Rachel Kirk

Distance Learning:
Here to Stay

How many of us were ‘old school’? Did you believe you would never teach online and that you would never want to? I did. This was due, at least in part, to the fact that I watched friend after friend say they’d never teach online. Then the day would arrive when they’d have to start. Each and every one had the same sentiments during their first weeks and months of online teaching. “If this is the educational system of the future, we are in trouble.” They spoke of the inferior results of online learning. And then, at the end of the semester or school year, invariably, they signed up for another term. When I asked why, they always shrugged and answered that the money was “ok” or it was “easier now,” indicating they had learned to teach online or, as they would admit, they had become accustomed to teaching online.

Then Covid-19 came along. Teachers who had not been teaching online – teachers of all levels, subjects, and at all schools – had no choice. Everyone had to teach online. And students had to try to learn via online learning.

Teaching online these days is at least as important as teaching in the classroom.

This page is an attempt to begin to help teachers who need to teach online. It is for you, since you not only need to teach online, but you want your students to learn! It is posted here because my book, Teaching Spanish: The Essential Handbook, does not have a chapter dedicated to online teaching (though perhaps by the time you find this it will).

This page presents a bit of philosophy about online teaching, some key reminders, and a list of some materials that may prove helpful in your quest to designing good online classes. I have done my best to include only materials that you and your students should have access to free of charge or that all school systems should provide. This page also reminds you to be patient with yourself and to keep students’ learning and wellbeing at the forefront of everything related to your classes (for example, planning, communication, and teaching).

If you have experience teaching online and you’d like to write and let me know what tools and strategies work for you, please feel free to send me an email through this website or, alternatively, you can send it directly to my email address: Your input is valuable and welcome. If I add your thoughts to the site, I will credit you by giving your first name and the state you are from, if you let me know that’s ok with you. Please provide that information when you contact me.

What teachers say about online learning during and after the pandemic

A friend who taught online in another country before Covid-19 hit in the United States reported that students only learn 30% - 50% as much from online learning as they would learn in a classroom during the same time span. I have not been able to find an exact figure in the literature, but we all know that the results of online learning do not yet compare to those of teaching in the classroom. It is time to change that.

After being thrust into online teaching, many instructors commented that it gave them a chance to know some of their students better. Without the chaos that can sometimes clutter the air in an “in-person” classroom (clase presencial), in some cases we can get even more insight into our students and their home life when we teach online.

We have all read or seen first-hand the results of Covid-19 and how online teaching can vary according to socioeconomic class. My guess is that everyone reading this wishes that online learning could turn every student’s learning (and every teacher’s teaching) into a world of luxury. At the moment, though, some schools and households simply have more resources to dedicate to online education than others.

“Anti-Tech” Teachers

Recently I saw a post about “Anti-Tech” Teachers and why they need to be gone. It saddens me to see posts like that one because of the knee-jerk reaction against teachers.

I am old enough to remember a time before technology was used constantly in the classroom. Many years ago, I worked in a school that made the decision to issue each student a laptop computer. A teacher with whom I worked grew increasingly frustrated and asked vociferously whether the laptops (and the internet, of course, which, at that time, was not what it is today) would aid her teaching. She was a top-flight teacher, respected by peers and students alike. Her point was valid; she had seen many fads come and go in the world of education, and most of them added nothing to the profession or to students’ learning. Why take the time to learn to teach differently, she wanted to know, taking time away from students and/or a personal life, if the results are going to be equal or inferior? Things have changed since then and most teachers use technology in their classes every day. The pandemic finally provided a reason for all teachers to know how to teach online, and for all of us to do it better. The conversation is only beginning.

Let’s not approach online learning from a perspective of Teachers-Are-the-Problem, but rather from the viewpoint of Let’s-Learn-Together-And-Make-Online-Education-As-Good-As-It-Can-Be. What I have put together here is just a start, and I do hope you will chime in and help me and others understand how we can help our students learn much better via online learning.

Teaching Online 101

First things first. I know this should go without saying, but these things have happened so they are worth mentioning once. Don’t cut your nails or use the restroom while you are teaching. You will comport yourself online in as professional a manner as you would during class. But not everyone does. Don’t forget that you have the option, very occasionally, to turn your camera off and mute your sound temporarily!

