From tech to teaching strategies, educators are doing their best to reach students in remote, hybrid, and in-person classroom environments. They still face unique challenges, including flagging student engagement online and accommodating special needs in remote environments.
We talked to two teachers who are members of Backpack Interactive’s Teacher Council, Dannielle Rivera and Daniel Nero, to find out which digital tools are helping them effectively reach students, how their teaching plans continue to evolve, and the future of education technology in their classrooms.
Dannielle Rivera teaches 2nd grade in a public school in suburban Southern California. Daniel Nero is a fourth-year English teacher at a Title I high school in Las Vegas, Nevada. These conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Integrating edTech into Remote Learning
How are you currently teaching? Hybrid? Remote only? How’s it going?
Dannielle Rivera: I’m completely remote. I’m the grade level chair for my department. I created a Google website and told my teachers we were going to create tech tutorial videos so [students and parents] can access them on their own. The biggest feat [is] tech knowledge for parents and students. Now when parents watch [our tutorials], they’re not messaging me like, “Oh, my gosh, I can’t do this.”
Daniel Nero: It’s hybrid. Some of my students are in person, whereas I’m, as you can see, at home. But I could always jump into the building if I wanted to teach.
What was your remote teaching plan like last September? Which digital tools did you start out using?
DR: The first two weeks was just teaching the kids how to log on. I tried to premeditate those things. I made their Clever badges and attached them to pre-made folders. They’re 7 and 8. As resilient as they are, I have to remind myself what is age-appropriate. To what extent can I push them?
At first, we were converting everything to digital worksheets. We would screenshot the page and make it a background on Google Slides. Then we switched over to Jamboard because on Google Slides, they couldn’t annotate. We just had to learn over time.
DN: When I teach in person, there’s a lot of paper, there’s a lot of hands-on activities. And all of that disappeared when we switched over to remote learning. I had to digitize all of the texts that we’re [reading].
A lot of the skills that we did on paper—like annotation, highlighting, taking notes, answering questions—all of that also became digitized, and I had a lot of trouble transferring those necessary skills to remote instruction because I had a hard time finding the tools to be able to do that.
I was using Google Docs, collaborative Google Slides, and Pear Deck, but I decided to cut back on a lot of these apps and try to make it as simple, consistent, and doable for the kids.
How has your remote teaching plan evolved?
DN: One thing that I brought into remote learning is socio-emotional learning. Because a lot of our kids right now are struggling, not only academically, but emotionally. A lot of things that happen at home are aggravated because they’re stuck at home. I just wanted to check in on them and tie social-emotional learning to what we’ve read, or what has happened in the news.
Pairing Instructional Strategies for Remote Learning with Digital Tools
Which specific modes of teaching have you gravitated toward?
DR: For math, we use whole group instruction and independent instruction. Students are also given the opportunity to work collaboratively in small groups in Google Meet rooms. I’ve evolved to [using] Jamboard and the HoverCam. Jamboard is great, but there is just something about pencil and paper. They can either solve the problems and show their work digitally through Jamboard, or they can solve it on pencil and paper or whiteboard and a marker and take a picture of their work. After taking a picture, students then insert the image into their Jamboard assignment, which is linked to our Google Classroom.
Language arts is an orchestrated set of tasks and lessons, and we have a lot of moving pieces. It entails 1:1 assessments, whole group instruction, small group instruction, and group work through Google Meet rooms. Because we have kids that go to reading intervention groups or speech, we also have independent work.
DN: We mostly do synchronous instruction through Zoom. Regardless of whether the students are in person or not, they’re on Zoom. On Fridays, we have one-on-one office hours, and students jump into the Zoom call based on [their needs]. Within the Zoom call we sometimes go into breakout rooms where we have small group instruction. So we’re trying to mimic what we had in person, but in an online setting.
What activity, subject, practice have you found the most difficult to translate to remote learning?
DN: Discussions. I love to talk to students, especially if we’re talking about the text that we’re tackling. But because of remote learning, I feel like a lot of the students are very quiet, shy, or just not willing to participate. I truly miss discussions because I get to see the students’ faces. I get to hear their voices. I get to hear their opinions. But in online settings, all I see are black screens sometimes.
Using edTech and SEL to Reach Struggling Students and Promote Self-Efficacy
What strategies or tools have you tried to reach students who are struggling with remote learning?
DR: Our special needs students are truly struggling. This is not the proper way of learning for them. My heart breaks for them. Because many of their parents have to work, the kids that are thriving are the kids who have a grandparent sitting with them.
