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113: Breakout Rooms, Community Building and Grading Policies for Online Teaching

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Today, in episode 113, we’re getting a sneak peek inside the fully online classroom of my friend Christina, known online as The Daring English Teacher. She’s sharing her strategies for conducting successful breakout rooms, doing writing workshop online, overcoming student tech issues with one consistent method, building community and positive energy with students online, using sketchnotes during online lessons, and much more. This episode is going to give you so much that you can put straight into practice.

You can listen in on the player below, or on Apple PodcastsSticherBlubrry, or Spotify. Or simply read on for some top takeaways.

Top Tips for Breakout Rooms

Breakout rooms are a great way to change things up during a long online block, and help students who aren’t engaging in a large group. 

For your very first breakout room experiment, try doing something fun, like having them debate the best restaurant in their neighborhood. This way you have a chance to troubleshoot the tech without any pressure. This is a great rule of thumb for any new tech you’re trying with your students. Dealing with bumps in the road won’t be so hard if you’re not feeling pressured to accomplish a major element of your curriculum with your new technology process. 

Once you know how to set up breakout rooms successfully, think about exactly what you’re trying to accomplish with them. Having a clear purpose really helps. Same for clear expectations. Christina lets her students know she’d like to see students unmuted and conversation in the chat when she pops in to visit. During those visits, she not only checks in on their group progress, but also takes time to see how the students inside are doing in general and build on her relationships with them. 

Whenever you do breakout rooms, take time to come back together as a class afterwards. During your pop-ins to each group, you can choose one or two students to share something specific back to the class. These post-breakout gatherings will give you a good sense of what has been accomplished and how engaged everyone is. 

The “Screenshot Strategy” for Tech Issues

As in so many schools, Christina and her students have needed to adapt to a brand new LMS – Canvas – in a year that already involved many huge transitions. Her strategy for the many tech issues that have come up along the way has been for students to send her a screenshot of their struggle. This gives her some documentation about the situation that she can refer back to, and also allows her to see whether the issue is on the student’s end or on her end. Students sometimes even solve their own issue through taking the time to go in and carefully screenshot the area they’re struggling with. 



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A post shared by Christina | HS English Teacher (@thedaringenglishteacher)

Teaching Writing in the Remote Classroom

The biggest thing Christina has had to accept when it comes to writing in the remote classroom is that it’s going to take longer. She’s had success with breaking down assignments into very small, deliberate chunks and then giving feedback on each one. So students write a thesis and then get an audio comment back on it. Then they listen to the feedback, think about it and write the whole introduction. And so on. They get a lot of time to write in class in individual breakout rooms where Christina can easily come in to conference with them one-on-one. 

Modeling Note-Taking in different Forms

Christina has seen engagement go up during lessons when she invites students to sketchnote their takeaways. She creates her own sketch notes at the same time, using her document camera so that students can see her process. Then at the end, she invites all the kids to turn their cameras on for a minute so they can all see each other’s work. They can either hold the sketch notes over the camera if they prefer to keep their privacy, or – and she encourages this by modeling – show them off by their faces with a big proud grin. 

One great thing about sketchnotes is that they help students to give their eyes a break from so much screen time. By looking down at their papers, they are focusing away from the light of their devices. 


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A post shared by Christina | HS English Teacher (@thedaringenglishteacher)

Being Flexible with Grading and Late Work

With so much in flux, flexibility and grace are the keywords when it comes to late work right now. Christina is taking everything, anytime, up until an end-of-term deadline which gives her time to grade the work before grades are due. She’s been referencing this deadline daily for several weeks to help encourage students to get their work in. While she does have a policy of taking 2.5% off per day for late work, she has repeatedly given full credit when circumstances call for it, and encourages students to reach out to her about their situations. 

One key change she made back near the start of school is to have students hang out in a waiting room for the first ten minutes of class while she lets people in for quick one-on-one chats. During this time, she talks to kids who are failing, checking in with them and giving them one or two key assignments where they should focus their time to improve. She also pulls in students who have done something wonderful, to congratulate them and show that she sees their hard work. This ten minute period has made a huge difference in helping her students be successful this year. 

Community Building 

Each week, Christina engages her students with two sets of questions not related to classroom work. On one day, she asks each student to pop into the chat with positive news. Then she reads that barrage of positive news out to the class, congratulating kids and generally lifting everyone’s mood. Then on another day, Fun Friday (or Fun Thursday, depending on the block schedule!), she invites them to share answers around a fun question, like what exotic animal would you turn into a pet if you could? 


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A post shared by Christina | HS English Teacher (@thedaringenglishteacher)


She also dressed up for Halloween and combined her costume with a Zoom background, giving a funny twist to class that day. You could try something similar for other holidays or units that could have connected costumes for some special day. 


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A post shared by Christina | HS English Teacher (@thedaringenglishteacher)


That’s a wrap! Listen in to the podcast for more details and stories, and also some conversation toward the end about productivity and self care in this difficult period. 

Connect with Christina from The Daring English Teacher!

Explore Christina’s Website

Follow along with her on Instagram

Did you know you can learn about all your wish list ELA strategies on your daily commute or walk with The Spark Creativity Teacher Podcast? Explore one-pagers, escape rooms, sketchnotes, creative annotation options, research projects, poetry workshops, and much more through over a hundred quick episodes waiting for you on your favorite podcast player!





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I'm Betsy

I’ll help you find the creative ELA strategies that will light up your classroom. Get ready for joyful teaching!







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