When schools closed in March 2020 due to COVID-19, Danny Hulshult, a curriculum coach at Studies Weekly, worried that his 6-year-old daughter, Ella, would fall behind in school. All the research he’d read said that 1st grade was an important time in a child’s development, but as a former 5th grade teacher, he didn’t have the educational background to teach her how to read.

However, in the 18 months she spent learning digitally, Ella went from barely knowing the alphabet to reading fluently.

“I can’t express how proud I am that she’s made the progress she has,” Hulshult said in a recent webinar. “I can’t take credit for it. It’s 100% the education system she’s involved in and the teachers, like you, bending over backward night and day to do everything they can.”

Elementary school student, Ella Hulshult, learning remotely.
Ella Hulshult. Photo by Danny Hulshult.

Hulshult has spoken with many teachers and school administrators to understand what makes digital learning effective. He found that when you are organized, communicate effectively, use quality instruction, and improve gradually over time, you successfully teach elementary students remotely.

1. Organize Your Classes

Before getting too caught up in content, it’s important to first decide how you are going to teach students online.

“Organization and planning have got to be at the forefront no matter what kind of digital instruction you’re doing,” Hulshult said, referring to both fully remote and hybrid learning.

Even if you’re a veteran teacher, take time to structure your classes. After all, planning for digital learning is very different from planning for in-person instruction.

To come up with the most effective teaching method, Hulshult recommended doing a trial run with students and parents before the school year starts. That way you can get feedback and adjust your digital learning structure beforehand.

“You’re spending more time doing the same job you were doing before, which was already overworked, so anything you can do to free up your time is worth it in the long run,” Hulshult said.

Along with structuring your online classes, set boundaries between your work and home life. Take your work email off your phone so you can catch a break from the endless stream of communication.

Once you create your digital learning structure, stick with it. Changing it during the school year will only confuse students and prevent them from learning the core content.

2. Create Effective Communication Channels

Rather than send emails back and forth, create a one-stop-shop where students and parents can access and request information. Build a class website using Google Suites or create a Q&A Google spreadsheet.

Regardless of what online communication tools you use, be clear and concise. Also, remember to speak to students in a positive, supportive way.

“We were all taught that when kids come to school, we got to put on a smile — no matter how much they drive us crazy sometimes — because we may be the only bright spot of their day,” Hulshult said.

Because of the terrible things you sometimes have to report, maintaining open communication with your students is essential. Have an anonymous Google Form or tip line where students can ask questions or report problems.

3. Engage Students with Online Content

To help students connect with your curriculum, take advantage of free resources like Google Earth.

“I’m a big believer in Google Earth,” Hulshult said. “It’s the best tool for any elementary school teacher. You can literally take a class anywhere in the world in a matter of five seconds. You don’t have to be an expert.”

Back when he was a teacher, Hulshult did an experiment where he showed one 5th grade class pictures of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (MET). In another 5th grade class, he showed them the MET using Google Earth. They explored the museum and went to the rooms mentioned in the textbook. Then, he compared digital journal entries and assessments from both classes. The class that had a virtual tour of the MET showed greater comprehension and got higher test scores.

He also created an interactive document with Google Earth links of different landmarks around the world. His students could go on there in their spare time and explore these places virtually.

So, give programs like Google Earth a try and see how your students respond.

Other digital resources include virtual field trips, primary source documents, and audio recordings of famous speeches, like some of the ones you’ll find on Studies Weekly Online.

4. Evaluate Student Comprehension

Giving students self-assessment assignments helps you know if they understand the class material.

Hulshult gave two examples of how to evaluate students’ understanding of history. One was to ask students to write an “alternative history” — like, “What if the Louisiana Purchase never happened?”

“It gets kids to internalize what they’re reading, process it, and draw a conclusion or create a cause and effect,” Hulshult said.

The other activity was to have students rank historical events by their significance. Then, they compare rankings with their classmates and discuss why they ranked events the way they did.

Other self-assessment ideas include having students do an audio review, write in a digital journal, or make a YouTube video.

“There’s no playbook,” Hulshut said. “Find what works for you and your students.”

Above all, put yourself in your students’ shoes and think about what would make digital learning fun for them.

“You can’t just put your content online; you have to make it relevant and interesting to your students,” Hulshult said.

5. Maintain, Improve, and Repeat

As Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” So, stick to what works and make adjustments if needed.

At the end of the school year, send students and parents a Google Form survey to get feedback on how they feel the class went. Also, do your own self-assessment by keeping a journal of your digital learning experience.

“Ask yourself, What’s the next step?” Hulshult said. “How can I make this better for me, my students, and their parents?”

Hulshult encouraged teachers to commit to learning new tools and techniques. After all, digital learning — especially for elementary schools — is still a new experience.

“You have more freedom now than ever before to try new things, to do what you want. A lot of the time, you’ll surprise yourself.”

Elementary school student, Ella Hulshult, learning online.
Ella Hulshult. Photo by Danny Hulshult.

Make Digital Learning Effective

By organizing your virtual class structure, communicating clearly, practicing quality instruction, and making steady improvements, you can help elementary students like Hulshut’s daughter, Ella, progress from barely knowing the alphabet to reading fluently. It all comes down to hard work and dedication.

Hulshult ended his remarks by thanking teachers for making the best of a tough situation.

“I can’t think of a better way to show my appreciation for what the entire education world is sacrificing and stepping up to do — not just for our kids or our family but for our communities as well. Don’t think it is going unnoticed.”

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