thinking about using as part of instruction, but be transparent in the fact that you simply don’t have the bandwidth to learn-n-master them all.

So this is where they come in...co-creation, baby! 

Set your students loose in creating an ‘Area of Genius’ Reference Library. They can tinker with the various platforms or tools you’ve set your sights on. Or, give them the freedom to dig into new, exciting educational apps, editing software, Google doc features, etc. which might benefit (and empower!) the learning process. 

Then (and this is the best part!), have them create video tutorials to share inside a class library. 

This concept has it all: ‘just in time learning,’ problem-solving, researching, speaking, listening, citing sources... basically, the works! If you want to inject writing skills as well, ask students to create a PDF cheat sheet to go along with their tutorial.

In creating an ‘Area of Genius’ Reference Library (i.e. a Genius Bar akin to the likes of Apple!), not only are students teaching these apps to you and your current students, but the library fills itself full with video tutorials and documents you can use to help students in the future.

With every new class that crops up, they can review and revise the existing work inside the library, adding updates and omitting outdated work, while also inserting newer, cutting-edge ideas. 

In other words, endlessly iterating on the original year after year.  

(How’s that for meaningful revision practice, eh?)

9| ‘Ignite’ engagement with Pecha Kucha

Of all the strategies on this list, this is probably my very favorite (shhh...don’t tell the other 9!).

Pecha Kucha, which means ‘chit chat’ in Japanese, was started in Tokyo as a way for designers to swap-n-share their ideas.  It’s based on the idea that by limiting the number of slides in a presentation and limiting the amount of time a presenter can spend on each slide, he or she would automatically convey the information more swiftly and precisely.

So in other words...imagine setting your slide deck on ‘play,’ with a new slide appearing every 15-20 seconds, with you doing your best to keep the pace on point and the message clear + upbeat.

Go ahead, wipe the sweat from your brow. I'll wait.

But seriously, this isn't as intimidating as it sounds!

As it’s grown, this activity has become an exciting (and entertaining!) way to think critically, share quickly, and express yourself creatively.  Its variations include ‘Ignite’ talks and the Talk20.

Similar in some ways to a TED Talk, but briefer.

Now in their sum total, note that Ignite talks aim to be well planned and laser-beamed. And what a great culminating activity to hold our students to when our public speaking unit is all said and done, right?

But first...since public speaking has the power to terrify most *adults*, we'll be going easy on our learners to start.

Specifically, we'll be gamifying the 'Ignite' talk by adding an element of surprise to the mix. Also known as 'Mystery Ignite', here's how it works...

To start, group students together and ask them to pull together a slide deck of images (around 10 slides) which are all somehow connected, yet seemingly random to the untrained eye. 

The next step will be for groups to exchange slide decks with each other. They will be presenting this mystery deck once it's their turn to go, and to win, they'll need to do so in a way that somehow makes sense! The goal, more or less, is to make as many seamless connections from slide to slide while ultimately building an overall logical ‘point’. The cleverest group wins the game.

Once each group has traded their slides to another group, you'll defer to the audience to select the speech topic just before a group presents.

You're welcome, of course, to set parameters on this (ex. 'it must be a subtopic relating to our most recent unit!' or 'it needs to be a current event we've covered this year!').

All in all, groups present without ever having seen the slide deck before. Let the hilarity--and public speaking practice--commence!

The semi-silly result this activity will generate will open your students up and make them feel comfortable.  Yet to win the game, teams need to be logical and clear, so critical thinking is crucial, too (woot-woot, win-win!).

Or, if you want things a little less loose, you can always let groups gather for a short amount of time to review the slide deck and sketch a quick game-plan before proceeding, kind of like extemporaneous speaking in a debate contest. 

As a tip: Before you begin, you may want to research good public speaking practices with your students. 

Let them know they’ll be presenting something (though it’s a surprise!), so the class will need to set some guidelines for speaking and listening first and establish criteria for scoring their efforts (wink).

When it's all said and done, this speaking activity is the ultimate task in creative constraint. Students have to stay calm, press on, be creative, and make connections on the spot. A light, but challenging, gamified way to practice speaking and listening! 

And the best part about it, you can easily build from here, challenging your students to deliver speeches as engaging as Ignite and as powerful as TED!


To wrap it all up…

Holy cow! Do you feel it?!

That weight lifting off of you as you realize you are now full of digital learning ideas to keep your students busy well into next year whether you are still teaching ELA remotely or not?!

We are all trying to create in unprecedented times, and although you may have not been a virtual teaching and learning superstar to start this month, you are going to be by the beginning of the next.

And...these ideas are not just great for this virtual classroom; they are also #gold for enhancing the physical classroom experience. Just consider this post a fresh crop of cool stuff to do with your students now or keep them in the ol’ idea journal as you begin to plan for next year.

Even in the worst of times, with so much uncertainty surrounding us, I hope this post makes your instructional life a lil’ easier now and in the days moving forward as we begin to define our ‘new normal’ in this digital era.

We’re all in this together, my friends, so try out these ideas and comment below with your wins and roadblocks. We’d love to support you on this journey!

Connect with me on Facebook or follow me on Instagram! See you there!


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