21 Teaching Strategies & Tools to Try in 2021

In 2020, I landed a job teaching a totally different grade level at a brand new school in a new state…in the middle of a worldwide pandemic. After 6 years of teaching high school ELA, journalism, newspaper, and more, I found myself in a 7th-grade reading classroom. So in the spirit of reflecting on what was the most chaotic, unprecedented, and just plain WILD school year in recent history, I decided to round up a list of what worked well in 2020. All of the following strategies and tools are things I either tried for the first time, used more than ever, recommitted to, or reimagined to meet the unique needs of this school year. 

I hope this list gives you practical ideas for teaching in 2021. There are 21 strategies, but you don’t need to try them all!  I encourage you to find one, two, or a few ideas that will work for you and your students.

Here are 21 different ideas to inspire you while we wait for ~normalcy~ and teaching as we know it to return:

21 Strategies to Try in 2021
21 Strategies to Try in 2021

1. FIRST CHAPTER FRIDAY

This is the BEST strategy I tried in 2020 and my only regret is waiting so long to start it! First Chapter Friday is a simple, engaging way to advertise books and rekindle your students’ love for reading. It’s as straightforward as it sounds: read aloud the first chapter of a different book every Friday. You’ll want to make sure that the books you feature are high-interest and engaging. The more tension, juicy questions, cliffhangers, drama, and suspense, the better!

If you feature a new book every Friday, you’ll expose your students to an impressive 36 NEW BOOKS in one school year. You can check out my First Chapter Friday resources HERE or read my series of blog posts for more information:

2. BOOK TRAILER TUESDAY

After experiencing the magic of First Chapter Friday, I decided that I wanted to dedicate another day of the week to celebrate books. I wanted something quick and low/no-prep that I knew I could actually keep up with. After thinking of an idea and brainstorming an alliterative title (my toxic trait), Book Trailer Tuesday was born! Students love and look forward to it every week. The best part? All I have to do is press PLAY! It’s seriously the easiest way to get kids hooked on books, and it takes less than 3 minutes a week.

Like First Chapter Friday (but easier), Book Trailer Tuesday is a super simple and engaging way to generate reading interest, expose students to more books, and cultivate a shared love for reading in your classroom. You can read more about Book Trailer Tuesday HERE or check out my resources (links, suggestions, and graphic organizers) HERE.

3. OVERDRIVE + LIBBY

When I accepted a job during a pandemic, the question running through my mind was, “How will they read?!” How would students be able to find books without browsing (aka touching & spreading germs) books in my measly classroom library? And if we went to remote learning at a moment’s notice, how would they continue to read? Well, both of those scenarios became reality this year, but because of Overdrive, it wasn’t an issue. If you’re unfamiliar with Overdrive, it’s an online library platform that syncs with your public library account. Libby is the app counterpart to Overdrive. Since I had all of my students sign up for a free e-card with our public library, they have instant access to unlimited ebooks, audiobooks, and more. It’s every English teacher’s dream!

4. VIRTUAL LEARNING STATIONS

When I realized that this year would be butts-in-seats teaching with no movement allowed, my first thought was to lament the loss of my beloved learning stations. Luckily, I found a way for stations to live on in the virtual world. While my virtual stations look different from the kinesthetic, collaborative stations we used to do, they’re still an engaging, student-centered way to frame my lessons.

To increase engagement, I like to create a virtual “home menu” with clickable buttons in Google Slides. This allows students to easily navigate the stations at their own pace. If you’d like to create similar stations but save time, then check out my bundle of virtual stations templates HERE. If you’re looking for specific stations, you might find what you need HERE. (Almost all of my station resources have been updated with virtual versions for your convenience).

5. WATERFALL CHAT

This is one little trick I learned during my time as a pre-pandemic online teacher. Waterfall or “Flood the Chat” is a simple discussion strategy for any kind of remote learning platform. Simply project a question on your screen, set a timer, and instruct students to type their responses without sending them. When the timer sounds, students should all click “send” on the responses, which will create a fun flood of responses. This strategy increases engagement in an easy way, whether you’re on Google Meet or Zoom!

6. GOOGLE JAMBOARD

After seeing Jamboard all over the ‘gram, I decided to give it a try, and it did not disappoint! Jamboard is a virtual whiteboard tool that allows teachers and students to collaborate on one board. Users can add text, sticky notes, images, and more, making it a great way to collaborate and structure discussion. My students and I have enjoyed using Jamboard as a way to mix up our discussions on short stories, novels, and other texts this year.

7. GOOGLE SLIDES GALLERY WALKS

Another strategy that I was forced to reimagine this year was the classic gallery walk, my go-to tool for making any lesson more engaging. Because kinesthetic activities are a safety risk during a pandemic, I had to get creative and create an online “gallery.” To do so, I created different “exhibits” in Google Slides, complete with interactive links and more clickable buttons. Students can explore the virtual gallery at their own pace, just like they would in a brick-and-mortar classroom. Like virtual stations, it’s not the same thing, but it’s the next best thing. This year, that’s good enough for me! To save time, I created templates so that whenever I have an idea, all I have to do is copy/paste my content. You can check out these time-saving templates HERE.

