Monday, September 12, 2022

Best Practices in Virtual Student Engagement

 As the number of K-12 students taking online classes increases, the need for research to identify best practices specific to the online classroom becomes greater. Michigan and Florida, along with other states, require most students to take an online course in order to graduate. Moreover, students are electing to enroll in virtual schools for all of their classes, whether those schools be in their district or in a charter school, public or private. The chances are that a teacher entering the field today will, at some point, have the opportunity or obligation to teach in an online setting. The value of a great teacher is established and makes the need for best practices more urgent. 

word collage of engagement

For teachers already teaching online, it quickly becomes apparent that while a few classroom strategies transfer to the virtual classroom, many do not. The available literature on the topic of teaching online centers around either higher education settings or blended learning models. Some new research, though, has worked to identify the best methods virtual teachers can use to connect with students. 

Increased student engagement in an online course increases the likelihood of student success and retention. The roles identified for increasing engagement in an online course are designing and organizing, facilitating discourse, instructing, nurturing, motivating, and monitoring. All of these practices increase the teacher’s presence in the online classroom, thereby increasing student engagement. 

The first aspect, designing, and organizing varies by teacher, as many teachers use the curriculum they were given, and a few design their virtual lessons themselves. However, ensuring that the content is organized in a logical and consistent fashion aids the student in navigation and reduces frustration.

When selecting curriculum providers, teachers identified the need to modify the curriculum as a key need. The use of deadlines also helped to keep the courses organized. Finally, the use of audio or video assignments lessened the occurrence of plagiarism and cheating.

Next, facilitating discourse involved teachers who regularly check in on students and parents. This allows for problems to be addressed in a timely manner. Another key area of discourse was staff discourse, which was achieved using online faculty rooms. 

Third, teachers reported more opportunities for one-on-one instruction in the virtual classroom and less repetition than they remembered in the traditional classroom. The use of one-on-one instruction was more efficient than either face-to-face classes or synchronous virtual meetings.

The nurturing aspect of engagement was achieved with what research subjects called a “shepherding” program, similar to Michigan’s required mentor contact. This interaction was most successful when promoted by the teacher and the mentor and involved not only academic help but relationship-building conversations as well.  

Monitoring of student progress was achieved through data collected by the school’s LMS. Teachers also monitored within the one-on-one meetings, using verbal assessments to check for understanding.


Motivation remains the key to student engagement in the online classroom. Teachers used a combination of cheerleading and firm reminders to keep students engaged. Small rewards were also used. Third, public recognition was motivating for some students. Knowing the students well enough to know their preferred motivation was key. 

Borup, J., Graham, C. R., & Drysdale, J. S. (2014). The nature of teacher engagement at an online high school. British Journal of Educational Technology, 45(5), 793-806.

Petek, N., & Pope, N. G. (2016). The multidimensional impact of teachers on students

Stosich, E. L., & Bristol, T. J. (2018). Advancing a new focus on teaching quality: A critical synthesis. Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education https://edpolicy. stanford. edu/sites/default/files/Advancing, 20..

Tuesday, September 6, 2022

Unplug to Recharge

 Perhaps one of the biggest challenges of any work-from-home job is how to not be working. It becomes too easy to have one foot in the office at all times. I learned the lesson of unplugging in the most unlikely of circumstances, teaching online during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

In the fall of 2020, I saw my virtual student enrollment soar from a pre-pandemic level of 90 students to 300+ enrollments. I was also trying to support my coworkers and just generally navigate living, and parenting, during unprecedented times. 

Prior to the pandemic, I prided myself on my quick response times and my inbox-zero mentality. I worked on and off most of the day and usually late into the night. While busy seasons sometimes got my schedule off kilter, the catch as catch can method worked most of the time. 

However, by the end of September 2020, it became clear that inbox zero would be a distant memory. I also rarely got all submitted assignments graded. I remember days when I would see 3-4 assignments turned in in the time that it took me to grade one. This rocked my online world for a few weeks. 

