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Who would have thought that we would still be dealing with distance learning in 2021? Whether you are brand new to teaching music online, or your students are losing steam because it’s been so long, this post has some of the best distance learning engagement strategies.
I’ve been teaching from home March-December. I am writing this post on my first day back in the school building (my classroom is a mess!). Even though I am going back, and we are beginning a hybrid situation, most of our kiddos are still at home, so I am still teaching mostly online.
In all the months and months that I’ve been at this, I’ve learned a few things.
As we go through the distance learning engagement strategies, some will work better than others. To be honest, with my little kiddos, I do almost exactly the same thing that I do in the classroom. Very little is changed other than the whole muting situation and the fact that I cannot hand them things.
As far as distance learning with music, I definitely find it more difficult to engage the older kids. Most of the things that work in the classroom, we can’t do online (like instruments!). I also run into issues with it being a bit weird. A lot of things like singing and dancing are fine in my classroom, but feel different at home. The fourth and fifth graders love to dance in my classroom, but are less inclined to dance at home by themselves with their headphones on. And to be honest, I completely understand it!
These tips will focus mostly on those older students.
If you need some lessons ideas, I have a FREE PDF guide that has pages and pages of ideas for activities you can use via Zoom. My kiddos have tested them all, and I can attest to the fact that they do in fact work.
Want some more ideas?
You can get my Teaching Elementary Music Online ebook by clicking here! It has 80 pages of ideas for lessons that work online for students kindergarten-fifth grade.
Distance Learning Engagement Strategies
As we go through these strategies, remember this: The goal is for you to talk less and the students to do more.
That is the magic of engagement– the students are engaged. They are doing something. In order for them to be doing something, you need to talk less. The more you talk, the more students are inclined to get distracted. And there is a lot of distractions while they are in their houses!
Mirror Words is an engagement strategy taught by the Whole Brain Teaching Method. I learned about it by taking their (free!) online course, which you can check out by clicking here.
The idea of Mirror Words is to get the students involved while you are telling them things. You start by saying, “Mirrors up!” or “Mirror words” and putting your hands in front of your face like mirrors.
The students then do the exact same thing. The students are your mirrors.
Then, you tell the students whatever they need to know in SHORT phrases with big hand gestures.
The students repeat all of the words and all of the hand gestures.
At the end, you say, “Mirrors away” and students repeat that and put their hands down. This is their signal to stop repeating.
For example, it may look like this:
- Teacher: Mirrors up! (hands up)
- Students: Mirrors up! (hands up)
- Teacher: Swan Lake (puts a hand up like a swan neck) is a ballet (hands above the head like a ballerina)
- Students: Swan Lake (puts a hand up like a swan neck) is a ballet (hands above the head like a ballerina)
- Teacher: A ballet (hands up like a ballerina) tells a story (hands open like a book) through dance (two fingers waving back and forth– the sign language for dance)
- Students: A ballet (hands up like a ballerina) tells a story (hands open like a book) through dance (two fingers waving back and forth– the sign language for dance)
- Teacher: Mirrors away! (puts hands down)
- Students: Mirrors away! (puts hands down)
Mirror words is a SIMPLE distance learning engagement strategy. It is genius for a couple of reasons:
- If forces you to think in concise sentences. You cannot ramble on and on and on. The first of Mr. Rogers’s 9 rules for talking to children is to put your sentence into words that preschoolers can understand. This is what we want to do.
- The kids are doing something. They aren’t just sitting and ignoring you.
- If helps them remember. Repeating and doing hand gestures allows students to actually remember what it is that you are telling them. They are so much more likely to remember what you are talking about when there is an action associated with it.
- They know when to start and stop! As music teachers, we often need the kids to repeat after us. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had many times where they don’t realize they are supposed to repeat after me, or they don’t know to stop. This takes the uncertainty out of it. I even use this for learning lyrics now!
I thought that the older kids would think this is baby-ish, but my fifth graders actually really seem to love it.
Let them Move
While we are discussing movement, let’s go with this to: Let the children move!
First off, kids need to move. They cannot sit still very long– and neither can you! Think about the last time you were in a long, boring PD or staff meeting. You were probably dying, right? Yes!
The kids feel the same. So anytime you can, let them get up. Let them do actions. Even if you make them up on the spot– or have the kids make them up!
Can you find a GoNoodle video on this topic? Could we practice steady beat with this song? Any movement is good.
One of my favorite engagement tools is a scavenger hunt. While students are home, I will tell them to go find…. Whatever. And bring it back. And show us.
We often do percussion instrument scavenger hunts, which we then use to play rhythms along with songs.
We also find items related to our songs. So if we are singing Doggie, Doggie Where’s Your Bone?, then I will have the kids go find a stuffed animal. Or their real animal! I once had a kid holding his cat and having it do the actions to the song we were singing, which I thought was hilarious.