Even when – especially when – you are teaching online, give plenty of thought to your lesson planning. In order to take advantage of class time, you need to determine which activities can be assigned for students to do alone, before or after class, which are best done with others (during class or afterwards), and what concepts are necessary for you to explain thoroughly. This will help you use your time in class more judiciously.

Do prepare your classes! The more prepared you are, the more fun you will have during class, the more your students will learn, and the more they will enjoy learning.

You can structure your online class in much the same way you would have structured your class if you were in the classroom. For example, (1) a warm-up as everyone enters, (2) a quick review from the day before, possibly with breakout ‘pairs’ or with feedback in the chat, (3) then maybe a quick video or audio (see my book for ways to use video and audio to give comprehensible input in the classroom) with commentary and perhaps a quick worksheet for listening comprehension, (4) an explanation, (5) a quick reading project (more input), (6) breakout groups, group activity or discussion (production), (7) a quick wrap-up or summary, (8) a heads-up about upcoming events or assignments, (9) a nice virtual pat on the back for the class if applicable, and (10) a reminder to have a good day and for them to let you know if they need you for anything. It’s always important to remember that attention spans are still the same – a maximum of 10 minutes of attention is about as much as you’re going to get before it’s time to move on to the next activity, or the next part of the activity.

If you have a student who is not connected, for whatever reason, figure it out as quickly as possible. Is this due to a computer problem or an internet connection, an attentional issue or distraction, a trauma that has occurred in his or her life? Is there a family member or guardian who can be around during class and/or when the student does homework, to make sure the student is on track? How can you (or the parent or another student or an administrator or the learning specialist) help? If you act as quickly as possible, the student’s chances of learning go up dramatically.

Be flexible, at least in the beginning, as everyone gets used to the way things work.

Find a handful of resources (three to five) you want to try in class. Incorporate one or more of them each class day for a week. Continue to use the ones that work. The more familiar you are with the technology you use when teaching, the more attention you can give to your students and their learning. The same tool, though familiar, will seem different (not “boring”) when used again in a different unit.

In other words, choose three to five tools that appeal to you, such as Factile, Flipgrid, PowerPoint, and Loom (see below). Get familiar with them, and use them for a week or two. See what you think. What is each of them good for, in your eyes? What do students think of them? Ask! Then see which ones convince you (do you like a specific tool, is it user-friendly, are students learning from it) and either continue to use them or move on to another different one the next week. Don’t overwhelm yourself!

As Mary Burns wrote in Edutopia, https://www.edutopia.org/article/getting-ready-teach-next-year, there are several elements students prize in online learning. They include “High touch” learning, greater interactivity, personalized learning, and more challenging activities. What this means is that students want to do collaborative activities and have interaction with you and their classmates. Worksheets are fine, but don’t forget videos, images, games, and role plays, for example. There are many tools online, some of which are outlined below.

As you have always done, design your activities so that students’ interests, skills, experiences, and even their at-home lives can be integrated into the classroom. Now, that said, continue to be aware of the fact that students may not want to talk about their families or show you their bedroom or their living room on their computer screen. Allow for options when it gets personal. Students who are at home may be uncomfortable sharing – don’t push them to show you their home, for example, especially when other students are present.

Allow students to create. Bring in the real world when possible. Assign them projects that interest them. Keep in mind that we live in unprecedented times; many topics can turn out to be uncomfortable or scary for some students (try to steer clear of these in a language class when possible, but you never know when you are going to strike a nerve). Keep open the option to divert quickly.

Don’t forget to teach! Students need some direct instruction! Let them problem-solve and think.

In Teaching Spanish, you read that you should stay still (avoid moving) while you give directions. That’s true online, too. It is also important to be concise. Give directions. Then boil those directions down and state them again, very succinctly.

Video Communication Platforms

Most schools have their teachers use a video communication platform such as Zoom. By now you know to start by muting everyone’s microphone and then allowing (and instructing) students to unmute themselves when it is appropriate. This is a “must” and has probably already become second-nature to you. You have also found that using the chat polling and emoji features allow students to show that they are paying attention and following you, without taking time away from teaching.

The screen share feature works well as a warm-up at the beginning of class. For example, you can put a quote on the screen (or a list, or an image, or a URL, or directions about what to think or write, etc.) so students see it immediately when they join the class online. If you start class this way most days, students know to get right to work while other students are joining. This gives you time to take attendance or do what needs to be done while the students are settling in and warming up. They can think about what they have been directed to do and make comments in the chat (or whatever you have indicated they do). This can be an online version of “think-pair-share,” except that the whole class can see everyone’s answers.

