How teachers rose to the challenge of making online learning engaging and fun

In the classroom, Yaritza Villalba used to transform history lessons into fun events like rap battles and speakeasies with root beer and students dressed as 1920s celebrities.

For remote teaching, the New York City high school teacher turned to Flipgrid, a video-sharing tool, to create a similar sense of interaction. She kicked off the year by cheerfully introducing herself in a video and asked students to share a video album of songs that expressed their feelings. She had parents share their skills for a virtual talent show and got videos of a mom singing and a dad playing piano. The lively visuals helped her build relationships in a way that emails and phone calls can’t match.

“I teach students who are teenage parents, who live in shelters, who struggle with neglect and have been incarcerated,” says Villalba of her small public school that helps students up to age 21 earn their diplomas.

“My job is not only to teach them history, but to do it in a way where they know they are loved. So they need to see a friendly face, and I need to see their faces to know how they’re doing.”

Female teacher stands near a row of school lockers

Yaritza Villalba (photo by Andrew Kist)

With the school year in full swing, teachers around the world are adapting to completely new ways of instructing and engaging with students during the pandemic. Though many have spent careers in classrooms with paper and pens, they are now finding a rhythm with remote and hybrid classes and virtual office hours. They are taking on the steep challenge of reinventing coursework and mastering new technologies to connect with students and make online school a little more fun.

And as they continue to find new ways to teach from afar, they’re shaping the global world of remote learning and possibly classrooms of the future.

At Research and Service High School, Villalba uses Flipgrid to teach history in a culturally responsible way by connecting lessons to what’s meaningful to students. She recently asked them to make a video on giving a historical figure a superpower, with options to narrate on camera, make a movie or storyboard a comic book.

One student gave Mohandas K. Gandhi muscles of the Incredible Hulk. Another gave Malcolm X the power of mind control.

“My students are learning in a way many people couldn’t fathom,” says Villalba. “I want them to understand that anything is possible.”

Woman smiles while working in front of a keyboard and computer

Angela Gillen talks to her students on Teams. (Photo courtesy of Gillen)

Across the Atlantic in England, Angela Gillen marvels at how far she and her colleagues have come since March, when their campus closed and they quickly learned how to use Microsoft Teams to keep students engaged.

“We were like, ‘Oh, what’s this?’ and trying to ring each other,” says Gillen, a curriculum leader and teacher at North Lindsey College in the semi-rural town of Scunthorpe. “And now look where we are.”

Gillen, who oversees and teaches business, travel and other curriculum, has gone from using Teams only for video calls between teachers to using it as a secure, integrated education platform for live instruction, office hours and formal lesson plans. It’s where she assigns, tracks, receives and grades assignments — a streamlined system that has replaced a once unwieldy process.

“It’s really easy for students to turn in assignments on Teams,” says Gillen. “It’s all centralized. I get probably about 300 emails a day, so I no longer have to dig around looking for assignments.”

Gillen finds the Education Insights app in Teams particularly helpful for monitoring student interaction with assignments. The tool helps her spot trends like the nocturnal habits of her students, who often do homework from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. It helps her know when students are struggling at home — an especially difficult task without regular, in-person classes.

“Sometimes it’s hard to know what’s going on, so it’s important we’re able to see students on Teams and track how well they’re getting on,” Gillen says. “Insights is great for seeing who’s handed in an assignment, who’s viewed it, who’s not even started. So we’re able to target support and keep students on track.”

Male teacher stands in front of a screen that says History Blocks and Minecraft: Education Edition

Francisco Tupy (photo courtesy of Tupy)

A digital literacy teacher in Brazil, Francisco Tupy has long been passionate about using Minecraft: Education Edition to teach coding, 3D modeling, culture and citizenship. He wrote his dissertation on the world-building game for his doctorate in communication and applied games. With UNESCO, he developed History Blocks, a project to re-create ruined world heritage sites in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan using the immersive game.

Tupy is now using Minecraft: Education Edition to make remote classes more fun and interesting. Instead of lecturing on camera, he often uses his favorite game.

“I try to motivate my students to pay attention, not only for the content, but as a way of life,” says Tupy, who teaches at Colégio Visconde de Porto Seguro, a private Portuguese-German school for elementary to high school students in São Paulo.