Students love showing off their house and their stuff– and I am able to say that even though a lot of my kids have very little. They are still excited to go find something they can use as a percussion instrument. (Note: because students have different levels of homes and items, I often give a lot of different items they can bring, and I don’t push it if one just really doesn’t want to bring something.)
One of my favorite things is when we watch videos or read books in class. I tell them to get extra cozy, and go grab a blanket or a stuffed animal or go sit on the couch for our story time. They love getting to snuggle up with a blanket and listen to a story. It is also a nice change of pace, which brings me to….
Change the Pace
This probably should have been the first one. This is the distance learning engagement tip that I give every one. Actually, it’s the normal engagement tip that I give everyone.
Change the pace.
You class period should not be 30 or 45 minutes of sameness. Change it up.
Have a five minute activity where students are dancing. Then a 10 minute activity where we are working on a new song and figuring out the solfege. They a 5 minute activity where we turn that into a game or a song. Then maybe we to something together on Google Slides or we watch a video. Then we do a lesson on our own that we turn in for a grade.
The idea is that you want to change the energy. One activity that is high energy, then one with less.
The more you need students to pay attention, the more energy the activity before it should have. So if I am introducing a new concept, and I need the students to really understand ta and titi, then right before that, we will be dancing or doing a GoNoodle. We will do something that gets a lot of wiggles and energy out, so that they will not be squirming as we are learning something new.
Also change the focus level. If you are doing an activity where they really need to concentrate, make the activities before and after less concentration heavy.
Also read: How to Survive as a Distance Music Teacher
Give them Choice
Students always need choice in their school, day in order to feel engaged and in control of their learning. Right now, a lot of their choice has been taken away. Things I would typically allow them to choose in my class are taken away.
So as you are coming up with lessons, think about ways you can insert choice into their days.
One thing I love to do is have students come up with actions. Sometimes, we will go through a new song or chant, and I will ask them, “What’s a movement for this word?” They will enjoy the activity more because they are choosing.
Plus, then you don’t have to come up with the movements, so it saves you time. Win-win.
I also like to do songs like Did You Ever See a Lassie? or Mama Lama where one student gets to pick what dance moves everyone is doing for the song.
Other examples of choice could be to ask students about the order of your lesson. Especially with the older kids, sometimes I’ll ask if they want to do one thing or another first. We do both, but they get to pick the order.
If you’re playing a video, ask them which one looks better. It could literally be two read alouds on Youtube– which one do they think looks better?
If you have assigned lessons, do a choice board! Tell them they have to do three of the options, but they get to pick which ones. Or they have to do all of them but they get to pick which one to work on first.
There are so many different ways to add a little bit of choice into their days. Plus, every time you have them decide something, that’s one less thing for you to decide.
When you are in your classroom, there are a lot of visuals to help students with their learning– word walls, anchor charts, instruments, etc.
Online, those things don’t really exist.
To help students get engaged, it is really helpful to have visuals of whatever you are talking about that day. This allows students to see rather than hear. It helps students who are having audio issues. It accommodates students who are visual learners.
And it allows one more way for students to be engaged.
For visuals, I have begun making Google Slides presentations. I have on for each grade. They are super simple. I put all of the things that I need that week. Talking about a banjo? Put a picture of a banjo in there! Talking about music from Zimbabwe? Better believe that I’ll have a map!
I also add in lyrics, form charts, anchor charts, and important words.
I use these (FREE!) Google Slides templates from my TPT shop. They are completely editable, and come in a few different colors (I use a different color for each grade).
Engagement Strategies for Distance Learning Tools
The previous section focused on best practices for engaging your kiddos. This next section is going to be more specific tools that you can use in order to engage your students.
As much as distance learning as a music teacher has been a bit of a mess, these are all tools that I never used before this past year. I would have never had the chance to try them if we had not had distance learning– and a lot of them are things that I will keep in my curriculum for years to come!
NearPod or Pear Deck
NearPod and Pear Deck are both online presentation (think Google Slides or Powerpoint) that makes your lessons more interactive. You make your NearPod or Pear Deck (I use it free!), then give the students a code. I love this, as then students don’t have to try and find anything in our Learning Management System (we lose 10 minutes every time they try to find my class).
They both allow students to only see what they need to depending on the activity. For example, I did a matching game in Pear Deck. The students could only see their matches. Then we did a slide that looks like sticky notes, where we could all add comments about the piece we were listening to, and the students could all see each other’s answers (after I approved them).
You are also in charge of changing the slide, so you can make sure everyone is on the correct page.
Both also allow you to present (live session) or the students to go at their own pace. So if you are teaching some students in person and assigning activities for students online, you can make one (just one!) activity, and all of the students can do it– the ones with you will do it together, and the students at home will do it on their own time.
I am more familiar with Pear Deck, because it connects with Google Slides, but I have tried NearPod, and I think it may be better for elementary music. You can try them both and decide for yourself!
