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Tips for Developing Effective and Engaging Professional Development Through a Virtual Learning Environment

In March 2020 the world as we know it turned upside down in a heartbeat. Educators of all levels and at brick-and-mortar schools were forced to go into emergency remote learning mode in a manner of days to support their students.

For those of us who are educational consultants, we too, had to do a sudden shift to providing our training and technical assistance to schools across the Commonwealth through virtual means.

Over the past six months we have become more adept at providing what we are informed is needed by the stakeholders: educators, families, community agencies and so forth.   It was a necessity to become more creative, to expand our tools and techniques in delivering meaningful and engaging content.

In the journey of continual learning in how to improve professional learning experiences, I offer to you some tips to consider, whether providing training through synchronous or asynchronous virtual learning environments or through a face-to-face learning environment.

Here are some tips based on the work of Sharon Bowman, author of Training from the Back of the Room.  Visit her blog for more tips to enhance your professional learning sessions.   Keep in mind the tips are equally helpful with teaching youth in our classrooms!

  1. A few days prior to the professional development (PD) inform participants of the topic and objectives by sending out a warm-up activity such as:
  • Prepare the first 2 columns of a K-W-L-S chart (What I Know, What I Wish to Know, What I Learned, What I still Wish to Know). Have it ready to participate in the PD. This may be accomplished by providing a link or a QR code to a Google Form, Padlet, FlipGrid, Jamboard, Wakelet, Microsoft Forms or other interactive applications.
  • Speak to someone who is knowledgeable on the topic for 3-5 minutes and be prepared to share out.
  • Draw, doodle or create a Word Cloud of key concepts associated with the topic.
  • Be sure to give the anticipated learners choices.
  1. In addition to the warm up activity, email a graphic organizer or possibly a link to one stored in a shared file for the learners to have during the PD
  • Consider using a Venn diagram, flow chart that has parts left blank, a basic outline with key subtopics listed.
  • Consider allowing for a free write or to ‘doodle’ thoughts.
  • Consider a page of speech/thought bubbles with a prompt posted at the top
  1. Start the PD by having the learners share out what they found out in their warm up activity.
  • Consider using break out room/small groups to share for 3-5 minutes.
  • Use the white board feature in your platform or provide a link in the chat box to other applications such as Padlet, Wakelet, Jamboard and Google Forms/Slides.
  • Consider creating a QR code to present via your shared screen. See end of blog for two options of many free sites available to create QR codes. Very simple to use.
  • Use the participant features of the platform to direct learners to use their ‘raise hand’, ‘yes/no’ or polling options when you ask for a response to an anticipatory question or statement.
  • Remember that just because the learners and presenters are usually sitting in a virtual environment, there is the option to ask them to stand up or use their upper body to respond to a prompt given. This may include using arm/body motions similar to a charades or using a marker to create a response through a handwritten drawing or dry erase board.
  1. Follow the 10 to 15-minute rule: Break up your slides, information sharing or printed materials into segments of 10-15 minutes
  • Consider inserting a short 1 to 2-minute activity in between the longer segment to review the materials/concepts just presented.
  • Using their graphic organizer, write one sentence to summarize the learning.
  • Think-Pair-Share using the breakout rooms.
  • Ask learners to summarize in the chat box.
  • Continuing using the applications that are being in use in other parts of the training.
  • Note that any more than 20 minutes is most likely going to lead to learners tuning out and disengaging.
  1. Build in Movement Breaks
  • Invite the learners to take 1 minute to stretch, stand, walk, and/or deep breathe.
  • Stretches may be as simple as a micro stretch such as stretching out arms, fingers, legs and/or toes while sitting
  • Consider using a slide to offer the short break that shows a visually engaging picture- something not directly related to the topic of the PD.
  • Consider using a snippet of energizing music, GIF or sort video.
  • Provide choice.
  1. Be sure to become familiar with the interactive features well in advance of the PD
  • Explore what features your platform has built into it. Companies are providing upgrades constantly.
  • Check with your IT team for any advice as deemed necessary
  • Test the other applications you planning to use. Possibly invite a colleague to try out what you prepare.
  1. Extend learning and commitment to implementation of the PD skills and concept with taking 3-5 minutes to have learners create a basic Action Plan.
  • Cycle back to using the applications previously used in the PD.
  • Suggest the learners use their graphic organizer to summarize what they learned and to indicate 2-3 Action Steps.
  • Use breakout rooms for sharing.
  • Use the chat box to summarize and state Action Steps
  • Use multimedia approach by the learners to demonstrate their new knowledge and what Action Steps will be taken such as responding in their seats or by standing up within camera view.

