Modeling E-Learning (distance learning in the era of COVID-19)

This post is for both PARENTS and for EDUCATORS who are entering a new reality – that of our children and students learning from home. Most teachers have never taught in this environment and we are being asked to quickly come up with workable plans for this environment. Parents- I know you are juggling this unexpected reality with other commitments you have. YIKES! This post is one TIP for your students who will be learning in a virtual enviornoment.

Ultimately, this post will ask you to NOT assume your students know how to learn in an E-Learning environment and give you one thing you can do to help them as they transistion to learning from videos.

Just so you know, I have never taught students virtually. For the last year and a half though I have led many virtual tranings for teachers and leaders ranging from 15 minutes to 3 hours. Like all things, I’ve gotten better at my work in this arena the more I’ve done it. Also, one year ago, I co-presented at my state math conference on ‘Best Practices for the Math Flipped Classroom‘ with an amazing teacher from St. Cloud, MN named Elise Morell. In prepping for our session, I interviewed tons of teachers, read lots of research and learned a ton about students learning at home. This post is one small thing I learned from that research that I will for sure use when I return to teaching – specifically in virtual/online environments. I thought I would share it with you in this post. (ps. if you like this advice – let me know and I will share other ideas I have for distance learning)

Before I type the rest of this post though, please give yourself and your family permission to PAUSE before you even think about jumping back into education. Your emotional health is more important to me than anything in math. Find ways to connect with your family and with others – even if it virtually. Take time to catch your breath and tap into your JOY. When you are ready for it – read the rest of this post.

Teaching the social is just as important as teaching the academic part of education.

For a long time I’ve been planning on blogging on something all of us Math Teachers need to do more of in our classrooms. Sixteen years ago this ‘thing’ I am advocating for was given a name when I attended ‘Responsive Classroom’ training for my new school. At the training they said ‘Teaching the social part of education is just as important – if not more important – than teaching the academic part.” This means that as a math teacher, of course I need to teach mathematical concepts – but unless I am also teaching students how to do school, how to be in a community of math learners and teaching my students how to connect – I will never be teaching students mathematics effectively – teachers need to teach both content (academics) and how to be a student an function as part of a community of learners in our classroom (social).

An important aspect of teaching the social part of teaching is to not assume student knew how to learn in a math setting. Instead – anytime I do something new in class, I should MODEL (teach) this new thing. For example, if I plan to use markers for the first time in a school year, I should model the use of markers in a math classroom. If I want my students to discuss a math concept – I should first model how to discuss. In my own classroom I ultimately model anything that bugs me. If students are not doing homework, I model how to do homework. When I’ve done this my homework completion rates immediately went up. (someday I’ll blog about this and video how I model these things) If it bugs me students don’t how to take notes, I model it. When I hear other teachers saying things like “My kids are so lazy this year – they won’t _________________________________” – I am always thinking in my head when I hear this….”This teacher needs to model _______________________ for their students“. Modeling is something I do regularly and it has changed the culture of my classroom for the better.


source: RESPONSIVE CLASSROOM (link below)

Since I’ve learned about modeling- I’ve modeled EVERYTHING. I’ve used exemplars. I’ve done think alouds. I’ve modeled all new things and asked my students to tell me what they noticed, observed & saw. Modeling is basically modeling what you hope students will do and having them name what they say you doing. (Note: You can read about how the people behind Responsive Classroom & how they define ‘Interactive Modeling’ HERE. It looks a bit different in my HS classroom – but many of the elements are the same.)

For anyone that has followed my blog, you know that my classroom planning goal is to create classroom experiences where ‘students will SEE it before I show them and SAY it before I tell them.’ I always ask myself, “How can I help students see what I want them to say?“. Modeling fits perfectly into this goal. I show students how I hope they will do something and ask them to name the things they saw me do – ultimately my students name the things they should be doing as they engage in learning mathematics..

One example of this, that is the #1 most read post on this blog, is how I teach students to work in groups – specifically using the 100 number task. (read about it HERE) The goal of this task is to get students to tell me what great group work looks like (vs. me telling them). After students engage in the 100 # task – they say all the things I want them to say. Below is an example of what my students say – not what I said – good group work looks like. By modeling quality group quickly, students identify how all of us will look/sound and fell like every time we engage in group work.

So – as we engage in the brand new world of E-Learning, I am going to ask you to NOT assume your students, your children know how to work in this environment. I am asking to you ask yourself, how can I model this new environment for my students. How could we get our students/children to say all the things about how to best learn in an E-Learning environment before we ever tell them how to do it. The rest of this blog is on one way you can MODEL this new environment.