Breakout groups allow you to let students work in groups, while you virtually “walk around” and visit each group, giving feedback or simply listening in. The screen sharing feature allows you to see what students and groups have concluded or written. This can be a great teaching tool, just as the projector and smartboard/white board are in the classroom.

Did your school provide students with small white boards, so every student can hold up a quick sketch or a word/sentence? If not, you can have students use paper and markers for this purpose (reminding them to recycle after class) or, if it does not take more than 10 seconds, have each one find an image online to screen share (though in the end this takes more time, which is why you might prefer to have everyone hold up a piece of paper or a small white board). Have each student draw a quick piece of furniture or a chore, or a piece of fruit and hold it up. Have each one write a sentence about what they did over the weekend if you are studying the past tense. This can even turn into a variation of “Round Robin.”

Students can also prepare conversations or skits in groups, too. If you decide to grade them, especially if students have worked on them outside of class, make sure to set a short time limit and a minimum amount that each student needs to say in the target language. Then use the rubric you showed them in advance to grade them quickly and fairly.

If you have a small enough class, you can have students use ‘exit tickets’ before they leave at the end of class. This shows you how much they have learned and helps you shape the next lesson.

A selection of free tools that may be especially helpful for language classes

The resources listed in this section will be helpful when you need a break from creating your own videos and materials, as well as for teachers who are not as comfortable creating online materials or who wish to dedicate their time to other facets of teaching. Remember, this site is about teaching Spanish, so I am not including materials that, while wonderful, might not work for most Spanish classes.

Do not hesitate to use sources you used long before you taught online, or resources you found helpful as a student. If it used to work for you, chances are, it can be adapted and will work well for online learning.

The below are tools organized roughly by type. Many of them can be used in multiple ways.

For student learning, review and practice

Conjuguemos.com and Spanishdict.com have long been two of my favorite websites for active student learning outside of class. Both of these have areas for students to practice conjugating verbs and learning vocabulary. They are well designed and their scope is wide. Both of these sites even have vocabulary to study by chapter, from many current textbooks. What invaluable resources!

Quizlet is another oldie but goodie, which lets you find or make a set of flashcards for students to use on their own time. In addition to flashcards, they can use the terms in quiz and game formats.

Factile (see under Games/Quizzes/Participatory)

Kahoot! (see under Games/Quizzes/Participatory)

Quizizz (see under Games/Quizzes/Participatory)

Video-related tools

Animoto is a user-friendly video editing and design tool, free to educators and students.

If you’re into creating and sharing short videos, you might think Flipgrid was made with you in mind. It has been mentioned in the same sentence with one you’ve undoubtedly heard of: Tiktok.

Knovio (from “knowledge” and “vision”) also allows you to record your spoken comments and even video, and add them to a product such as PowerPoint. It’s a Microsoft tool. You can access it in small amounts free of charge. If you want to do a lot of this, consider Loom.

Loom allows you to record your voice and your screen in case, for example, you want to narrate visual material you have created. This allows students to hear your voice (as homework, or because you are teaching three sections of the same class and your voice gets tired, or because then students who were absent can access it).

Lyrics Training lets students watch a music video and type out the lyrics. There are lots of different ways to use this. Be creative!

Visuals and Presentation Tools

Need a virtual whiteboard for use by individuals or small groups? Try Miro. Educators and students can use it for free. If you are a tutor and can’t give an “educational” email address, with a free account anyone can have up to three whiteboards at a time.

There are still tried-and-true materials like Google Slides, PowerPoint, YouTube, or anything else you used to use. As long as you can share your screen, use whatever you used to use in class. The screen share feature helps you use the tools you already know how to use!

Google Tour Creator allows you to create an immersive tour of a city (for example). You can see 360 degree views, listen to audio about the history and culture, and more. It might take a while to put the perfect unit in place, but you can use it again and again once it’s made.

Wakelet allows you and students to create a collection of links, videos, URLs, text, etc. to save and share. You can use it to keep track of brainstorming ideas, or to organize content.


Factile (playfactile.com) is a jeopardy-style game.