However, I noticed a few phenomena. First, nothing crashed if I logged out and went home at 5pm, leaving some assignments for the morning. Second, when I did not respond to an email in five minutes or less, students, and parents, often did their own troubleshooting and figured out the issue without my help. Both were such obvious epiphanies. 

Learn from my experience; don’t wait for a world-altering event to force focus. 

I have maintained my more relaxed mentality even as life has hit a new normal. While I keep my email at hand during my office hours and strive to reply in under five minutes, I mute work emails during off times. My geography helps me to take this to an even deeper level when my family takes off on a hike beyond the reach of cell phone service. There is something rejuvenating about spending time near trees, water, and beyond the reach of technology. My time in the office, I would dare say, is more productive and passionate because of the time I spend away. My mind is clearer and my work is more focused because my time has a focus.

Thursday, September 1, 2022

Check out my guest post over at the DLC Blog: Engaging Parents...

 Check out my guest post over at the DLC Blog:

Engaging Parents in a Virtual Setting

Betsy is an instructional coach & teacher at Gull Lake Virtual Partnership, Richland, MI

Having a child in a virtual class at home comes with expectations for parents that are often new, unexpected, and unclear. Past experiences or faulty assumptions may set students and families up for frustration. Other students, however, thrive in the new virtual environment, feeling empowered by the flexibility and choice. Recent research has attempted to identify and measure the most effective types of parental support for virtual students at home. Parents may breathe a sigh of relief that they do not need to be an expert in Algebra or World History to have a significant impact in supporting their virtual learners.

Read more.

Promote Community and Equity through Applications of Learning

 Partnering with community resources can be a great way to expand learning opportunities for students. Schools throughout Michigan partner with businesses and community leaders to offer opportunities such as job shadowing, learning applications, and more. 

Businesses often embrace opportunities to work with schools to give back to the community and to ensure a qualified workforce. Inviting business leaders into the school to design career academies is just one way to create a bridge beyond graduation.

student at pottery wheel

Another way to create community connections is through applications of learning. Schools can partner with local businesses to expand PE offerings, for example, by using swim lessons at a local facility if the school does not have a pool on campus. Other opportunities include partnering a PE teacher with a fencing instructor to bring a new course offering to the high school. This community involvement can involve other content areas as well, from music to performing arts to outdoor science. Schools can enter into an agreement with the community partner and develop systems where students attend in groups or even individually, during or after school. Activities attended by a teacher may count as instructional time, but even activities pursued by students and families will enrich classroom instruction in an invaluable way.

This partnership benefits the community as well, by keeping funds local and growing small businesses by allowing them to connect with more families. It also promotes equity for families that may not be able to access activities like sports and music due to cost barriers. 

Outdoor preschool

With such a win/win opportunity for students, schools, and communities, one wonders why more community partnerships for applications of learning do not occur. Policy needs to expand to offer students more incentives for hands-on learning. Programs in New Hampshire allow students to demonstrate mastery through activities outside of the school walls, while many states continue to be tied to the antiquated concept of butts in seats. Research shows that partnerships benefit all stakeholders. Encouraging schools to look outside of their own walls promotes community, equity, and aids in staffing needs.

Wednesday, August 17, 2022

The Secret Sauce of Virtual School Capacity


Adjusting teacher captivity in an online school is tricky. It is difficult to “see” when the classroom is “full.” However, schools can consider several factors. 

Sauce bottle that says Capacity
First, define all of the jobs a teacher is responsible for. Remember that teaching online and writing an online curriculum are two jobs and should be factored in as such. Then, define what “full time” would look like for each job. 

If teaching Algebra 1 on a certain platform is full-time, on its own, at 120 students, create a formula that factors the portion of full time that a teacher has in that category. Repeat for each category. Remember that the number of different jobs reduces a teacher’s efficiency. If teaching 120 students in Algebra is full time, teaching 80 students in 6 classes may be comparable. This will vary by school. Lastly, identify the sweet spot for teachers. 100% capacity would indicate a completely maxed out teacher and this is not an ideal place to live. 

