Back to School Activities for Virtual Distance Learning

The upcoming school year is sure to be challenging, whether you find yourself teaching from your podium in a socially-distanced classroom or teaching virtually from behind a computer screen. While teachers face the stress of the unknown, one thing is certain: Building relationships and classroom community will be even more crucial than ever before. That’s why I’ve been focusing on adapting my favorite back-to-school activities so they’ll work in any situation, whether that’s a physical classroom, a hybrid plan, or a fully virtual distance learning model. 

THE ANSWER: FLEXIBLE BACK-TO-SCHOOL ACTIVITIES

My school is set to start in person, but because of social distancing and the very real possibility that we could (and likely will) switch to distance learning at any moment, I am deliberating designing my lessons to be flexible. For me, this means utilizing technology to streamline activities so they can be done both in person and online. I want the confidence of knowing that how I’m teaching today will be how I’m teaching tomorrow, even if tomorrow brings new changes, plans, or restrictions.

If you’re looking for flexible, engaging back-to-school activities that will work no matter what, then you’re in the right spot. If you’re interested in how to facilitate these same activities in a totally traditional classroom setting, then head to this blog post. 

This blog post will focus on how to digitally adapt tried-and-true activities to a 1:1, blended, or fully virtual/distance learning setting. Thankfully, all of these activities are deliberated designed to build relationships and classroom community from Day 1.

Back to school activities for virtual/distance learning
5 engaging back to school activities for a hybrid or virtual/distance learning environment. PS: These ideas work in a traditional classroom, too!

1. INVESTIGATE THE TEACHER

Want to ditch your boring Day 1 routine or replace your “Get to Know Your Teacher” slideshow? Ready for students to remember the first day of your class because it’s refreshing and different? The “Investigate Your Teacher” activity is your solution for an engaging, unforgettable first day of school, even from behind a screen. Admittedly, this activity is an absolute treat when it’s facilitated face-to-face in a traditional classroom. There’s nothing quite like watching your students scurry around the room, open your cabinets, and peek at your bookshelves as they search for clues about your personality and teaching style. While it’s entertaining to watch students “investigate” you before your eyes, this activity is entirely possible in a virtual, distance learning environment. All it takes is a little bit of good, old-fashioned internet stalking, if you will! 

But seriously, this activity can be facilitated seamlessly in the online setting. All you have to do is find a way to virtually represent your personality, teaching style, hobbies, interests, expectations, etc. Luckily, there are plenty of options for this: the famous Bitmoji classroom, a virtual “gallery walk,” or a video tour of your classroom. If you’re ready to implement this on your first day of school, then you can check out my ready-to-use resource HERE. It comes complete with two versions (a digital one for this year and a print one for next year), teacher information, and a full lesson plan.

Back to school activity: Investigate the Teacher
A virtual “Investigate the Teacher” activity is an engaging, unique way to start the school year.

2: BACK TO SCHOOL LEARNING STATIONS

If you need a way to cover necessary back-to-school information and sneak in some extra get-to-know-you activities, then consider using learning stations. With Google Slides or PowerPoint, you can create an interactive “menu” of digital learning stations. This student-friendly way of structuring stations makes it easy to include or link any relevant documents, such as your syllabus or learning objectives. The possibilities are endless, but here’s what I do during my back-to-school learning stations:

  • At the 1st station, students review the syllabus and answer essential questions.
  • During the 2nd station, students set goals with learning objectives written in student-friendly language.
  • For the 3rd station, students complete a creative “one word” activity in Google Slides.
  • The 4th station is super practical: a Student Survey via Google Forms.
  • Finally, the 5th station is a fun get-to-know-you Padlet seflie activity!

You can read more about the stations HERE or check out my editable stations with interactive, clickable buttons HERE. These stations will work in a hybrid or fully virtual/distance learning environment. (The resource even comes with a print-ready version for future years, too.)

Back to school activity: Learning Stations
Back-to-school learning stations make it easy to cover essential information in an engaging, student-centered way.

