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With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Teaching Opinion

Teacher-Recommended Tools for Online Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 09, 2020 14 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question of the week is:

What are your up to three “go-to” online tools this year? Please explain in detail how you use each one, including linked examples.

In Part One, Theresa Wills, Ph.D., Laurie Manville, and Cristiane Galvão, Ed.D., “kick-off” the series.

Today, Dr. Irina McGrath, Michelle Shory, Alice Mercer, Adriana Villavicencio, and many readers share their suggestions.

Padlet & Google Slides

Dr. Irina McGrath is an ESL expert and English-language learner herself. She serves the Jefferson County public schools in Kentucky as an education recovery specialist. She is a co-director of the Louisville Writing Project (LWP) and a University of Louisville & Indiana University Southeast adjunct who teaches ESL/ENL instruction as well as assessment, literature, and cultural- and linguistic-diversity courses.

Michelle Shory, Ed.S., is a district ESL instructional coach in the Jefferson County public schools. She is passionate about literacy and helped establish Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library in Louisville, Ky. Michelle grew up in Oshkosh, Wis. She loves reading, running, weight training, and instructional design.

Since the late 2000s, technology in the classroom setting has steadily increased in popularity and in turn has led to drastic improvements in the tools available to teachers. Prior to this year, technology was optional and utilized on occasion when applicable and when the teacher felt comfortable with new programs; however, with the outbreak of COVID-19 in the United States, the use of technology in classrooms has changed from casual and varied to necessary and constant. The inclusion of technology into the classroom shifted from gradual increments to a harsh upward spike. Teachers of all levels of technological background are now forced to rely on technology and various apps and platforms to engage students in learning and make content comprehensible.

The silver lining in this change in educational scenery is the growth of companies dedicated to online education and also several companies that have offered educators premium products at no cost during these difficult times. With all of the choices available to the modern teacher, we have noted several of our favorites that have made our “go-to” list, which include a number of apps such as Padlet and Google Slides.

Padlet is excellent for quick responses: Students can interact with each other and their teacher in a variety of layouts. Content can be streamed as a top-to-bottom feed, displayed on a bulletin board, presented in a chat-like format, or stacked in columns. The website contains several fun features such as maps that allow students to create a map of the countries they are from and tell a story about their journeys or describe their home country holidays and traditions. Another feature is the timeline activity that lets students plot the settings of a picture book or a novel and then write a summary. Padlet allows students to type their responses, upload files, include photos, and search for and insert images, videos, and GIFs from the internet. It even has an option for students to voice record their comments, which is extremely helpful for English-learners who are not yet comfortable with using written language.

Google Slides is another great tool that allows English-learners to communicate with others and demonstrate knowledge through words and images. One feature we love and believe is very helpful for ELs is the “Voice Type Speaker Notes,” which is located under the Tools tab. Since Google Slides is part of the Google suite, it can incorporate any of the 121 languages in its database and allow EL students to voice-type speaker notes in their native language. The caveat is that it only works for slides speaker notes; if students want to use voice typing on the actual slides, they will need to download the Slides Translator add-on. Luckily, add-ons are easy to install just by clicking the “Add-ons” tab, selecting “Get add-ons,” then typing in “Slides Translator” and clicking “Install.” In addition to voice-typing, the Slides Translator add-on allows any text in Google slides to be translated into different languages. This can be helpful to ELs who are viewing their teacher’s Google Slides’ presentation and they stumble upon unfamiliar words. Teachers can use this add-on to incorporate content using different languages into their presentations.

In addition to language tools, Google Slides allows ELs to incorporate art into their work and express their thoughts and feelings through colors and images. One of our favorite activities is the Google Slides collaborative deck. During this activity, English-learners are assigned a slide that they get to share their takeaways on the topic discussed in class and be creative with how they display their thoughts. Students can use images and written words to create their personal take on the discussion and demonstrate it to their class.

As teachers try to find engaging ways to stimulate their classes online, we suggest they try out Padlet and Google Slides. Both provide a variety of options for English-learners to choose from, which in turn allows for the students to feel invigorated while learning and successful at accomplishing a task.

Here is a Google Slides Example


Alice Mercer teaches 4th grade at an elementary school in Sacramento, Calif. She started her career in Oakland, Calif., and moved to Sacramento in 2001. She is the parent of a now-adult son with ASD and is a caregiver to her husband who is medically fragile. Alice is active in her union and on social media:

My go-to education technology outside of Zoom and Google Classroom (which are district set platforms) is Nearpod. Here is why I use it, how I use it, and what was difficult to get over at first (and how I overcame that).

Nearpod is an add-on to Google Slides, but it has its own ecosystem that will let you create slides and activities entirely within Nearpod itself. It lets you create slideshows with interactive activities that you can either present in real time to students (virtually or in person), or that they can go through at their own pace.

I use it mostly for that awkward period between when I’ve introduced a concept or a lesson I am teaching and when students work on it independently, although you could use it for independent practice, review, or assessment if you wanted (which I have also done). You can insert a quiz, a poll, a fill in the blank, or a matching-pairs activity. You can have students draw or draw on diagrams, or do open-ended questions. You can give students the option of leaving a voice comment instead of typing in answers on open-ended questions (giving some differentiation). There’s even a quiz competition, Time to Climb, that works like Kahoot! but has a better interface for synchronous distance learning.

