This post was written by educator Emily Vizzo.
Many teachers found themselves teaching online for the first time when COVID-19 shut down schools last spring. Making that transition from classroom to online learning may feel overwhelming, but evidence-based practices, teaching strategies, and professional intuition still translate to a virtual environment! Having high-quality, age-appropriate, and interesting resources at your fingertips can help keep students engaged, even when you aren’t physically together in your classroom.
I’ve spent the past four years developing my distance education pedagogy. Here are some of the resources I’ve found most helpful to keep students engaged from behind their screens:
Keeping Up with Current Events
This past spring, coronavirus was top of mind for nearly all of my students, and misinformation abounded. We used National Geographic resources like the C.M. Tomlin article, “Facts About Coronavirus,” to help make sense of current events. Examining high quality, developmentally-appropriate expository text helped students access essential information about the pandemic during synchronous 45 – 60 minute live sessions.
As students volunteered in the chat box, I would invite them to read. I’d also read sections aloud so that students could experience my flow and cadence while following along and developing their listening skills— just like in a traditional classroom.
Close Reads, Text Features
We also used National Geographic resources for close reads and to analyze text features. For example, in “Facts About Coronavirus,” we talked about the etymology and root word for complex vocabulary such as “zoonotic.” We examined the page’s text structure, organized in Q&A format, and discussed why this was an effective choice. We talked about POV, and why Tomlin might have opted to address readers directly with the second-person “You.”
We talked about Tomlin’s reference to the World Health Organization and how threading high-quality resources into writing boosts credibility. We looked at Tomlin’s asides (parenthetical and via hyphen/em-dash) and use of humor — with sentence fragments like “Nope.”— to create a friendly, assuring tone that made dense scientific content more accessible.
Thematic Units of Study
We incorporated National Geographic resources into monthly themes, too. In April, most of our humanities-based live lessons focused on climate change in honor of Earth Day. We read an interview with Jane Goodall and watched NatGeo videos like this one and this one. (To tie in high-quality external resources and current events, we took a look at this New York Times article about Jane Goodall sheltering in place during the coronavirus).
We read this Rose Davidson article about the history of Earth Day, reading the introduction together and then finishing the article silently. (I kept time in the chat box to keep us focused.) Students then shared into the chat box or turned on their mic to identify which earth-saving tip they planned to implement. In another example, students silently read this article about Greta Thunberg and then we came back together to share a surprising fact.
Online sessions can be harder to manage than in a brick-and-mortar classroom because if you’re working in a platform where students’ cameras are off, students don’t have cameras, or students have chosen to keep their cameras off, observing shifts in student engagement is tough.
Though I often released students for substantive independent work, I also included mini brain breaks throughout the lesson — 1-2 minute entertaining activities that helped keep the flow of our time together varied. We took this Personality Quiz to see what kind of “planet protector” we might be. NatGeo’s “Weird But True” videos also made great brain breaks (we always shared out afterward!) as did games.
Because National Geographic has a platform designed for adults as well as the platform for students, we sometimes examined similar content from both websites and talked about the ways that vocabulary, voice, information, or story structure differed.
We examined Joel Sartore’s Photo Ark on the National Geographic Kids site — clicked through the slideshow, watched the embedded video, and watched Kwame Alexander read from Animal Ark. Then we examined the portrayal of Photo Ark on the traditional National Geographic site, noting the more complex page layout and higher level vocabulary present, the social media connections, conservation courses, and donate button!
Citizen Science, Service Learning
As part of our enrichment programming we offered a citizen science certificate for students completing requirements for our school’s participation in the Thanksgiving Monarch Count to help document monarch overwintering populations along the California coastline. Students read the article “Why We Need to Protect Monarch Butterflies” by José Andrés and “Monarch Migration Mystery” from the National Geographic resource library.
We also watched the NatGeo short video, “How to Create Your Own Monarch Butterfly Rest Stop.” Students completed writing assignments, created a piece of art, and crafted a public service announcement to increase awareness.
Finally, students participated in the Thanksgiving Monarch Count, submitting their data and photos to working scientists. Students uploaded photos through iNaturalist or the Western Monarch Count, and some opted to use the Monarch SOS app.
In studying the work of National Geographic Explorers, students learned about career opportunities. We watched videos from the Best Jobs Ever catalogue, discussing what leadership traits or academic skills might be needed for different paths.
Students loved our experience with National Geographic photojournalist Hannah Reyes Morales. We learned about Morales via video and studied her powerful images in The Atlantic documenting child boxers in Cambodia as well as other photos. We talked and wrote about digital storytelling, composition, and what makes an effective photo. Eventually students created and shared their own photos. When we received our special message from Morales, students were thrilled that she invited them to contact her on Instagram to ask career-related questions.
Looking for more resources for your students? Visit National Geographic Education’s Resource Library for free lesson plans that are relevant to all content areas for PK-12 learners.
Feature image by Rebecca Hale