Shifting back to (or continuing in) distance learning during the 2020–21 school year provided opportunities to continue to look at how we can build relationships with students, even with only seeing them on a computer screen. Instead of focusing on what students are not doing, taking time to dig deeper and ask others what is working can be the first brave step of trying something innovative to support our students in this new way of doing school.

At Ellis Middle School, we had the opportunity to remain hybrid before returning to full distance learning after Thanksgiving. During the first week of December 2020, we had time to brainstorm in each of our team meetings about what is working to engage students to come to our live check-in sessions or to continue to seek help, support, and advice throughout the day. Everyone also took time during our weekly staff check-in to answer the following question: What is one way you have gotten students to attend your virtual class? Asking for a friend.

The responses came in, and a lot of them. After reviewing the data, we came up with three different categories of engagement strategies during distance learning: Relationships, Gentle Reminders, and Learning Supports.


A few of the 20-plus ideas included:

  • Playing games like “Among Us” during Advisory
  • Daily trivia
  • Icebreaker games (for ideas, check out Cult of Pedagogy: Ice Breakers that Rock)
  • Meme/GIF competitions
  • Letting them “see” your virtual classroom (e.g., home office)
  • Offering cooking demos
  • Pet days
  • Dress-up days

Gentle Reminders

Reminders took the form of:

  • Email/portal reminders
  • Calendar invites (including parents)
  • Parent connections/support
  • Parent/student tutorial hours and support for online platforms
  • Calls from the school secretary as check ins
  • Links to everything in one spot
  • YouTube Videos for family support in English and Spanish
  • Reminders in our newsletters

Learning Supports

Learning support suggestions looked like:

  • Giving mini-lessons to supplement notes
  • Connecting learning in classes to other classes
  • Show and tell days
  • Additional homework help
  • Staying on the call after the 30 minutes and offering virtual study hall/study sessions
  • Using Nearpod and including games and more interactive elements
  • Continuing to provide structure and consistency while sharing new information

After all of these suggestions were collected, we shared them back with the staff and kept them in our COVID Communication OneNote notebook for reference.

Additional Resources

We also have been curating resources; some that have helped include:

During our weekly team meetings, we are able to discuss students who are having challenges, but we also continue our good news calls. This balance of what is working and what is not gives us time and space to reflect on our practices and continue to expect the best in this online environment.

With that, what is working in your online classroom, or virtual schools? And how are you sharing it with us so we can continue to learn and grow?

About the Author

Jessica Cabeen is the principal of Ellis Middle School in Austin, MN.  She was the 2017 Minnesota Nationally Distinguished Principal and a facilitator of the Minnesota Principal Academy offered through the University of Minnesota. She is the coauthor of Balance Like a Pirate (2018) and author of Hacking Early Learning (2018), Lead with Grace (2019), and Unconventional Leadership (2019). She loves to connect with other educators on Instagram, Facebook, Voxer, and Twitter (@JessicaCabeen) and her website (

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *