Kate LaBarbera teaches 2nd grade at the K-5 Carlton Avenue School in San Jose, Calif. Jaison Naiker teaches a social-emotional learning seminar called Connections to 7th graders at Surprise Lake Middle School in Milton, Wash.
Naiker was curious about how he might use new tech tools in his instruction even before the pandemic. LaBarbera, on the other hand, only used classroom technology on a limited basis, when it was necessary.
But both experimented with new technologies way outside their comfort zones during the pandemic, and, in the process, they developed new technology skills that they plan to keep using in the classroom next school year and beyond. They also have some strong opinions about how schools ought to tailor tech-related professional development so teachers—and, by extension, students—get the most out of it.
The following Q&A is composed of interviews conducted separately this month. Naiker and LaBarbera’s comments were edited for length and clarity.
How much comfort did you have using technology as a teaching tool prior to the pandemic?
Naiker: Being , the age group that I’m in, I feel like I grew up learning all this technology as well. I’d say I was above average in terms of using it.
LaBarbera: We’re in a very tech-heavy district. I’m 51, so I don’t like to think of myself as old. I used technology and I tried, but I wasn’t as innovative with it. It was more in place of a worksheet instead of a teaching tool—just something different to keep the kids engaged.
I used things like Seesaw and Google Classroom, but not the way I do it now. Before it was more teacher-friendly, and now it’s more student-based, so they can access it, kind of like a digital portfolio. Before it was like busywork.
Where did you turn to learn the new technology tools you wanted to incorporate into the classroom?
Naiker: I was trying to find a way of doing the old Socratic seminar remotely without having students actually discuss out loud, because they were so hesitant. I Googled in the words “socratic seminar remote,” or “socratic seminar digital,” and Parlay was one of the first things that came up as a tool. [The Parlay tool offers a platform for teachers to select discussion prompts, collect students’ written responses, and facilitate thoughtful dialogue.]
I felt like because of my comfort with technology, I was able to walk myself through quite a bit. A lot of these companies have done a really good job of creating these tutorials. That was the first thing that I went to—I’m going to watch this video and see an example of how this works.
LaBarbera: Prior to the pandemic, I had agreed to take a class [on online and blended learning, at the Krause Center for Innovation at Foothill College] over the summer with a friend. The friend ended up not taking the class, and I almost bailed out. But I decided to go ahead and do it. It was really out of my comfort zone. Of course, the class went to being taught online. To be taking a class virtually and teaching a class [remotely] at the same time was actually the best situation ever. Had I taken this class in person, I would not have used the stuff the way I’m using it now. From that group and cohort, then I signed up to get my online and blended learning credential.
What’s an example of a new tech skill you developed during the pandemic, or a tool you started using to engage students?
LaBarbera: In the class, I was actually able to create work that my students would do the next week. In most of the classes I’ve taken, that doesn’t happen. You’re doing busywork. You’re not doing work that directly goes to your students. I created lesson plans, videos—everything was very pertinent.
Before, on Flipgrid and Quizizz, I would just search and see if somebody had already made what I was looking for. Now I’m creating my own things on those same platforms. Before, I never would have made an assignment on my own on Seesaw. I would have found someone else’s, and if it didn’t quite work, oh well, it was already made for me.
I didn’t know how to do a poll before. The kids love the polls. Every day now, if I don’t have a poll they’re so disappointed.
Naiker: I started using podcasts to introduce the students to a new way to learn. A lot of people are familiar with all the top podcasts, but they don’t necessarily know what they’re designed for or how they could be beneficial to them. So I had the students listen to a few podcasts—around MLK Day, we did one based on what they won’t teach you in school, which was really fun only because it had an edgy title. When you give a student something that sounds a little bit edgy, immediately their engagement goes through the roof. One of the great ones I found is The Big Fib—two people discuss what their line of work is, and you as the listener have to determine which one of the two people are lying or actually the expert.
The advice I gave to my colleagues was, instead of trying to learn something new, take some of these options that we have been using and just get really, really ridiculously good at using these options.
How much more comfortable do you feel using technology in the classroom now than you did before the pandemic?
LaBarbera: I’m on a pretty young, tech-savvy team. Normally, I was the one saying, “I don’t know how to do that.” After taking the class, there were some things that I wanted to do that they weren’t even really willing to do.
One of the first videos I made was on what to do if you get stuck. Walk away from your computer, take a break, send a message to your teacher, or let it go. Nothing is that important that you have to do it right now. I would get stuck too, while making the video. A lot of the experience was feeling the frustration that our students might be experiencing as well. Our professors would get kicked off Zoom, so you could kind of see how they handle it.
The class was life-changing. I don’t know that I would have been this passionate about teaching online learners.
Naiker: One of the greatest things that students were so cool about, when you say to them, “I’m learning through this process as well, just as you guys are, I’m going to be trying a few things, they may blow up in my face, but they may be really, really awesome.” Showing students it’s OK to make mistakes, it’s OK to fail sometimes, you’ve got to take some chances.
What advice would you give to administrators putting together professional development opportunities for teachers like you?
LaBarbera: A lot of us spent a lot of time learning how to teach online, and a lot of platforms had their own trainings. But we didn’t get paid for them. The hours that it saved me for sure were a payback. I’m now kind of a Zoom expert based on the classes that I took through Zoom. But we didn’t get paid for them. It would be great for extra PD to be paid for, or to have been given paid time [during work hours] for it.
Naiker: Going into the summer of 2020, we were being bombarded with the number of technology options that were out there. The advice I gave to my colleagues was, instead of trying to learn something new, take some of these options that we have been using and just get really, really ridiculously good at using these options.
Every time you hear about a new technology tool, you feel like somebody’s trying to sell you something. That feeling quickly got old, versus a colleague teaching you, “This has been really working for me in my classroom.”
We have experts within our building who know the ins and outs of all of these tools. Instead of trying to go through these third parties or sit in on webinars, why don’t we lean on the folks who are in the background? You’re much more likely to stay engaged when you’re listening to your colleagues teach you about something versus somebody that you probably won’t see in the next week or month or two.
The idea of developing teacher leaders has always been something that has been really valuable. Relying on the cheerleaders in your building to be able to help disseminate information regarding new tech that they are potentially interested in. I don’t know that I could emphasize enough that there are teachers across this nation who are so intelligent, so valuable, who are being underutilized. I know that that’s possibly because they are overworked and underappreciated. I also believe that when you give them the opportunities like that to take leadership over something like a digital tool that could be super powerful for their students, I think that they’ll rise to the occasion.