The biggest problem is that in distance learning, you cannot just “drop” a link in Zoom chat when your kids are on Chromebooks; because of Chromebook security issues, the link cannot be “clicked” on nor can it be copied. I use the Nearpod code option and have a permanent link to Nearpod from Clever, which is our district’s portal for students. This requires fewer clicks than putting it in Google Classroom, since Clever is the default homepage. I’ve then taught students to have their white boards and write down the code which I have in my background, type into chat, and repeat. It’s short enough to manage that way.

It has a pretty intuitive interface for both students and teachers. Because I can monitor what students are doing in real time, this is invaluable to see where students are in my teaching. For this reason, it’s my go-to application in distance learning.

Tools that “engage reluctant students”

Dr. Adriana Villavicencio is an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine. Her research is focused on K-12 educational policy and school practice that deepens or disrupts inequities for minoritized communities of students and families. She began her career in education as a middle and high school English teacher:

When I learned last spring that our classes would be moving to Zoom, my reactions were a mix of self-doubt, trepidation, and a desire to run away until the end of the pandemic. But after gathering up my wits and my syllabus, I convinced myself that it would not only be doable but also an opportunity to develop new skills and engage with students in ways that were perhaps more creative, engaging, and inclusive. An important part of this renewed sense of hope and purpose came from familiarizing myself with and utilizing online platforms that helped me recreate and reimagine student participation.

I am a university professor, but my recommendations for a few “go-to” online tools come from my experience teaching over the summer in a K-12 teacher-credentialing program. One of the course’s major assignments required teacher-candidates to create and deliver an online lesson to the class. I was inspired not only by the thoughtfulness of the content but by the ways they used online spaces to engage reluctant students and generate discussions that might not have existed otherwise.

One of the tools that I used during our first class together and which many students chose to utilize in subsequent sessions is Google’s Jamboard. It’s a collaborative, digital white board and is easy to miss even for those of us who use Google platforms daily. I imagine the platform is so named because it is a space where collaborators can metaphorically “jam”.... sharing ideas in an intimate space, improvising on the spot, and riffing off one another’s so the experience is enhanced by the collective. Because this course was focused on identifying and grappling with the history and purpose of schooling, I placed one of three images that spoke to this theme on each board. Students were given 90 seconds to examine the figures and three minutes to respond by adding a comment or a question in an anonymous “sticky note.” On a blank board, students also added images that represented their own perspective on the purpose of schooling. (Additionally, students can select the “pen” and circle or add an exclamation to another student’s note—an activity we used in other classes). By the first 10 minutes of our course, every student had engaged with existing material, shared their own reflections, and “heard” the perspectives of their peers.

By Week 3, when the students started delivering their own lessons, a few online platforms stood out for their contribution to student engagement and classroom discussion. Kahoot, a game-based learning platform, can be woven effortlessly into a lesson as a way of reviewing yesterday’s lesson, last night’s reading, or checking in on understanding. For one class, the students created a four-question Kahoot quiz with factual questions about civil rights and school integration. The platform is designed to resemble a game show of sorts with four colorful answer choices, a timer (which the creator can set), and background music. Kahoot provides a low-stakes way to engage in the activity, while the “results” page (bar graphs that show correct responses) provides the teacher with a sense of the class’ knowledge.

Answer Garden is another platform that elicits real-time audience participation. Unlike Kahoot (which requires opening another site and entering a classroom code), Answer Garden requires that students scan a QR code with their phones, which automatically takes them to a single prompt. Answer Garden also has the benefit of generating a word cloud to capture students’ responses.

In contrast, Peardeck is more open-ended. In our session on slavery and reconstruction, the student-teachers posed five questions based on the course materials. Responses in Peardeck are recorded in real time but can also be exported into an Excel spreadsheet, which may be useful for asynchronous classrooms as well.

These online tools are effective because they are interactive and user-friendly (even for those of us who may be intimidated by technology). They can also be used as a springboard for small-group discussions in Zoom breakout rooms. Most importantly, they elicit participation from those who might be less comfortable with sharing in a large group or who may feel marginalized for voicing certain perspectives. Regardless of the tool, however, effective remote instruction still requires planning that strategically incorporates online platforms into existing curricula and strong facilitation from the instructor—which is as essential online as it is in person.

Comments From Readers

Jim Smith:

My role is multidimensional. I am an adjunct professor with Centralia College in Washington. I am using Zoom and EdThena to support and extend my online teaching.

I am also a special education resource teacher for North Thurston Public Schools. In this role, I use Flipgrid, Zoom, Boom Cards, Epic, Freckle, Lexia Reading, ReadLive, and many more.

Susie Naughton:

Making short videos on Adobe Spark has been great—especially creating an introduction of myself for my students (I teach ESL at a local community college).

Debbie Gerace Kunes:


Avriel Ogawa:

Google slides; I can watch the students work in grid view.

Katie Brooks:

Jamboard and Canva

Sharon Duffy Eilts:

Google Classroom, Graphic Converter, I Love PDF

Kim Counihan:

I’ve created digital workbooks out of Google slides and use Slip-in-slides to add new pages as we go along. I Also love Edpuzzle.

Rachelle Berquist Poth:

Buncee, Nearpod, Formative

Thanks to Irina, Michelle, Alice, Adriana, and to readers, for their contributions!

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