For a lesson on online etiquette, he built a Minecraft journey of a hero muting his mic and working nicely with students. For a lesson on nuclear engineering, his blocky avatar roamed inside a virtual nuclear lab complete with white-coated scientists.

“In Minecraft, each game, each save, each world is a big bank of ideas and creativity,” he says. “It opens the gate for understanding.”

Teacher Luis Oliveira recalls the pain of coming to America from Portugal as a boy who didn’t understand English. He remembers the distress of being an outsider with no ability to express himself. It’s why he works hard and uses technology to teach English language learners at Middletown High School in Rhode Island.

“I want students to be included,” says Oliveira, who is also the school’s director of unified arts. “I want them to have a voice.”

Male teacher teaching students outside on grass while social distancing

Luis Oliveira, left, teaching outside at Middletown High School in Rhode Island. (photo courtesy of Oliveira)

Tools that help his students practice and participate have become even more important with the current mix of remote and in-person instruction at his school. Because his students are usually shy about their language skills, Oliveira asks them to record assignments in Flipgrid instead of making them speak in front of class. He uses the tool’s MixTapes feature to compile videos that show their progress.

“I can tell them a thousand times that their English is improving, but seeing is believing,” he says. “I can say, ‘Look at your video in September. You were speaking in Spanish. Now in March, you’re using English with more description.’ That’s where the amazing part happens.”

His students consider Immersive Reader, a tool to improve reading and writing, a “lifesaver” with its picture dictionary and features for narration, translation and syllable highlights. The free tool is built into Teams, Outlook, the Edge browser and other apps.

Oliveira’s students also like when he uses Microsoft Translator, a translation app, to speak in their language, which includes Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Japanese and Indonesian in this year’s class.

Lately, he has been experimenting with live, translated captions in PowerPoint, which provide real-time subtitles of a speaker’s presentation in a chosen language. The tool can help his students understand presentations in English and give presentations in their native tongue.

“The magic is simple. It allows students to understand what is going on in classes that are in English,” Oliveira says. “And if you’re in social studies and your teacher wants you to present on the U.S. Civil War, you could do it in Spanish or Arabic. The material is the same.”

My students are learning in a way many people couldn’t fathom. I want them to understand that anything is possible.

Kiran Bala was nervous about teaching her first online lesson when Kamla Nehru Public School in India began remote instruction in April. She didn’t have much digital technology experience. It had only been a few months since her principal had summoned her to her office and demanded to see her phone as proof that Bala had installed Teams as instructed. Bala hadn’t and quickly downloaded the app while standing in front of her boss.

An English teacher, Bala had expected to see her nearly 200 grade 12 students online that first day. Then she learned the call would have even more people; her large school had invited principals and students from other schools to watch her lesson.

Female teacher working at a laptop in a classroom with a colorful background

Kiran Bala (photo courtesy of Bala)

“You can very well imagine the butterflies in my stomach,” Bala says jokingly.

Eight months later, she has become comfortable teaching online. She starts each class with a meditation and records her lessons to help students review material. She hosts well-being calls with them so they can share their favorite Punjabi songs and Bollywood movie clips, celebrate birthdays and dance. They often use a Teams feature called Together mode, which shows participants as if they’re sitting next to each other, to make it feel more like a classroom.

“We’re missing school so much,” Bala says of her students, who are mostly first-generation learners from nearby farming villages in the country’s Punjab region. “Sometimes we switch on the cameras and just talk casually with a cup of coffee or tea. No studies on our well-being call.”

She’s noticed that remote teaching has made classes more inclusive for students who struggle to speak up in person. They often find it easier to participate by using the Team’s “raise hand” button or typing comments and questions in the chat window.

“We are thankful for the Teams app because it helps include more students,” Bala says. “We are thankful for all of the features.”

A teacher for 17 years, she credits the school, her principal and technology for helping her learn 21st century skills that she can impart to her students, as well as help keep them engaged and learning in a challenging time.

“I feel that I’ve grown up when it comes to my professional development,” she says. “And today I’m part of this successful remote learning journey of my school.”

Learn more about educational resources at Microsoft’s page for distance and remote learning.

Lead image: Yaritza Villalba (photo by Andrew Kist)