Professional development is meant to improve our skills as educators so that we may assist our students of any age to become life-long learners. Keep in mind the tools you choose to provide the PD are ways to model to your learners how to make virtual learning effectively and a positive experience.  Being consistent with your tools and structure if providing a series of PD sessions or when teaching students, will be helpful in keeping your learners feeling a sense of comfort, predictability and proficiency with the format of the instruction so that they may increase their focus on  learning about your topic without worrying about the tools being used.

By following the tips and allowing yourself to explore and try out a variety of methods to facilitate learning in a virtual environment in an engaging manner, the intended objectives will be met.  Taking time to think about the objectives, the variability of the learners and the means by which you will facilitate the PD session will pay off in the long run.

References from Sharon Bowman

Sharon Bowman:

Website: Training from the Back of the Room

Book:  Training from the Back of the Room: 65 Ways to Step Aside and Let Them Learn (2008)

Two Free Options of Many Available for Creating QR Codes :

QR Stuff

Add-in Extension from Chrome

Finding a Foundation in Inquiry By Janice Ewing

            Many educators are hearing words like “unprecedented” and “pivot” so often that they’re starting to lose their meaning.  Teachers are inundated with new tools, resources, and strategies to manage time and organization in virtual spaces. Part of the challenge of planning for this school year has been the process of sifting through, evaluating, and quickly becoming familiar with what can be an overwhelming array of options.

            In talking with teachers as they prepare for this school year, I’ve noticed that the urgency of adapting to new modes of teaching and learning sometimes leads to searching for answers before having a clear idea of what the questions are, beyond “How can I make this work?” I think that it’s helpful to hone in on our questions first, to create a foundation from which to navigate the search for answers. Of course, there are specific questions about requirements, schedules, and technology that might require immediate answers, but there are also deeper questions that need reflection and processing, in spite of the urgency that this school opening brings. Forming and pursuing these questions as teacher inquiries can provide a valuable framework for moving forward.

            For example, a teacher I’m informally mentoring learned that her school was preparing for a socially-distanced, in-class model. She wanted to encourage the theme and practice of caring for each other within a community, and she was concerned about finding ways to facilitate group projects among her first graders. Our collaborative reflection led her to the question:  How can I encourage collaboration and group projects within my class while still maintaining physical distance? Shortly after this conversation, the teacher was informed that her school had “pivoted” to virtual instruction. Her new question became: How can I encourage collaboration and group projects within my class in a virtual setting? The teacher’s goals for her students remain the same, although the logistics have changed, and very well might change again. Her inquiry question helps to keep her steady in her focus on what is important for her and her students. It is also a question that she will bring to “the table” in planning sessions with colleagues and it will guide her to seek out teachers in broader professional networks with similar questions.

            A reading specialist who works with students in grades 1-5 also shared her concerns with me about starting the year online.  Student assessment and collaboration with classroom teachers are essential components of her role. Fortunately, there is another reading specialist in her school with whom she has a close collegial relationship. Together, they will explore the question: What adaptations will be advantageous in assessing our students virtually and how can we best share our information with classroom teachers?

            A secondary special education teacher shared that she is worried about meeting her students’ needs for feelings of safety and emotional regulation without the flexibility of face-to-face interactions. Her question: What will happen if my students and I co-create a system of visual signs and symbols to enable them to indicate when they need an individual check-in or a break?

            An education professor at a local university explained that her classes are being held via Zoom. Her face-to-face classes were very interactive, as her students experienced the strategies they were learning about. Her question: How can I most effectively and authentically model instructional practices for my preservice education students using Zoom?

            Each of these teachers has deep concerns as this new school year begins. The identification of an inquiry question helps to shape more focused collaboration with colleagues, who might be exploring similar or related questions. As often occurs during inquiry, the questions will change along the way, as various types of data and ongoing analysis and reflection with colleagues inform the process. When teachers reach out and share their inquiries with other educators beyond their own learning communities, teaching and learning become generative and intertwined. As we face this “unprecedented” beginning of the school year, the inquiry process can build a foundation from which to reflect and act on your deepest and most authentic questions. You’re welcome to share your ongoing inquiry questions in the comments below.

Janice Ewing has been a reading specialist and literacy coach, and an adjunct instructor in the Reading Specialist Program at Cabrini University. She is currently serves on the Advisory Board of the Pennsylvania Writing and Literature Project, of which she is a 2004 fellow. Her interests include teacher inquiry, collaboration, and mentoring. She and her colleague, Mary Buckelew, are the authors of Action Research for English Language Arts Teachers: Invitation to Inquiry (Routledge, 2019).