Breakout rooms in Zoom are a way to have students do virtual centers. You can use them to have kids work on projects or to take a few students out to remediate. You can pop into all of the different rooms, so that you can check on the students.
I like to use this with larger online classes and give them about 2 minutes to talk about one specific topic. I don’t do longer than that, because they’ll get off topic. I find 1 is too short because it takes a bit to get in and out of the room.
This is like a virtual way to do a think-pair-share.
FlipGrid has been my best friend this year.
It is a website (free!) where students can easily record themselves. You just create an activity, give kids the code, and they can add their recordings.
You can also make it so that you have to approve the videos. I like this, because 1. I can make sure the video is appropriate and 2. I have some students who don’t want people to see their videos. I totally get that, so I usually tell them I will only make it public if they say it is ok.
We’ve used FlipGrid to make raps about our favorite food, show off our cup routine skills, and create our own cup routines. You can use it for anything that requires video.
This is also a great accommodation for students who struggle with writing. Talking can be easier. You can even have them talk and then write their answers.
Also read: How to Teach Elementary Music Online
Jamboards or Slides
Google Jamboards and Google Slides are two ways to make your lessons more interactive.
Slides are basically powerpoints. I will often assign a Google Slides activity to my students. The new thing I have discovered, though, is this: Make one presentation for a class. Each slide is exactly the same. Put the link to the presentation in the chat. Each kid gets a slide for their answers.
Why is this amazing? You may ask.
- It gets rid of trying to find the correct activity. Just put it in the chat.
- You can have a separate presentation for each class. My online classroom/LMS has all of the students for a grade in one classroom. Trying to put grades in is a NIGHTMARE, because I grade kids according to the class they are in. That means I have to figure out who is in what class, which students have finished an assignment…. It’s rough. Instead, I just pull up the Slides from that class (I will title it Jazz music Davis or Jazz music Westphal), and then I can easily find the students.
Bear in mind, this does mean that the students can see each other’s screens. I use this mostly for opinion questions rather than quizzes.
Virtual Field Trips!
Virtual Field Trips! That is a lot of typing, so I am going to refer to them as VFT for the rest of this section.
A VFT means that you “go” somewhere to learn about something.
One way to do this is with museum walk throughs. There are a lot of museums that have been offering free “walk throughs” online. Last year we “went” to the Mozart museum and the American Jazz Museum.
I like to intersperse these walk throughs with videos. So when we get to a particular singer in the jazz museum, we will pause and go watch one of their videos.
Another way to to a VFT is to make your own. To do this, you will use a Google Slides presentation. The first page will be a “map”, and the others will have information.
I recently made this virtual field trip all about the opera Carmen. I presented it as, “We’re going to the opera!” On the map slide, there are characters and symbols that represent different parts of the opera (like a person for Carmen, a Spanish flag because it is set in Spain, a book to represent the story).
Students click on the different parts and learn about that section. For example, if they click on Carmen, they learn a little about the character and watch a video of one of her arias. Then, I have them tell me what they learned about that part.
Then they go back and click on something else. Maybe they click on Bizet, and then they can learn about the composer.
This integrates some student choice, because they get to decide the order they go in while in the VFT. It’s interactive and fun!
I have done this type of VFT for Carmen, Swan Lake, and I am working on a Jazz themed VFT through Harlem (stay tuned!).
I wrote a whole blog post about my love for Boom Card here, so I won’t wax on too long today.
Boom Cards are basically digital task cards that the students can do. I love them because you can practice a concept, and it feels like a game!
You can do a subscription through your school where you can actually get reports for how students do (what questions they get right and wrong), but I use the free version. I just purchase, find a free or make a deck, and then I give students the fast play link. At the end, it gives them a score for how many they get right.
I’ve been having them put their score in the chat (privately!), and then I’ll send them the link to play in Chrome Music Lab. This way I know they finished, they have an incentive to do the activity (Does anyone else have students that completely refuse to do anything? Like you give them an assignment and they just stare at you? Let me know on Instagram @beccasmusicroom), and then I can use that as an assessment.
Of course, they could lie to you, so you may want to have them share their screen with you so that you can see. I haven’t have any problems with this though.
Kahoot or Quizz.iz
I could continue to go on and on and on, but I will stop myself here. Kahoot and Quizz.iz are two quiz platforms that are FUN. They are more like trivia than quizzes.
You can search through their quizzes, or you can make your own. You can add pictures, videos, change the question format, have students type things in, and more.
Again, I use the free version of both, because I am a teacher, and I get paid like a teacher.
I’ve been using Kahoot for months, and my kids beg me for it. I tried Quizz.iz in a PD the other day, and it was really fun, so I may try that one and see which one the kids prefer.
Both have the ability to play the game together, or to do a self paced activity. This means that you can assign the same one to your kids in person and online!
Also read: Fun Music Activities for Zoom
Alright friends, so those are a few of my best distance learning engagement tactics! What would you add to the list? If you have ideas, send them to me on Instagram @BeccasMusicRoom.