We have identified 80% as the ideal spot for a teacher to operate. This allows for some time for flexibility and flux within a year. Once a teacher exceeds 80%, we begin to consider posting a job and interviewing candidates, knowing the teacher’s capacity will continue to grow as we move through that often tedious and slow process. Realize that the first year after a new teacher is added, two teachers may operate at 50%. This is necessary for growth. You may minimize this by combining two positions or hiring a part-time staff member, but this can negatively impact the candidate pool. 

Keep a catalog of tasks any staff member could do, such as additional tutoring, in order to fill a
schedule that is below the ideal cut-off. Finally, ensure teachers that this formula is meant to guide additions, but should not alone justify reductions. When a teacher falls below a minimum caseload, say 50%, start with a conversation about that teacher’s actual workload. Individual classes may justify this, such as AP courses or large numbers of SPED cases. Also consider: what is the cost of reducing a position to less than full-time? It may be better to retain a teacher through a brief slump if program growth is overall increasing. 

What strategies do you have for handling staffing capacity? Please share below.

Digital Stickers for more than Motivation

     While many studies point to the superior power of intrinsic motivation, every classroom teacher still reaches for rewards as a form of extrinsic motivation and rapport building. Classroom rewards don’t only offer motivation, but they offer a way to connect with students, especially if the rewards can highlight the personal interest of the students. Rewards can also offer a way to connect to a specific student's "love language." By giving a tangible reward that reflects a student’s personal preferences, a teacher acknowledges that he or she has learned something specific about that student. 

Birthday Bitmoji with Unicorn

    In the online classroom, it is tricky to connect with students in this way. 

One of the first methods I developed was to send personalized birthday wishes. During the first week of school, I send the students a survey that asks them, among other things, about their birthday. Then, as responses come in, I schedule a Gmail message with a birthday Bitmoji to go out to that student on their birthday. This task that takes just a moment on my part generates, at last, a handful of positive remarks from students and zero negative responses throughout the year. It is clearly a worthwhile endeavor. 

    A slightly more involved thing I do is order a set of “water bottle stickers” from Amazon. Then, when I send kudos cards home to students, I include a sticker. I send kudos cards for students who show improvement or meet a goal that I know they sent. 

    Finally, the most involved reward item I sent was a small prize. When I host a group game, like a Zoom

Gull Lake Kudos Cards

Kahoot game, I will send the winner a small prize from Amazon. I have found several items to send for less than $5 with free Prime shipping. I look up the student’s address in the SIS and send it to their house. If I know something the student likes, I try to personalize the prize. For instance, I sent hot cocoa candy canes to a student that had mentioned it. I send a horse bracelet to a student who took horseback riding as her PE application. 

   Just one effort to connect with students in this way creates a strong connection between students and teachers. Comment below ideas you have used.

Using Testing Data for MTSS in Virtual ELA

Image of checklist
    Utilizing student assessments to guide teaching and learning can be one of the most impactful yet daunting tasks a teacher faces in any environment. In the virtual environment, this can be compounded by the time and space that separates the teacher from the student.

adult hands supporting children
    One way that I apply this approach is to use benchmark data to differentiate literacy instruction for middle schoolers. After encouraging students to complete the fall benchmark in reading, I keep an eye out for the results. Then, I review students who appear to be struggling with grade-level reading tasks. Next, I invite that student to meet with me one on one in a video chat. I incentivize this meeting by offering to skip an assignment of my choosing in the student’s ELA course. In that meeting, after getting to know the student’s interests, if I haven’t already done so, I will ask them to read a passage aloud to me. Then, I will review a few comprehension questions with the student. This allows me to gauge both their oral fluency and their comprehension. 

    Based on the results of this exercise, I will make recommendations to aid them in their course. If the
results show a student who is reading far below grade level, I may reach out to his or her advisor to suggest a curriculum change. This is why doing this differentiation early in the semester is so important. 

Finally, I send the student an email summarizing the tips and copy parents and mentors.

Best Practices in Virtual Student Engagement

  As the number of K-12 students taking online classes increases, the need for research to identify best practices specific to the online cl...