Give Your Students and Yourself Grace

by Chris Kehan

Flipgrid, Seesaw, Padlet, Canvas, Bitmoji classrooms, etc. seem to be all that we hear from our colleagues and administrators in preparation for a virtual start.  If you are like me and gearing up for the start of this unprecedented 2020 school year, then you are probably overwhelmed by EVERYTHING we need to learn as teachers for our students to be successful online.  As I sat in my library office thinking about all that I needed to do to get ready for this year, my heart started to race and my head was spinning.  Then, I took a deep breath as I looked around at all of the books in my library, and my heart rate slowed and my mind became more open to the possibilities that books can offer me, my students, and the teachers during these tech-filled times.

These first couple of weeks should be used to give our students and ourselves grace to ease into this extraordinary school year.  What better way to do that than through picture books?  No matter the grade level or subject you teach consider using picture books to open the necessary conversations we need to have in order to get to know our students, find out how they feel, and get a sense of how to proceed with care–the curriculum can wait.

Before becoming an elementary school librarian, I taught for 19 years in a regular classroom.  My two favorite things to do were read aloud and use a Writer’s Notebook.  Now as a librarian and starting a school year during a pandemic, I intend to use the same two tools to get the year started.  Picture books provide opportunities for quick, meaningful read-alouds which can lead to an entry in a Writer’s Notebook and follow that up with sharing and/or discussion.  The following titles are a small sampling of books to use to get your year started or use them periodically throughout the year to maintain community and care in a virtual world:

Thankfully we have the technology to connect to our students as we start the year online.  However, we cannot let it get in the way of what is important–getting to know our students and letting them know we care.  In the end, a good book, a pencil and some paper (or a Writer’s Notebook) is all we need to get started connecting to our students and building the community necessary to navigate the year.  So, take a deep breath and give your students and yourself grace.

Chris Kehan is a library media specialist in the Central Bucks School District.  She became a PAWLP Writing Fellow in 1995 and a Literature Fellow in 1997.  After teaching 4th & 6th grades for 19 years in the regular classroom where she amassed over 4,000 books in her classroom, she decided to take her passion for literacy to the library where she teaches children in K – 6th grade.  She has been sharing her love of reading and writing with the students and teachers at Warwick Elementary School for the past 10 years.  Follow her on Twitter @CBckehan

A Twist on Shared Reading for Grown-Ups!

During the past year I have been enrolled in a certification course organized and run by a wonderful professor.  Until late March, the classes were held on campus.  When the schools shut down due to the pandemic, we moved to meeting on online each week.  In addition, the professor saw a need to be filled beyond the weekly meetings for class and offered a virtual shared reading option to help us stay connected beyond the course content.   As a result, he set up through the university website a twice a week opportunity for us students and for anyone who wished to join.

Since its inception, our little community of lovers of literature has been meeting each Tuesday and Thursday after work hours for one hour.  The beauty of the community is that it is not the common place book club.  In the traditional clubs, members choose a book, read in advance, maybe have guiding question and then gather together to discuss what was read and learned.

In our shared reading meetings, we do not prepare by reading anything in advance!  Whew!  That takes that pressure off, doesn’t it, in terms of needing to find time to read what was assigned?!!

Through the magic of Zoom, the prof started us with Ray Bradbury’s novel, Dandelion Wine. He used screen share to show us the book from his Kindle app.  A novel of about 300 pages, it is not the typical Bradbury book and takes place in the Mid-West in 1928.  One could say it is part autobiographical when the author was a 12-year-old boy. The imagery, the scenes, the vocabulary, nuances and threads are delightful even though somewhat dark.

At the beginning of each of our meetings, we would take a few minutes to catch up with each other and then the prof would begin to read aloud.  He would stop at any place in the text that he felt was a good spot to go back, analyze and discuss what he read.  Then each of us would take turns reading aloud if we wished,  choosing a point to pause in which to have discussion  and simply share our insights of the writing such as what Bradbury was trying to convey to the reader, why he used the language he did, what was part of his real childhood, how did each section connect and where would it go next.

As an extremely brilliant person who was an English major about 45 years ago and lover of the classics, the prof’s skills in asking open ended questions solicited from each of us our thoughts and personal connections to the text, all the while being done without judgment.  Each person was free to share whatever came to mind on one’s own or in response to someone else’s comments.