8. GOODREADS

I’ve always used Goodreads (some years more than others), but this year, I got students to join in on the fun! Goodreads is an app and website that functions like social media for reading. You can add books to your shelves and “to read” lists, set goals, track your progress, update your status, and see what your friends are reading. At the beginning of the year, I had all my students create a Goodreads account and add me as a friend. It’s not a reading log, grade, or requirement, but just a fun, informal way to stay connected.

9. INDEPENDENT READING + 10 MINUTES OF DAILY READING

Speaking of reading, I have a confession to make: 2020 was the first year I ever truly implemented an independent reading program and set aside daily time in class for students to read. But it has been one of the BEST things I have ever done. After all, the best way to become a better reader is to read more. When I reflect on teaching in 2020, I am most proud of the independent reading program I have cultivated in my classes. My students are reading a lot more than they ever have, and they’re genuinely enjoying it.

While the foundation of our independent reading program is the daily 10 minutes of free reading, choice + book talks + check-ins + creative projects + Book Trailer Tuesday + First Chapter Friday + Goodreads + a lot more goes into it. I’m working on writing another blog post and creating a bundle of resources to support independent reading, but in the meantime, you can check out my Book Trailer Tuesday activities HERE and my First Chapter Friday organizers HERE.

10. DAILY AGENDA SLIDES

I’ve always used daily agenda slides, but 2020 was the year I fully committed to them. I’m happy to report that we are now in a serious relationship. I no longer forget to update or share them with my students, because I found a foolproof system. I simply attach ONE master slideshow to Google Classroom, and it automatically updates as I add each daily agenda. For a type-b teacher like me, it’s a life-saving organizational system, and it’s been especially helpful to keep both remote and in-person learners on the same page (or should I say slide?).  Want all my secrets about how I stay organized (and in love with) Google Slides agendas? Click HERE to read my blog post or HERE to head straight to my resources.

11. VIRTUAL ESCAPE ROOMS

Traditionally, I’ve created hybrid escape rooms with paper clues and tasks and Google forms to automate the breakouts. Watching my students scurry across my classroom searching for clues is half the fun, and that kind of movement just isn’t happening in my classroom during a pandemic. But the good news is that I was able to take my experience with Google forms and escape rooms and create fully virtual escape rooms this year. The best part? Because they’re completely digital, there is NO PREP required (and honestly, that’s the worst part of regular escape rooms, as fun as they may be).  You can read more about how to create a virtual escape room HERE (scroll to idea #10) or check out my escape room resources HERE. (All of my escape room resources come with print, hybrid, and virtual versions for your convenience!)

12. COLLABORATIVE SLIDESHOWS

I’ve mentioned these in a few other posts, but they deserve another shoutout for helping me survive teaching during 2020. Seriously, these are my go-to. They’re not very fancy, but they’re simple and effective. You can structure them in different ways, but I use collaborative slideshows as a virtual version of traditional jigsaw group work. I assign each group (or student) one slide in a master slideshow, set the slideshow to “editable” by all, and watch as all students work on the same presentation! The best part is that you can use the “grid view” on Google Slides to see what students are doing, whether they’re at home or in your classroom.

13. PADLET

Padlet
Here’s an example of a Padlet I created to accompany this Personality Test Reflection activity.

I listed this in my 20 Free Tech Tools post at the beginning of the pandemic, but it’s worth another mention because my 7th graders have really enjoyed it this year! If you’re new to it, Padlet is similar to Google’s Jamboard, but with more options, features, and structure (if you want it). Padlet functions like a virtual bulletin board: You can post a question, share the link, and students can respond with text, images, links, and more. You can also turn on features for liking, starring, upvoting, and replying to posts so students can interact even more.

14. GOOGLE CLASSROOM “DISCUSSION BOARDS”

No, Google Classroom does not have a discussion board feature. But yes, you can totally hack it to create something that’s close enough! The secret: Google Classroom’s Questions. Once students reply to a question you post, they can see and reply to their peers’ answers. You, too, can jump in the comments and give them feedback or follow-up questions to keep the conversations going. Another way to structure these “discussion boards” is to ask students to submit their own questions for discussion. I did this to scaffold the process of generating questions as my class prepared for a Socratic Seminar over our most recent class novel, A Long Walk to Water. You can read more about this discussion board hack (and other strategies for using Google Classroom questions) HERE.

15. FILM ANALYSIS

This made my 2020 list, but it’s even more relevant now. It’s been challenging to engage students in different ways this year, but thankfully, this is something that translates perfectly to the virtual or hybrid setting! Film analysis is a visual way to scaffold the challenging skill of literary analysis. It’s a shame that there’s a stigma that comes with showing movies in class. As long as you’re asking students the right standards-based questions, you should have no problem pressing play. Most recently, I facilitated film analysis with the documentary “God Grew Tired of Us,” which we viewed as post-reading for A Long Walk to Water. The film helped us better understand the book and it previewed/scaffolded the informational text standards we are working on during our current unit. For more information about how to structure film analysis, check out my blog post HERE. (Scroll to the 5th section).