In this post, I am going to give you a way to MODEL for your students how to learn while watching videos. Many of us will be creating videos for our students to watch OR asking students to watch & learn from videos at sites like Khan Academy. One of the fears I’ve seen many expressing online is will students learn in an online, virtual environment. My answer to this is YES! – but only if you model it for them first. They will learn in this environment if they can name, before you even tell them, the things they need to do in order to learn from a video. So how do we do this?

This is where my friend Elise Morell, a math teacher from St. Cloud who has been flipping her classroom for several years, comes in. She advocates that you start with having students learn how to do something non-mathy from a video first. For example, have them learn to juggle from a video and then have students name what they did in order to learn from the video.

a picture of part of the task (scroll down to get the entire task with links)

Here is what this could look like in your e-learning environment. (Parents, you can do this too!)

  1. Give students a choice of several videos to select from (see above). Each video should be between 3-15 minutes in length.
  2. Ask students to select a video of something they do not know how to do YET.
  3. Tell students to learn this new task using this video. Don’t tell them much more than this at this point. Tell your student they will perform this task soon.
  4. Give your students a timeline to do this. I recommend between 1-3 days.
  5. After 1-3 days, have your students perform their NEW skill. Teachers if you are meeting together virtually with video, do this as a show & tell. If you are not meeting together virtually, have your students perform their new skill for a family member and have their family member sign off on it. (or take their word for it).
  6. THEN – Ask your students to name how they used the video to learn this new skill. What helped them? Things they might say are…

Who knows what else students may say? The list above is amazing. What if they brought the ideas from above to Math Videos? Follow up the conversation of what they notices by typing up a list of things your students/children will do as they begin learning from math (or other educational) videos. Below is an example of what that may look like. Ultimately, whatever you give students should NOT be what I (Sara) typed up below. Give your students a list of tips using their words (note mine).


TIP 1: Don’t ask your students/children to learn something from a video until you have learned something first from a video. Seriously, learn something new first. You will do a much better job with your students if you first pay attention to how you learn when watching videos.

TIP 2: Give your students choice in the video they will watch. Down below you will see a few videos I recommend, you can also get a copy of my task with these links by clicking on the button down below. Although these videos are good – this is a perfect time to give your students choice in something they will learn. If you read my task sheet, you will see I let students select one of the videos I linked OR one they want. I did ask them to select a video with a length between 3-15 minutes and clear their choice with me first.

NOTE #1: I highly recommend starting your new distance learning/E-Learning environment with your students with something that is NOT math. We are all a little overwhelmed. Start your journey together with something you can all laugh at as you do it. Start with something where students have choice. Learning something new together with your online classmates will build community and connect you with them in ways math sometimes struggles to do.

NOTE #2: I know that many students do not have easy access to watching videos at home. This post is not saying that your home/E-Learning environment must include videos. Not at all. This post is simply to say that if videos are part of your online curricula, then please MODEL how to learn from them.

If you would like a copy of my task sheet for learning from videos (shown above) OR a link to the PowerPoint Elise and I used in our session on flipping the math classroom (with links to other resources) – Click the button below and I will link you to these resources. As always, If you have ideas for me or would like to learn more on this topic, comment below or tweet me @saravdwerf.

UPDATE March 19, 2020 – My friend and former MS/HS Science teacher, Jon Peterson, recorded a PODCAST connected to this , so if you prefer to listen to this topic, check it out HERE: https://www.buzzsprout.com/285701/3061270

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 1, 2020: I am loving seeing teachers using this as a way to start their school year. Check out a couple of Twitter Threads with their results…

Below are some of the videos your students may select to learn something new. If you are the adult reading this, you do the same thing. Pick a video below and learn something new. As you are learning, pay attention to how you learn from videos. What helps you learn? If you have a video you think I should add to my list, comment below with a link or tweet at me @saravdwerf.

Sara VanDerWerf

I am Sara Van Der Werf, a 24-year mathematics teacher in Minneapolis Public Schools. I have taught math in grades 7-12 as well as spent several years leading mathematics at the district office. I currently teach Advanced Algebra at South High School and I'm also the current President of the Minnesota Council of Teachers of Mathematics (MCTM). I am passionate about encouraging and connecting with mathematics teachers. I'd love to connect via twitter.  Join the community.  Tweet me @saravdwerf.

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