In May we finished the book and the semester ended.  I must say I never would have read that book on my own and even if I did, I never in a million years would have gotten so much out of it!  True learning as a community!

As a group and as the pandemic has continued to impact our ability to be with each other, we chose to keep the group going.  So, in June, we began to read classic poems and excerpts from classics that the prof would bring to us. Poems by Baldwin and Emerson; text by Woolf and Williams.  We have even enjoyed analyzing song lyrics such as those by Bob Dylan by listening to the songs and reading the lyrics a piece at a time, digging into the mysteriousness of each item we explore together.

Currently we are reading a more modern-day novel, Open City.  We have been on a new journey as a group, learning about the life of the narrator who is Nigerian and is a psychiatrist living in NYC around the year 2008.   Very different than Bradbury or the other texts yet lends to in-depth chats on what is happening, may happen and any connections to today’s world or to past texts we have shared.

Despite summer’s end approaching and the possibility of more of us returning to working in our actual work locations, however long that may last, we plan to keep going if we can into the fall and beyond.  I must say the shared book reading community has been a wonderful gift to me.  I have only missed 2 sessions and consider the meetings as highlights of my week.  To dig into literature that I never would have considered or taken time to pick apart has been enlightening and joyful.   I have learned much from the community while we have also gotten to know each other.  I have made new friends through the enjoyment of a pressure free  ‘book club’ . It has been a splendid experience and is one that I highly recommend to others who are passionate about literature.

I have to admit that when the idea was presented, I was not so sure of joining, mainly because of the book that had been selected; the Bradbury book, since he is not an fav of mine.  But, being that it was my prof who I greatly admire and respect running the community as well as  due to my intense drive to learn all I can through whatever experiences come my way, it became  a door to a new world.  By the end of the first night, I knew I was hooked.  What a way to stimulate my thinking and connecting in a non-judgmental way with other adults while in isolation and physical distancing!  And thank goodness for platforms such as Zoom to help ease the influence of the pandemic on all of us!

May I invite you to take the initiative to create shared reading groups with colleagues, friends and/or family to expand your horizons? I am certain you will find it enriching and fulfilling in so many ways!

Happy shared reading!

What I Know to be True

Summer comes to an end for me today. It was a summer like no other. There seemed to be little physical rest, even though I have maintained a tight lockdown at my house and canceled so many plans. There was little brain rest despite a nearly empty calendar. The pleasure books on my shelf were mostly untouched, and despite my every intention to unplug, I was online more than ever before. 

This summer, I actively worked to make sense of virtual teaching and learning, and I spent hours and hours looking for information, ideas, webinars, and workshops so that I could feel more prepared and confident to turn my brick and mortar classroom into a virtual one. My teacher toolbox overflows with ideas and strategies.

Anxiousness, uncertainty, nervousness. I try to remain calm. I’ll face this challenge. 

But so many tools and tips, platforms and PowerPoints, blogs and Bitmojis clog up my browser that I find it more than daunting to decide which few will work best for me, my students, and my subject area. When choosing the tech I will learn and use, I know for sure that I want to stay true to my pedagogy, my beliefs about learning and learners, teaching and teachers. After all, I am the same teacher though the method of delivery has flipped me upside down. 

In their book 180 Days, Gallagher and Kittle (2018) begin at the beginning: “Start with Beliefs.” How do our beliefs shape our practice? What matters? The authors recognize that it is hard to “break out of the herd,” but “planning doesn’t start with what and how questions. Planning starts with why.”

When we are stressed, we tend to rely on what is comfortable. We revert to our old ways, even when we previously incorporated a new practice. There is no doubt that this year will bring stress and discomfort. How can we stay true to our beliefs, to what matters, to what we know to be true?

As I create interactive lessons and digital documents, my beliefs become my litmus test. They anchor me as I make decisions about reading and writing, as I prioritize choice in a “pacing guide world”, as I structure synchronous and asynchronous lessons, and as I interact with students, caregivers, and colleagues. My beliefs serve as the foundation for my practice.

What do I know to be true?

  • I know that choice equals engagement.
  • I know that providing choice is a form of social justice.
  • I know that our reading lives matter.
  • I know that talk is essential to learning.
  • I know that volume does not equal rigor.
  • I know that when I serve as facilitator, I create an environment that supports student ownership over learning.
  • I know that we all deserve do-overs.

I identified these beliefs a few years ago and wrote them on a sticky note that hangs on the desk I will not use for several months. Now they live on a digital sticky note on my desktop. 

