Digital Classroom Routines: or, How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Teaching Online

Over the last several weeks, many K-12 educators have pivoted, with little warning and minimal training, to teaching in a fully online setting. The challenge of transforming an established face-to-face learning situation into an online one in the midst of a global crisis is new, even for teachers who have planned and delivered digital curricula in the past.

On Friday, March 13th, I told my eighth- and ninth-grade students that school would likely be suspended for a couple of weeks. On Wednesday, March 18th, I convened online classes which, though I didn’t know it then, would stretch at least until the end of April. Between then and now, I have developed a rapidly-evolving repertoire of practices, guided by Jay Wiggins’ and Grant McTighe’s classic dictum of curriculum planning: begin with the end in mind, only with a twist.

How can backwards design possibly apply in our upside-down day-to-day? The current crisis gives us a chance to reflect on the ends towards which our classrooms are geared. Instead of focusing on content and supposedly-measurable outcomes, we can set our eyes on more primal and profound impacts. Regular online classes let students practice carving out a space for working and thinking in their homes. Each class meeting gives students the chance to orient themselves towards learning. While each class can still center on the goal of imparting the powerful structures of disciplinary knowledge, the most important disciplinary practice at stake right now may simply be that of showing up to learn. Together, teachers and students establish that learning stabilizes and connects us. Based on the conviction that I am modelling the value of learning and creating a safe and predictable learning environment, I have developed some guidelines.

Establish Ground Rules

Check-ins: Check in visually and verbally with students at the beginning of class. This initial check-in lets you ensure that their tech is working properly, that they’re dressed appropriately, and that they’re situated in a context that will support their focus and learning. This check-in is important not just logistically but also emotionally; this may be one of a few times in the day when someone outside their immediate family interacts with them directly.

Chat box: Students, middle-schoolers in particular, may need regular reminders about the appropriate use of the chat box; in my classroom, students may use it only for questions directed towards me or for sharing resources useful to the class.

Dismissal: Students stay in the class environment until they have explicit permission–which I give both verbally and in the chat box–to leave. Whatever your routines and expectations are–and they will evolve–remember that you are easing cognitive and emotional burdens by providing consistent boundaries.

Modular Lesson Plans

Presentation/Practice/Reflection: Just as in face-to-face classroom situations, having a repertoire of modular structures will provide both predictability and variety. A standard presentation/practice/reflection class structure transfers well to an online environment: in the first segment of class, present a task or information (a PowerPoint slide, a videotaped mini-lecture, a YouTube video of a film clip). Then allow students a fixed amount of off-screen time to work independently, during which you remain in the digital environment to answer questions. In the last segment of class, students reconvene to ask and answer questions about the work done independently. Call on one or two students to read out parts of their work, or have the whole class complete an “exit ticket” in the form of an Excel spreadsheet with everyone’s name in column A and a question typed in the header for column B: each student types an answer into the box next to their name.

Small Group Work: Regularly schedule small-group meetings: while other students can be offline working on an assignment, I schedule students to join the call in groups of five, where we can go over questions and writing more closely. Such meetings let you talk to each student individually.

Develop Student-Centered, Project-Based Assignments

Develop ongoing assignments that are flexible, independent, student-centered, and creative.

Reading Journals: Have students write online reading journals as they progress through reading assignments. Write prompts that foster connection between the students and the books’ characters rather than reading comprehension.

Monologues: Have students write monologues or soliloquies from the points of view of characters, historical figures, science or math innovators, or inventors as a measure of their reading comprehension and writing ability. Check out Anna Deavere Smith’s Four American Characters TED talk for ideas about what these monologues might look like.

Research Projects: Assign research projects on which you can give weekly mini-lessons and signposting activities. After using the beginning of class to check on progress, you can treat the bulk of class as office hours when students can address specific questions to you.

Ignore Everything I’ve Just Said

In this day and age of information overload, the biggest problem you face might be sorting the flood of resources at your fingertips, from virtual trips to Versailles to digital concert halls, from Audible accounts to blog posts like this one. As Polonius tells Laertes, “To thine own self be true and it must follow as the night the day thou canst not then be false to any man.” Create the digital instantiation of your classroom that best suits your teaching personality. The disciplines help establish habits of mind that allow for the development of human creativity and insight. Allow yourself to be creative, improvisatory, and joyful, and invite your students to do the same.


Dr. Sharon Kunde is an educator, scholar, and writer. Her current book project is titled “Natural Reading”: Race, Place, and Literary Practice in the United States from Thoreau to Ransom, and an article drawn from this material is forthcoming with Twentieth-Century Literature. Her poetry has appeared in The Colorado Review, Salt Front, and The Spoon River Review, among others. She teaches 8th and 9th grade at the Lycee International de Los Angeles and blogs about hiking in the California backcountry at https://throughhike.wordpress.com/.

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