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103: Off-Screen Activities for Remote Learning in ELA

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As my own 3rd grader begins cyber school this week, I’ve got screen time on the mind. After years of protecting him from too much screen time each day, as per the American Academy of Pediatrics, I was startled to discover his online learning program estimates he’ll need to be on the screen for 4-5 hours per day. At this point, his writing and reading assignments are all online, even though he doesn’t really know how to type yet, and he’s got a shelf full of lovely books he wants to read that we picked up from the library. Rrgh. 

It got me thinking. 

While our older kids no longer have the same directives from the American Academy of Pediatrics about screen time, we all know it’s super important to have breaks. To stretch, to get outside, to rest our eyes. And while many of the innovative things we can do with cyber students involve their devices, there are plenty of ways we can build in productive breaks. While it might be hard to let go of having the kids on video, knowing that they’re in the “room” with us, it feels important to take care of their health and focus by providing them with opportunities to get away from their screen. 

Like everything else, we can use our creativity for this. 

Today on the podcast we’re talking about easy ways to get students off screen for 15-30 minutes during your classes. These are simple shifts to make, taking activities that could easily be online and letting kids do them while taking a walk, sitting in the grass outside, or lying down on their beds for a few minutes. These won’t work into every class, but you can try to get one into any 90+ minute block class and sprinkle them into shorter blocks at least now and then. 

You can listen to today’s episode on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, the podcast player below, or the podcast network of your choice. 

Before we begin, I want to let you know that the doors to The Lighthouse are now open until midnight on Friday, September 4th. If you’re feeling overwhelmed as you plan for multiple scenarios each day in this strange back-to-school season, you’ll find monthly creative curriculum, a growing library of sub plans, access to my popular blended learning program Flexibly Planned, and a community of innovators to support you on the journey when you join The Lighthouse. Click here to learn more. 


Let’s start by talking about a few basics you can help students with. They may or may not already be informed about best practices for protecting their eyes from too much screen time. So let them know early that they want to turn down the brightness of their screens if they can, sit at arm’s length from the screen so they’re looking slightly down towards it, and try to look away from the screen at something in the distance every 20 minutes or so and maybe even stand up and stretch a little.  You could share this article from Johns Hopkins with them in the first week or two so they understand the why and the how a bit better. 

But are they going to remember? Consistently? 

They’re going to be busy and focused and it’s easy to forget this even as adults. Ideally, we can find a few simple ways to direct them off screen during class. 

So here we go. The following are small steps you could take to switch an offline activity in for an online one.

Replace Ebooks with Real Books (sometimes)

You know I think it’s a great idea to work with your local librarian to get kids access to your local ebooks and audiobooks. In fact, I think it’s vital if your at-home students won’t ever be in your classroom to pick up real books. But you might also consider the possibility of book drop-offs, so kids have at least some real books. To do this, gather some titles your students are interested in, and then pull several for each student who is fully remote into bags either from your choice classroom library or through partnership with your local library. See if you can gather a few community volunteers to help you drop these book bags to your students, or set up a pick-up point if that feels viable. 

Once you know your students have real books, when you build in independent reading time into your classes, encourage kids to go outside to read or to lay on their beds or sit on their couches away from their screens. You can have them complete a short check-in with you at the end so you can hear about their books and get a little bit of accountability. One of my favorites is for them to write a few hashtags to describe the recent action in the book and explain their favorite to you. 


Replace Online Note-taking with Sketchnotes (sometimes)

While I do love the neat templates people are creating for online notebooks, I think there’s something to be said for still letting kids take notes in regular notebooks, at least some of the time. If you are sharing information through a short lecture, playing a Ted Talk for the class, or asking them to take notes while listening to a speech or other type of audio clip, you might consider letting them sketchnote with their eyes off the screen. They can listen away from their desks while they write and draw in their notebooks. 


Let Students take a Walk while listening to a Podcast 

Ashley Bible shared this idea with me in podcast episode ninety-nine and I love it. If you are building in a weekly podcast listen or an occasional podcast session to enrich your units, you can share the QR code link to the episode so kids at home can pull it up on their phones. Then you can suggest they take a walk as they listen, or even just get up and stretch out, looking away from their phones. You could take your students in class out to the track or to relax in the grass on the quad for fifteen minutes. Then at the end you can come back together for discussion, or to let kids respond to questions or create one-pagers, etc. 

Try Freewriting in Notebooks (sometimes)

I always loved having a stack of journals in my classroom for each class. Frequent writing practice on a whole wide range of topics, sometimes related to the current unit and sometimes not, is a great addition to class. Rather than move this type of practice entirely into a Google file, you could still have kids designate a journal notebook this year, or a section of their class binder or notebook as a journal. Then you can provide invitations to go outside (or at least away from the screen) for 10-15 minutes and write. If accountability is an issue, just ask kids to snap a photo of their writing that they can pop into a journal folder for you online. 


Use Vocabulary One-pagers (sometimes)

If you’re planning to use a website like Membean to learn vocabulary this year, I get it! These web tools are pretty amazing. But maybe now and then you could give kids a list and have them create vocabulary one-pagers instead of working on their words on Membean. Just have them represent each core word through combination of text and imagery on paper. Then they can snap a photo to share in a class gallery and at the end of class, everyone can take a few minutes to see how others represented the same words. 


Give the Option to have Partner Chats on the Phone  (sometimes)

This is so crazy it just might work. If all your kids have cellphones, you could give the option to do partner breakouts on the phone instead of in 10 different Google meets or Zoom rooms or Canvas chatrooms. Then they could step away from the screen and just talk to their partner for a while. (By the way, this is a great option for adults too! Have your next one-on-one meeting on the phone instead of online so you can walk and talk and rest your eyes). 

Encourage Students to Handwrite Paper Drafts of their Writing

So here’s the great thing about having a student write down the first draft response to a writing prompt: revising it later is necessarily a bigger step. When kids type a first draft, it’s pretty easy to turn in the exact same draft as a final draft. Not so much with a handwritten first draft. As you re-read it and type, it’s easier to notice typos, grammar problems, and confusing bits. By taking time away from the screen to focus on their books, their notes, and the movement of their own pens, students will probably end up with a more polished final draft than if they stayed on screen for the whole process. 

Use Audio Clips when you Can

If you’re planning to give kids time to read something on their screen, see if you can find a free audio copy of it somewhere like Audible Stories, or if it’s something you already own copies of for every student anyway (and thus probably falls under fair use), consider recording it for them so they can listen instead of staring at the screen. Then you can encourage them to listen as they walk around and stretch, or take sketch notes away from their screen as they listen. Provide a QR code to the recording so kids at home can quickly scan their way to it on their phones. 

Stick with Paper One-pagers and Pandemic Journals (sometimes)

While many visual assignments can easily translate onto a platform like Google Slides, if your students have paper and pen (and ideally, a few markers or colored pens) at home, they can create one-pagers and pandemic journals in their notebooks. They can even sketch the template you were going to provide online into their notebooks quickly, so they still get the benefit of that scaffolding without actually typing and dragging and dropping all the visuals on the screen. This way they can think and process and draw and write on paper, giving their eyes and minds a rest from the screen. 


These are all pretty simple shifts, and I’m sure you can think of more. In the rush to use the coolest tech and the best online tools (which is wonderful!), it’s easy to forget that simple activities off screen can still have value, and even be important. So let’s keep working toward a blend of both. 









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I'm Betsy

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