3: ALL ABOUT ME SLIDE & CLASS SLIDESHOW OR EBOOK

Once you’ve reviewed important information, you’ll probably want to work on getting to know your students and building classroom community. This is especially challenging in a virtual setting. Luckily, technology offers students the opportunity to be creative and express themselves the way they want to be seen. That’s why I love assigning some kind of “All About Me” project at the beginning of the year. This year, I am using Google Slides to create a collaborative class slideshow and ebook. Here’s how:

  • First, I’ll ask students to create an “All About Me” Google Slide. I’ll give them some templates and examples, as well as the option to creatively design their own slide from scratch. (You can check out all of my templates HERE.)
  • Then, once students have submitted their slides, I’ll pull them all into one slideshow, add a cover and co-created class norms page, and save it as a PDF.
  • Finally, I will “publish” the ebook in PDF form by posting & linking it on our Google Classroom page. This way, all students can get to know their peers, even in a virtual setting.

If you’d like to save some time creating this project, then check out my resource HERE. It includes thorough teacher and student instructions, as well as multiple slide templates for students to choose from. The example below is the corkboard theme, but computer, book, and colorful themed templates are also included in the resource.

Back to school activity: All About Me Slide & Class Slideshow/Ebook
Get to know your students and build class community with an “About Me” activity and class slideshow or ebook.

4. PERSONALITY TEST REFLECTION

Icebreakers and get-to-know-you activities are fun, but it’s also important to get to know your students on an even deeper level at the beginning of the year. Asking your students to take and reflect on a personality test is a great way to facilitate this. I use the online 16 Personalities test and this Google slides/forms reflection activity. The reflection component challenges students to be introspective as they think about their strengths and weaknesses, ability to work with others, approach to school/work, and more. In addition, the online test offers great practice at reading, summarizing, evaluating, and reflecting on information. After the reflection activity, I always lead small-group and/or whole-class discussions so students can learn about each other. This kind of open discussion always generates a stronger sense of class community, mutual respect, and trust.

I love doing this at the beginning of the year because it challenges students to think about who they are and how they can have their best year yet. If you’d like to implement it, you can check out my distance-learning ready lesson HERE. (A paper version is included, too).

Back to school activity: Personality Test Reflection
Get to know your students on a deeper level with a personality test reflection activity.

5. DIGITAL ICEBREAKERS

In between all of these back to school activities, I’ll be playing digital icebreakers with my students! I love icebreaker games that can be played whenever we have a few spare moments, which is why I found a way to transform my favorite physical icebreakers to virtual ones.

For example, think of the “toss and talk” icebreaker where you write a bunch of questions on a beach ball and toss it around the room. Obviously, that’s not happening this year, so I created a fun get-to-know-you activity with the help of a fancy spinning wheel website. The end result is a game called “Spin the Wheel Questions,” where the spinning wheel picks a student to answer a question from one of three categories: Basics, Favorites, or Wild Card! It’s the perfect game to play when you finish class early. You can find this virtual icebreaker and 4 others, including digital versions of Two Truths and Lie and 4 Corners, HERE.

Build relationships with fun, flexible virtual icebreakers that can be done online or in person!

6. INTERVIEW CHALLENGE

Remember the classic “talk to a partner and introduce them to the class” icebreaker? The “Interview Challenge” is an engaging extension of that activity with some speaking, listening, and writing mixed in. It’s the perfect combination of a get-to-know-you activity and real, worthwhile content. Here’s how it works:

Before the activity, ask students to reflect on a memorable moment. If you teach ELA like me, you’ll want them to write about it first. Then, have students pair up with a classmate. Once students are with their partner, they will briefly share their memorable moments without giving away more information than necessary. After sharing, the students will take time to brainstorm a list of questions to ask in order to write a story about their partner’s memorable moment. Finally, students will interview each other and then use the information they gather to write a story about their partner. 

You can make this activity as simple or complex as you want. I originally designed the lesson for a journalism class, so I used it to teach the art of asking the right questions. Over time, I found that this simple but purposeful activity makes for a great writing sample, so I began to use it at the beginning of the year in many of my ELA classes.