16. VIRTUAL ICEBREAKERS

Virtual icebreaker game
My students loved playing this virtual “Spin the Wheel” icebreaker game.

Gone are the days when we could toss a ball around the room, answering whatever question our thumbs land on and spreading germs with no care! While I always loved that little “toss and talk” game, I think I’ll stick to my sanitary, virtual version for the foreseeable future. Here’s what I did to transform this classic get-to-know-you game: First, I created a list of fun questions and organized them into 3 categories (Get to Know You, Favorites, and Wild Card). Then, I numbered students off and used an online spinning tool to randomly draw the numbers of students to answer the questions. My students LOVED it and begged for more, so it’s something I always have available anytime we have an extra few minutes left in class. For more virtual icebreakers, you can check out my bundle of games HERE.

17. HYBRID SOCRATIC SEMINARS

I was determined to find a way to continue my beloved Socratic Seminars even during this challenging year. If you’re unfamiliar with seminars, they’re essentially student-led discussions. Students create their own questions, prepare for the discussion, and show up to class to have a conversation in a giant circle (while the teacher listens, outside of the circle). After facilitating seminars in high school, I was nervous to try them in middle school, especially during a pandemic, but I’m thrilled to say that THEY WORK (or at least they did for us). 

I’m currently teaching face-to-face with a few students learning remotely, so we were able to space out our desks in the physical classroom while the online students joined via Google Meet. To bridge the gap between the in-person and remote learners, I designated one student as a liaison. This student logged into the Google Meet and typed the questions (that were asked in person) in the chat. The virtual students responded through the chat, and when they wanted to speak up, the liaison jumped into the class discussion to say “[Student 1] has something to say” or [Student 2] wants to ask a question.” This was a great compromise that allowed for all voices to be heard. (I had 100% participation in all of my classes, which is incredible!) For more information on Socratic Seminars, you can find my blog post HERE or my resources HERE.

18. STUDENT SURVEYS & CHECK-INS

I’ve always been a fan of student surveys and check-ins, but I’ve found them incredibly important to stay connected to students during this challenging year. I’ve found surveys and check-ins helpful for general information (like my back-to-school survey), specific learning needs, independent reading progress, and more. For surveys, I always use Google Forms so my information is saved and organized in Sheets. For quick check-ins, I often use Google Classroom questions, but if the nature of the check-in necessitates privacy (such as a “mental health” check-in), I’ll use Forms. The info and feedback I receive from surveys and check-ins is more valuable than any other data I could analyze as a teacher. I’m thankful that Google makes it so easy to stay tuned to my students’ needs and plan meaningful lessons, even during a pandemic.

19. REGULAR LEARNING REFLECTIONS

In addition to facilitating metacognition, frequent learning reflections are another strategy to stay connected to students during a challenging year. Many reflection assignments I give my students are as simple as the following: 1. “What do you think is the most INTERESTING thing you learned? 2. What do you think is the most IMPORTANT thing you learned? 3. What questions do you have? What do you want to learn?” These kinds of questions help students learn to be active participants in their learning, but they also help me plan better lessons that cater to their needs, questions, and curiosities. I’ve found that Google Classroom Questions and Google Forms are the perfect tools for these mini reflections.

20. VIRTUAL QUESTION TRAILS

Virtual question trail strategy
My first-ever virtual question trail for my A Long Walk to Water unit.

A common theme of 2020 was lamenting all the fun kinesthetic activities I could no longer do with my students. While I quickly found a way to digitize stations, gallery walks, and other activities, question trails had me stumped for a while. Question trails are definitely most engaging in person, but I am happy to say that I finally figured out how to make them work virtually! The answer: Google Slides with internal linking. I created my first virtual question trail for my new A Long Walk to Water unit, and I am working on updating the rest of my question trail resources! In the meantime, you can read more about question trails HERE (just scroll to the third section).

21. FREE READING DAYS

I’m ending this list with the most simple but rewarding strategy of them all: free reading days! Back when I taught high school, I felt like I never had the time to drop everything and read. But now that I’ve moved to middle school reading, I cannot emphasize how important it is to make time for a magical class period of uninterrupted reading. Now, I try to make time every month, and we see it as a special treat. In the fall, that meant heading outdoors to space out and read. In the winter, it means turning on the classic YouTube fireplace or other ambient sounds to set the mood for a cozy, bookish day. These days send the message that reading is valued, special, and ENJOYABLE in our classroom. We love it!


There you have it: 21 different ideas for 2021! I hope these strategies and tools help you and your students make it through the rest of this challenging year. If you have any questions, let me know, and be sure to tag me on Instagram if you try out any of these strategies!

For more ideas like this, check out the following blog posts:

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