Remember during Covid-19 and months of lockdown, when educators had to quickly adapt to using technology to facilitate student learning? As we transitioned to teaching classes on Zoom rather than in person, schools and educators explored previously underutilized technology to engage students and enhance their at-home learning experience, using applications like Nearpod, Pear Deck, Jamboard, Flip (formerly Flipgrid), and Padlet to facilitate student reflection, discussion, and engagement.
With in-person instruction it may be tempting to leave these applications in the past. But I’ve found that technology, particularly platforms that allow students to engage in thoughtful and anonymous discussions through written posts, is as vital as ever, especially when inviting students to explore complex and even difficult subjects in class.
Two years ago, following a series of incidents at a school event that did not align with our values and caused harm to many individuals, I wanted to provide a space for my students to reflect on what had happened and how this impacted our community. While I thought it was important to dedicate class time to the discussion because it affected my students and was on their minds and in their hearts, I also knew that these incidents related to topics we covered in my ninth-grade English class and upper-level African American Literature class.
Both of these classes included content that explored complex human relationships and harm done to individuals and communities. Given that I always prompt students to consider how the texts we read connect to their experiences and the world around them, I knew I had to provide time and space for my students to reflect on these events at our school.
I also knew, however, it was imperative that these discussions be handled in a thoughtful, respectful, and developmentally appropriate manner for both my ninth-grade and 12th-grade students. I was keenly aware that without deliberate scaffolding, shared community agreements, and clearly communicated parameters, the discussion could go off the rails and even cause harm, rather than allowing students to process in a productive manner and reflect on the larger issues as they related to not only the texts we were reading, but also what had happened in our community and how we could begin to move forward.
Technology as a discussion tool
In designing the discussions, I decided to use Nearpod, an add-on to Google Slides that allows the user to make slide shows interactive. I had utilized Nearpod to facilitate student reflection and discussions throughout Covid, but I hadn’t relied on it as much since returning to in-person learning. When thinking about how to scaffold this particular discussion, I knew that Nearpod would be the ideal tool, as it offers a variety of features, including quizzes, polls, and the ability to host live discussions, with students responding to questions in live time and sharing these to a collaborative discussion board.
Applications like Pear Deck, Padlet, and, for the rest of this year, Jamboard can also host live discussions, and many of these, like Nearpod, allow students to post anonymously and to submit as many responses as they want—including none at all. What I find particularly useful about Nearpod, though, is the ability to approve comments before they’re posted to the discussion board for other students to see.
But why use something like Nearpod during an in-person class? Why not just have students talk to one another through an in-class discussion? First, because we were discussing such a difficult, highly sensitive, and even personal topic, using Nearpod was essential because it allowed me to gauge the temperature of the class as a whole before inviting a verbal conversation. I knew that if students weren’t ready to talk to one another about this topic, whether because they felt too close to it personally or because they couldn’t engage respectfully, we could leave the discussion on Nearpod and move on from there.
Second, as the teacher, I could identify any potentially problematic responses and decline to post these publicly to the discussion board, as well as follow up individually with those students after class. Finally, giving students time to respond in writing allowed them to get their thoughts together and to reflect before jumping straight into a difficult verbal discussion, which can have its own pitfalls, such as students not knowing how to frame their thoughts and feeling reluctant to share with the rest of the class.
In the end, I was astounded by how robust and respectful the Nearpod conversations were. Students wrote profound and thoughtful posts, offered multiple responses to each question, and stayed engaged throughout the activity, even though they each were working in silence on their computers. I didn’t have to decline any responses because everyone upheld our discussion norms with extreme care.
In addition, I saw that students from each of my different classes were ready to have a verbal discussion, and the time for reflection before this led to incredibly deep and meaningful conversations that left a lasting impression on everyone. Several students came by later to thank me for giving them the time and space to reflect on what had happened at our school, and others mentioned to different teachers and administrators that the Nearpod exercise and discussion that followed were extremely impactful for them as they processed and navigated the challenging incidents.
Tools like Nearpod can be useful to educators who are looking for ways to scaffold difficult conversations in a thoughtful and respectful manner and can transform how students approach complex and challenging topics. The technology offers opportunities for quieter students to engage meaningfully in the classroom, for all students to reflect on their thoughts regarding a particular topic or reading, and for students to prepare for a verbal discussion, as they are able to gather their thoughts before entering a larger conversation.
While we have access to the benefits of technology-free discussions, I think we should continue to explore the ways in which we can incorporate technology in the classroom to enhance the work we do with students. When it comes to inviting and framing difficult conversations, technology is a tool that can ensure that students engage with thought and care.