Blog Post

The First Days of School… ONLINE!

photo of Rebekah Lang


The first days or weeks of school are an exciting time! Before digging deep into standards and lessons and tests, we usually spend a few days building up our classroom community, teaching procedures, and developing a consistent structure and flow to our time together. We know that establishing the classroom community and structures is a vital foundation for the academic year.

I remember how helpful Harry K. Wong and Rosemary T. Wong’s The First Days of School was for me as a new teacher, and I continue to recommend it to others. In the guide, the Wongs outline research-based classroom techniques including setting positive expectations, classroom management, and lesson mastery. Their classroom structures, combined with a focus on relationship-building explained in books like Teaching with Love and Logic and Thank God It’s Monday!, really shaped my pedagogy and praxis.

photo of cover of The First Days of School


Transitioning to online instruction is like starting a new school year: We still must reintroduce the environment and procedures just as we would in the beginning of the year in person, as well as establish rapport and build relationships.

The Wongs’ list of procedures to rehearse with students has many applications for the online environment. Here is my top 10 to focus on during week-one Zoom meetings:

  1. Entering the classroom. Students need my Zoom login link, Schoology class code, and class code. I email this out two weeks before school starts and then follow up as needed. You could also mail out a QR code to a YouTube video introducing yourself and your class setup! I’ve done this for in-person classes previously and students LOVE.
  2. Finding and Completing Assignments. Especially in the beginning of the year, I am careful to point out how to find and complete assignments for my class, even if I think it’s obvious. I post the work on Schoology in weekly folders. Each assignment includes directions for how to turn it in (or that they don’t need to, if it’s visible on already). I will review those assignments and processes during my live meeting and with a weekly email update too. The redundancy seems to help students (and parents) who are juggling multiple classes and systems.
  3. Getting to work immediately during the synchronous meetings. I try to have a slide up with “Do Now” work on it for students logging on to my Zoom meeting. It’s usually a writing prompt, but sometimes it’s a puzzle or a request for them to gather specific lesson supplies.
  4. Being tardy/absent or needing to leave a synchronous meeting. We’ve all had students interrupt our online teaching to say, “May I go to the bathroom?” or “I’m late. What did I miss?” Handle this however works best for your students, but for me… I tell them that there’s no need to ask. My meetings are recorded and posted same-day and I’ll trust my high schoolers to catch up on anything they’ve missed.
  5. Communicating during the synchronous meetings. I teach Zoom etiquette right away. Students should stay muted unless they have an intentional need for the mic. Then, they use the spacebar to unmute temporarily. With my larger classes, I ask them to put their questions in the chat, so I can answer at the right time without disrupting a thought. With my smaller classes, they can raise hands or ask “mic?” in the chat for permission to unmute and ask their questions as appropriate. We practice these procedures with low-risk games like “2 Truths and a Lie” during the first week, just like I would in an in-person class.
  6. Participating in class discussions respectfully. I have regular discussion boards and expect students to post as part of my CS classes. I want them sharing ideas, reading and responding, and even debating appropriately. I have a rule for posting: “Praise in public; criticize confidentially.” And we practice. I’ll give them scenarios and comments to respond to during our live meeting. And we’ll think through sentence starters and ways to communicate respectfully.
  7. Working cooperatively. I regularly require my students to work in groups or partners even when separated by distance and time zone. During live classes, I use Breakout Rooms and so I teach procedures there: I give clear directions and answer questions before they break out into groups. They have time limits and measurable outcomes for their small group sessions. We have some kind of debriefing after the time to share those outcomes. We try to have at least one small group Breakout per class. Asynchronous collaboration is harder, but not impossible. I allow for a lot of flexibility and creativity on the students’ part, and always make sure to share a rubric so they know what elements of the collaborative work is vital. I demonstrate to students how to find each others’ contact information, and I have them practice emailing each other with small tasks before any major projects. I demonstrate how they can use Google Drive to share work asynchronously, etc
  8. Asking for help asynchronously. I make sure all students know how to contact me via email to ask for help. I try to respond to all emails within a day, even if it’s just to say, “I’m busy, but I’ll get back to you soon.” Jennifer Manly (another CS for All Teachers Ambassador) recently tweeted an idea for an auto-reply response for students. I also encourage students to comment on Schoology assignments and discussion boards so other students can read and respond to help them too. I want to establish that there are many experts in our class--not just me! There’s no just one right way to solve most CS problems and that is true in my class as well.
  9. Keeping track of grades and work feedback. I might actually save this procedure for week 2… but early on, I show students how to track their grades and work feedback. I show them what a sample grade and comment might look like. I show them what to do if they have questions about it. I also make sure to share this process with their parents. I want students to take ownership of their learning and teaching them to regularly review their grades is part of that!
  10. Handling disruptions. I have a 3 year-old who occasionally needs to play in the background. Other students have siblings and pets. Sometimes students have a rough day and act out—even online. Disruptions happen. It’s important for students to know the procedures for handling those disruptions. I don’t require them to be on-camera. They can stay muted and turn off the camera to limit disruptions on their end. I also reserve the right to mute them or boot them from the meeting if they’re unable to manage the disruptions on their own (they can always follow up with a recording of the live meeting later, if needed). I also teach them what to do if I’m interrupted with an emergency or my internet cuts out during a live meeting (which does happen from time to time). They have independent work they can begin and they should wait in our Zoom meeting for 5 minutes to see if I can log back in.

Distance learning certainly brings its unique challenges, but we are professionals. We are caring, creative, intelligent teachers and we can cultivate an online classroom that is just as capable of success! Let’s continue this as a conversation! What procedures worked for you in the spring and what are you considering for this fall?

Rebekah Lang is a lifelong teacher and learner who has taught in public, charter, private, and online settings for middle and high school students for the past 12 years. During her last three years of teaching AP CSP online, Rebekah has worked to learn everything she can about the subject, including attending: CSPd week once, the annual CSTA conference three times, and the Professional Learning Program. She has also participated in Cooperative Learning in CSP Classrooms Research and worked as an AP CSP online distributed reader for the last three summers. She is proof that with hard work and continued effort, anyone can learn to code or to teach coding! This year, Rebekah is teaching AP CSA, AP CSP and Intro. to CS to about 120 homeschooled students online!