Kahoot! allows you to host live “quizzes” during class and provide self-paced assignments for afterwards. Games and activities can be “played” by one student or many together.

Poll Everywhere not only allows students the chance to participate, it shows you whether they understand what has been taught and/or how they think about certain topics.

Quizizz is an engaging way for students to show you what they know. It’s free and connects to Google Classroom.

Quizlet (see above, under For Student Review & Practice)

Help with Assessment

The tools already mentioned for use at home and in class can also be used to assess students’ learning.

PearDeck makes Google Slides interactive. You can have students write or draw according to what you have said (or according to what students have heard or seen on a video, etc.).

If it’s easier for you to have students take a photo of their completed assignment and send it to you, rather than making them learn a new program, try it. See how it goes. You can always save this option to use as a last result.

This may be a good moment to have students send you a sentence or a paragraph on an audio file, so you can grade their pronunciation. If you are working on writing, make sure to give examples of bad online translations so they will be less likely to use online translators.

It is definitely a good time to work on students’ comprehension, as you can provide good reading and listening comprehension activities to grade. Keeping everyone honest, however, may not be possible. Maybe it’s time to stop “testing” in a traditional way and concentrate, at least for a while, on assignments and activities, all the while trying to figure out what students know and what they need more practice with.

Communicating with Students

It’s important to give students updates about their written assignments and, in a class like Spanish, their reading, listening and speaking assignments and online participation. If they receive a couple of sentences of feedback from you about something they said or did, you can make the difference you would have made in person. Do this at least once a week for every student or, if possible, every class day. Another option is to keep a list of the names of all the students in the class. If you see them three times a week, at the end of each class, send quick feedback to one third of them each time, marking off the names of the students you have contacted personally that week. This ensures that no student will fall between the cracks. Don’t send the same comments to all students!

Make sure your instructions are always concise and clear. Put them in writing. When you require students to turn in their (short) writing assignments, give them suggestions and have them do rewrites. This will help them learn and improve their Spanish skills.

When you use a new tool or strategy, add it to a list of tools you use (in written format in a place students will know to look, such as your page of the Learning Management System used by your school). This list should include directions. Have students use an “Ask three (or two) before me” strategy, meaning they have to ask three people (or two) before they ask you for help. This lets you know when students really are having problems, and it gives students an excuse to communicate with each other outside of class.

A Few Other Things to Keep in Mind

Online teaching is different. However, the same things that made you a good teacher in the classroom will make you a good online instructor. For instance, do you know your subject matter? Do you care about your students? The rest can be learned.

It’s important to be authentic. Students spend so much time with you every semester that, whether or not they know anything about your life outside of the classroom, they know who you are. They can sense that you care and that you want the best for them. Be authentic. Don’t share many details of your life. This makes you mysterious and interesting! Use your style, use approaches you believe in. And try to incorporate your students’ interests in class. That’s not too hard in a Spanish class. Using visuals helps.

Be inclusive. All students. All people. The whole planet. Living online can make people feel alone. Make them feel included. Think Sesame Street, if that helps. Be optimistic. At least when you are teaching.

Finding your “online style” may take a while. Be patient.

Don’t grade group projects. Remember when you were the student? How did you like being told you were going to do a group project? Group projects may seem like a great idea when you are in charge, but almost nobody looks forward to graded group projects and the grading is almost always unfair. Do group projects! Just don’t grade them (or give a pass/fail grade).

Here we are!

Online learning is here to stay. It’s up to us to make sure online teaching leads to real learning. This page has included just a few starting points. Keep in mind that becoming an expert at anything takes time, patience, and hard work. Once you’re good at it (after time and hard work), you may very well enjoy it.

Students will learn Spanish from you. They will also learn from who you are, how you present yourself, and how you treat others including them. You are their role model. You are their inspiration. Even online. Write yourself a note and keep it beside your computer to look at when you teach. You are the one who believes in your students, who wants them to succeed, who treats them respectfully and who notices how they’re doing on any given day. Because of you, your students are inspired to learn Spanish. Maybe you inspire them to be their best selves, to help the planet, or to get involved in something that is important to them. Maybe you inspire them to love Spanish, to respect Spanish speakers, to work toward fluency in Spanish and to learn about other people, places, and cultures. All of this can be done online. You can do it!

"The good teacher explains. The
superior teacher demonstrates.
The great teacher inspires."

- William Arthur Ward

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