Our recent interactive teacher panel gave us so much to talk about! We don’t want you to miss out on any of it, so we’re creating a few separate posts with all of the helpful information from that session.

If there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that teaching during the pandemic has been wild. This year has brought about an entirely new way of teaching, and teachers are looking to each other for tips and tools to adjust to the new challenges that come with online learning.

Bakpax recently hosted a live Q&A panel with teachers Rory Yakubov, Esther Brunat, Ty Cook, and Fletcher Nelson to share their experiences, tips, and takeaways from teaching this year. Teachers around the country joined the virtual session, sharing their own experiences and supporting each other.

Here’s what we learned:

How do we engage students during virtual and hybrid learning?

The number one question on every teacher’s mind right now is, “How can I engage my students?” As Esther says in the session, “Creating the buy-in is a whole different ball game virtually.”

How do you get students to want to turn on their cameras? Come to virtual office hours? And make it something they enjoy doing?

Tip 1: Build Community

What students and teachers are missing out on with virtual and hybrid learning is their sense of community. In the spring, the students and teachers already started with a community when they transitioned to online learning. This fall, it’s been especially difficult to build community without that in-person foundation.

Getting students excited, engaged, and building community is no easy task. Fortunately, our teacher panelists had some ideas.

Allow Time for Chatting

Fletcher knows his third graders miss out on the socialization they get from having school every day. On Fridays, when his school is virtual, all his students want to do is talk. He embraces it and gives them a few minutes to talk. It gets chaotic with students that young, but when it’s time to get started with the lesson, he mutes his students and they start work. Those first few minutes of class give them that important time to socialize.

Esther encourages students to type in the chat for virtual meetings. To get to know her new class, she asked them to submit pictures of themselves if they wanted to, and then hyped the photos up with the class. “Look at this girl with purple hair. Tell us about your hair routine in the chat!”

Esther believes if you can get a kid to laugh, you can get them to do everything. This activity helped make her students comfortable interacting with each other in the chat, while creating that buy-in to the class.

On the topic of group chat during virtual class, Esther says, “I wish I could carry the chat over [to in-person learning when school goes back to normal]. My kids are hilarious and crack me up. I don’t know how I’d implement that group chat in a face-to-face setting.”

Incorporate Collaboration in Class Work

To build community online, you have to think about where you can carve out time for students to be able to interact with each other like they would at school. How can you get them engaged? Can you have students do a group project, or let them collaborate on Google Docs? There are many tools out there now that can help foster collaboration during online learning.

Extracurricular Community Building

Often, students’ virtual schedules are built 100% around content, with nothing built in where students are meant to talk to each other.

Ty’s school started doing Fun Fridays, where students join an optional Google Meet every Friday, and teachers rotate who facilitates it. They use that time to chat and connect with each other about things outside of class.

“We need to be intentional about community building.

It’s so easy to think ‘We can barely get them to do their work.’

But what I’ve found is… when you start making connections outside of math and science and things they’re not so interested in, they start to see different layers of you as a teacher, and I think that’s when they’re like, ‘Oh, I may not care about math, but I like Mr. Cook, so I’m going to do the math work.’

So they get more motivated.”

– Ty Cook, middle school science and math teacher

Tip 2: Encourage Students to Turn on Their Cameras

For many teachers, just getting students to participate and turn on their cameras is a huge challenge, and every district has different policies with cameras.

Rory felt like she was talking to herself in her virtual classes, because her students wouldn’t turn their cameras on. On top of that, she didn’t feel like she knew the students she was teaching, and knew something had to change when she received an email from a student she didn’t know she had. This situation is familiar for so many teachers this year!

So how do we get students to want to turn on their cameras?

Use Encouragement and Praise

Rory now encourages her students to turn on their cameras for at least the first 5 minutes of class. When they do, she praises them. She also directly speaks to students whose faces she can see, which motivates other students to turn their cameras on, too.

Esther has similarly used praise to encourage students to turn on their cameras. She shows how she does that in this video, where she excitedly counts the increasing number of cameras turning on for her – thus encouraging more students to do the same.

What About Student Privacy?

Privacy is an important concern, and it’s a reason why many districts don’t require students to turn on their cameras for online classes. To respect their privacy, Rory encourages students to stay on mute and use virtual backgrounds, so everyone can just see their faces.

Tip 3: Get on the Students’ Level

What’s the secret to engaging students during virtual learning?

“The secret sauce is relating to them on their level. How do I go into their world? The little steps we take toward them go a really long way.”

– Esther Brunat, high school math teacher

Find Out What They’re Thinking

Fletcher says that TikTok gives him insight into what the students are thinking. He learns about why they don’t turn on their cameras, or why they don’t participate. He gleaned this insight about Zoom’s breakout rooms from watching TikTok:

“Teachers thought it was awesome to have students talk in small groups, but they didn’t put them with kids they knew, so everyone was just awkward and uncomfortable.”

– Fletcher Nelson, third grade teacher

This insight may mean that teachers should try to put students in breakout rooms with students they know, at least at first.

If you don’t use TikTok, you can send out surveys asking why students don’t turn their cameras on or want to participate. Try to see what would work for them, and adjust your strategies accordingly.

Bring in Pop Culture

Ty says that his students love his TikTok. It gives them something to connect with him that’s not strictly content-related.

But if TikTok isn’t your thing, he says that any pop culture will work. “Anything to make the kids say ‘Hey, my teacher is a real human, [and] they understand that we’re real students,’ and you can connect on a level that’s not just content. That’s when you see a real shift in what you’re doing… Pull in those pieces of pop culture into an assignment they have no interest in, and it makes them more excited.”

Need ideas for connecting with students beyond TikTok?

  • Many teachers in the chat told us they play the game Among Us with their students.
  • Esther does Karaoke Bingo with her students using whiteboard.fi.
  • Ty creates digital Escape Rooms to engage his students.
  • These are just a few ideas, but there are so many creative possibilities for using technology to engage your students virtually. We’d love to hear what works for you and your classes at hello@bakpax.com.

    Missed the session? Watch the full recording.

    You can watch the full video of the interactive panel session here:

    And stay tuned for Part 2 on the Bakpax Blog!