What are the philosophical underpinnings that anchor your actions? What do you know to be true about your students and your practice?

Take some time this week to curate a list of a few belief statements that are close to your heart and guide your teaching. Write them down and post them at your workstation.

May they be your anchor. May you remain true to your beliefs even when pulled into the many platforms and PowerPoints, blogs and Bitmojis that distract us from the real center of our work, our students. 

Abigail Turley is a 2019 Writing Project fellow. She is beginning her 22nd year as a high school English teacher in the West Chester Area School District, and she works as an independent literacy consultant. Abigail is currently preparing for virtual teaching and learning alongside her husband, also a teacher, and her three children who will be completing 5th grade, 9th grade, and freshman year in college online. In her free time, she enjoys peace and quiet and books. You can connect with her by searching the hashtag #twominutepd on Instagram and by emailing


by Abigail Turley

Last fall, I decided I’d had enough of the traditional syllabus or course outline that either sat in my students’ notebooks untouched or ended up in the trash unread. I’d rather get to know my students before I put on paper some kind of calendar or sequence of units, which I’d never be able to stick to anyway.

My co-teacher and I came up with an interactive stations activity to help students physically navigate the classroom, get to know the teachers and the classroom norms, and learn about the course content through collaboration and inquiry. We were thrilled at the results: loads of engagement and a culture of community and respect.

We vowed to never handout the traditional syllabus again.

Now that we are virtual, I’m thinking of ways to turn the traditional syllabus into an ACCESSIBLE and ACCESSED online resource for students. The purpose of this “syllabus” changes a bit when we are in a virtual environment, doesn’t it? I want to create a culture of trust, autonomy, respect, and community while introducing some important information that students will need to know for navigating this new learning experience. I need to introduce them to the learning space, help them create new understandings of participation, and encourage them as they rethink collaboration. My syllabus needs to be constructed in a way that supports them in these endeavors.

The platform is important. Of course, your LMS would be an easy way to create and post the info. But linking to Google Slides or Padlet would offer some visual appeal as well as streamlined organization. Keeping all of the important beginning of the year info in one place will be helpful to my students and their caregivers.

Now let’s make it visually appealing. How about embedding a video where you talk through a part of your syllabus, demonstrate how to use an online learning platform, or introduce yourself? Those trendy Bitmoji classrooms provide visual hyperlinks to resources and information.

How do we decide what to include in this new syllabus? I’ve been thinking about what I would need as a virtual learner: a syllabus that addresses my fears about virtual learning, what I want to know that I can’t find out by looking around a classroom or asking the kid next to me, and what will help me as I work independently and asynchronously.

Check to see if a student can answer all of these questions by referring to your virtual syllabus:

  1. How do I reach the teacher?
  2. What is this course about?
  3. What are the major units of study and how will choice be part of the units?
  4. Where do I find (materials, resources, assignments, recorded lessons, live Zoom links)?
  5. How do I access texts, both assigned and independently chosen?
  6. What do I do if I’m going to be absent or need an extension?
  7. What are your expectations of me as a learner?
  8. What are my rights as a learner?
  9. What do my caregivers need to know to support me at home?
  10. How do I know that you trust and respect me?

What I will not include:

  1. Weighting, points, or any other mention of grades
  2. A late policy or anything that deducts points for lateness based on any formula

These two things go against my pedagogy and do not fit my purpose: to create a culture of trust, autonomy, respect, and community while introducing some important information that students will need to know for navigating this new learning experience.

I don’t envision this new virtual syllabus as anything like my old once-and-done, set-in-stone photocopied paper. It’s a living, breathing, evolving space. I imagine it will grow and change as I get to know my students and their strengths and needs.

Out with the old, in with the new. Let’s toss that old digital file in the trash and rethink the syllabus.

Abigail Turley is a 2019 Writing Project fellow. She is beginning her 22nd year as a high school English teacher in the West Chester Area School District, and she works as an independent literacy consultant. Abigail is currently preparing for virtual teaching and learning alongside her husband, also a teacher, and her three children who will be completing 5th grade, 9th grade, and freshman year in college online. In her free time, she enjoys peace and quiet and books. You can find more of her virtual teaching tips by searching the hashtag #twominutepd on Instagram.

Call for Blog Posts

The PAWLP Blog would like to hear from you! How has distance learning and/or summer professional development helped you to prepare for the 2020-2021 school year? How are you re-envisioning your brick and mortar best practices to meet the needs of online and hybrid teaching?

Blog posts will be featured in our Distance Learning column each Monday. Please email if you are interested or would like to find out more information.