While students are working on independent work, I open up another Google Meets room for students that are stuck or need help with a problem. This alleviates them from reaching their frustration level.
I’ve also adapted the lessons. When I try to meet with the parents of my struggling students, I really adjust their work. For example, if it takes four problems to complete an exit ticket or complete an assessment, I tell the parents, “You pick two.”
I also like to focus on the social-emotional aspect. What should be the forefront of our concern is the social-emotional states of our students. That has to be a priority because if that is not in tune, then they can’t do the academics.
DN: For the students who are struggling, or just about grade level, I put a lot of scaffolds in my lessons. Everything is scaffolded up to the assessment. I tell them that at the beginning of each class. “We’re going to have this as the assessment today, and everything that you’re going to do for the next hour, you’re going to need to show me for your exit ticket.”
How has remote learning fostered positive outcomes in your students?
DR: They’re becoming more tech savvy. They’ve become more responsible in some ways, like taking ownership of their work. These are the kids that are succeeding. Obviously, a lot of things can become frustrating, so we’ve had our share of breakdowns. They’ve really had to learn how to self-regulate their emotions. I feel like their coping mechanisms have gotten better in times of struggle.
DN: Student accountability. On Pear Deck, I can see who is writing and who is not writing, and I would narrate on Zoom, “Awesome! Thanks, Ashley, for giving me your answer. I’m waiting on four more people to respond to this prompt.” A lot of the students are also starting to become critics of their own writing. It’s related to the students finding a way to sustain themselves in their writing and their reading. That makes me feel good. At least for me, that’s my responsibility as a teacher. I’m there to guide them, but once they’re ready to fly free, they can.
How edTech Product Designers Can Address Real Classroom Needs
As you consider returning to the classroom for full-time instruction, which elements from remote or hybrid learning would you continue to use?
DR: One of the things that I’ve learned is grace and being more gracious towards parents. I’ve always considered myself to communicate well with parents, but I feel like I’ve just learned how to talk to parents a little bit differently.
I would also take a lot of the tutorials that we do. Let’s say a student is struggling, and a parent can’t meet with me. I can record a screencast of a demo. I feel like you waste so much more time trying to coordinate or schedule meetings. You can definitely hold parent teacher conferences virtually. There are these families that bend over backwards to try to make it in the middle of the day when they can just pop on their phones and not have to deal with driving and stuff.
We are living in Google Classroom right now. And I’d definitely love to take that with me into the normal classroom. I was already using Google Classroom quite a bit, but now we have this archive of videos, so independent work in a classroom will look so different now. I feel like it will free me up to meet with small groups more.
DN: Consistency and the simplicity of my lessons. It’s working right now, so it should work in the classroom with a printer and paper and all that stuff. I think it should be fun.
The strategy that I would hold on to even more is to just make sure that I put the students first. Sometimes I’ll be doing my lesson, and the students are not responding or I’m having low participation, and I get frustrated as a teacher. I just have to keep reminding myself that this is our new normal right now, and we have no idea what’s happening to our students on the inside or behind the screen, at home. So I just have to bring myself back down to reality. You don’t know what’s happening. And you have to give them that.
What’s something that you wish one of your current learning products did that it doesn’t currently do?
DR: I wish more of the products had SEL components ingrained into them. For example, when they’re taking an assessment, iReady has them take a “brain break,” like breathing exercises or stopping to do something active.
I wish more products had video tutorials for students and parents. I wish some of the programs had a live chat with customer service so I could solve problems faster.
I wish there was a way to set up my break out rooms in Google Meet, name them, and save the grouping settings. That way I wouldn’t have to make new break out groups every single time.
DN: I would like to be able to link to a text in Pear Deck, so students could annotate that whole passage. Right now, I have to chunk the texts out into different slides. I also wish it had a student comment function. Only teachers can comment.
Using Teacher Feedback to Shape the Future of Education Technology
From onboarding parents to anticipating student needs, teachers are working overtime to ensure that their students are mastering content and staying safe, healthy, and balanced.
When edTech products don’t rise to meet teachers’ demands for flexibility or SEL content, they find work-arounds and tailor solutions to the needs of their own classrooms.
Product owners can still do more to understand how teachers use and adapt their digital tools. By conducting additional UXR, testing products in real or remote classrooms, and drawing on the insights of the Backpack Interactive Teacher Council, your next edTech product can help teachers meet even more students where they are.