The best part of this activity is reading your students’ final stories. You’ll learn so much about your new students and what has shaped their lives. You can even compile all of the stories into a class ebook. If you’re interested, you can check out my digital, distance-learning ready “Interview Challenge” resource HERE.

Back to school activity: Interview Challenge
The “Interview Challenge” is an engaging activity that will help students get to know their peers. For ELA teachers, it doubles as a beginning-of-year writing sample!

HONORABLE MENTION: VIRTUAL GALLERY WALK

If you love to jump right into content as quickly as possible, then this idea is for you! Host a virtual gallery walk to give your students a taste of your first unit. Instead of posting artifacts around your classroom, you can post them in an online “gallery” via Google Slides. This way, students can interact with the artifacts at their own pace and learn on their own before you fill in the gaps with your instruction. If you want to check out my collection of interactive virtual gallery walks with clickable buttons, you can find my time-saving templates HERE.

Interactive Virtual Gallery Walk
When you’re ready to jump into content, consider starting your first unit with an interactive virtual gallery walk. You can find distance-learning ready templates HERE.

I hope you found these back-to-school activities helpful for virtual/distance learning or a socially-distanced classroom setting. What are you planning for the first few days of school? Are you revamping your existing back-to-school resources or creating entirely new activities? I would love to hear your ideas for back-to-school activities in the comments! Sharing is caring. 🙂

OKAY, YOU’RE READY FOR THE FIRST FEW DAYS OF SCHOOL. WHAT NOW?

Here are some blog posts for further reading. As always, let me know if you have any questions or ideas for future posts in the comments:

7 Comments

  1. Melonie Zielinski
    July 29, 2020 / 10:15 pm

    I love the idea of a personality test! This would be great to use with my freshmen. How long would this type of activity take you? One full class period?

    • writeonwithmissg
      Author
      August 9, 2020 / 12:56 pm

      This activity has always taken me a 43-minute class period! 🙂

  2. Melissa Szykownuy
    July 30, 2020 / 4:26 pm

    Hi Miss G,

    I’m so glad I found your website! I teach middle school Spanish and was going to do an “All About Me” slideshow just like you discuss here. I made my template the other day, but was stuck on how exactly I’m going to pull them all into one slideshow. I’ve never done that before. Do I just have the kids share with me, and then I manually drag and drop into a new Google Slides presentation? Would you mind sharing your tips on how to make that happen, along with your cover page and the PDF you mentioned? I would be so appreciative. Thank you for considering!

    • writeonwithmissg
      Author
      August 9, 2020 / 12:57 pm

      Hi there! I would have them submit via Google Classroom and then copy/paste each slide into a new Google Slides. When you’re down, you can download the slideshow as a PDF! I just made my own cover page that says “Welcome to our class.” It was nothing too fancy!

      Hope this helps and good luck!

    • writeonwithmissg
      Author
      August 24, 2020 / 12:42 pm

      Hey there! Yes, you’ll want the students to share the slides (or preferably, turn them in via Google Classroom or your school’s LMS). Then, you’ll copy and paste them into a new Slides presentation. Another option is going to File –> Import slides. This might make it a little easier! 🙂

      Hope this helps!

  3. Teresa
    August 13, 2020 / 2:13 pm

    I purchased the Interview challenge and am really excited to use it for my freshmen. I want to get a writing sample from it. My question is, how would you modify the interview portion of this activity so that they can interview each other without being right beside each other. My district is requiring 6 feet and I don’t know how to get them to do this without screaming at each other.

    • writeonwithmissg
      Author
      August 24, 2020 / 12:43 pm

      Hi there! That is challenging this year. My students are a few feet apart but I am hoping to make it work. If yours are a full 6 feet, I would recommend that the partners share a Google doc and just type their questions/answers. Or, if you’re comfortable, you could “assign” the interview as homework and ask that students call each other on the phone to complete it.

      I hope this helps!

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