What I learned after teaching with Zoom and Canvas for almost a year

by Mike Still
What I learned after teaching with Zoom and Canvas for almost a year

The vast majority of students learn better with in-person teaching, that isn’t up for debate but sometimes, circumstances force us to do what is second best.  Teaching online using Zoom, Canvas or other distance learning programs is second best, but it does work.

The truth that everyone needs to realize for distance learning to be effective is that learning DOES occur in the digital classroom.  We have all heard parents, teachers, and students say that “distance learning does not work.”   It’s true that it won’t be as effective as in person learning but, the first step to teaching your students online is believing that YOU CAN TEACH THEM ONLINE! 

I teach a combined multi-age 5th & 6th grade and have been teaching 40+ students using a combination of Zoom, Canvas, Google Apps with all of my edtech knowledge for almost a year now.  I’ve compiled my favorite edtech tricks and tools on this page and hope it helps you create a more engaging digital classroom to maximize student learning in these difficult times.

Continue reading below or click on an item in the table of contents to jump to that lesson.

EdTech Tools for teaching Distance Learning in a Virtual Classroom

The Coronavirus pandemic has forced many classrooms to remain digital but educational technology is here to help!

The top complaints I’ve heard about distance learning is that the students are either not attentive, not returning assignments or not even present.   My suggestion for all of these issues is to use more social and emotional lessons, both on Zoom and on Canvas.  Think about what you would do if your students were inattentive, not coming to school or not returning assignments in person.   Teachers would come up with creative ways to ‘trick’ the class into doing more work, and develop fun, engaging lessons.  The best teachers are remembered for designing creative lessons and building meaningful connections with struggling students.  So how can we do that on Zoom and Canvas?

Peer Reviews – One of my favorite ways to engage the class on Canvas

My class enjoys peer reviewing video recordings of each other on Canvas

Peer review is a function on Canvas Assignments that my teaching partner and I have found works best on video recorded assignments (with elementary students).

You can use any type of assignment for a peer review.  Simply check the “require peer reviews” button and pick your settings.  I like to have them automatically assigned and keep the assignment date blank to match my due date.  

The peer reviews will only be automatically assigned the first time.  To assign newly or late assignments with peer reviews click the “Peer Reviews button on the right side of the assignment AFTER you are done editing it.  

From here you can assign extra reviews, see all of the submissions and who has and has not finished their review.  I like to assign 3 reviews per user for most assignments but you should make an informed decision based on your students.  You can click the button Assign Reviews a few times a day when assignments are coming in just to make sure everyone gets them.

If your students aren’t ready to submit a video book report, read their writing draft, explain how to solve a math problem or a concept in social studies/science yet then focus on SEL lessons first!


SEL Lessons into the Digital Classroom

Dance challenges, masked (or unmasked) photos, and sharing student artwork are just a few SEL ideas you might assign with a peer review.  Perhaps you would rather have the class to talk about their favorite foods, TV shows, or YouTubers?  Just about anything  you might normally reserve for the first week of class is the perfect place to start and there are more ways to bring this into your distance learning classroom than  video recorded lessons.

My SEL lessons often include sharing about my hobbies like skiing.  Don’t forget to build connections with your class and share some of your excursions. Read more about two teachers social distancing at Skookum Glacier.

SEL Discussions on Canvas

We started the school year with a Canvas discussion about what students liked best “Disney, Marvel or Star Wars.”  The students can type into the box and see each other’s responses.  One thing that is sorely lacking from our digital classrooms is social interaction.  That’s likely a large reason why your kids aren’t showing up or completing their work.  Discussions let them talk to each other! 

Click “users must post before seeing replies” selectively if you don’t want them to read other responses first.  We find that can help some of them come up with ideas for what to write.  You can click “Allow threaded replies” if you want the class to respond directly to each other.

Depending on your student’s age you will want to teach them about the “traffic light” and the “edit” feature.  We’ve had a lot of success sharing responses live on Zoom and teaching the class how to edit by offering suggestions to fix their writing/grammar.  Set your expectation for these responses as you would in the normal classroom!

Add a sample entry to model how to respond within your expectations and don’t forget have fun joining in the discussion! 

Canvas discussions can be linked to gradebook and used as assignments if you click “graded.”  When we do this we require responses to multiple students and good sentence structure.  Speedgrader will show you all one student’s responses so you can easily check for quality and quantity.

Increasing engagement teaching on Zoom with Peardeck – an interactive slideshow

My school district recently purchased Peardeck for all of the teachers and it has been a game changer for engagement and interactive lessons!  There are free versions available but I will be talking about the professional version of Peardeck.

Peardeck allows the students to draw directly on your Google Slides presentation, answer embedded questions with a short response, multiple choice question and more.  You have the ability to see all of the responses simultaneously and share them anonymously with the class via Zoom.  You can also login afterwards and see each student’s individual responses to grade them as you see fit.

To access Peardeck simply open a Google Slides presentation that you have and click Add-Ons.  You’ll see the Peardeck app, click open and you may need to do an authorization step.  Then you’ll see the options on the right side of your screen.  Choose which type of slide you want the class to have and simply click on it!

When you’re ready to share the Slides with your class you click “Start Lesson” and there is a code they can put in.  This is similar to Kahoot if you have used that before.  If you haven’t, scroll down for more info about Kahoot!

If you don’t have the app yet you will need to go to Add-ons> Get Add-ons and add Peardeck.   There are directions in the video below.

Watch this video for more info about Peardeck.


Kami is the perfect tool to replace anything paper in the digital classroom!

You have no idea that you’ve been hoping for a tool like Kami ever since you started teaching remotely.   My only embarrassment about Kami is that I waited so long to try it out myself!  Kami is an easy to use, external tool for Canvas that lets students draw, write, and record directly onto a .pdf of your choice.  
Scan in your favorite worksheets and assign them with Kami to see what your students are capable of.  If you’ve never used an external tool then don’t worry.  It’s really easy and there’s a 2 minute video that will help!

All you need to do is upload whatever .pdf you want the class to work on into your Google Drive.  I recommend making a folders on Drive to keep yourself organized but we all have our own system right?  

I’m still new to using Kami but were trying it out with some interventions and uploading a whole packet or workbook as a .pdf.  The class can submit and unsubmit the same assignment over and over again as you work through the workbook.   Some kids will prefer to type answers in, others draw them and I’m sure kids will figure out how to get a few audio messages to you too.

There are inevitably going to be some technical difficulties getting students logged into apps like Peardeck or Kami.  They have successfully been used with Kindergarten through 6th grade students in our district so be patient and ask a colleague or comment below to see if I can help when there are computer problems!

There are more tips below.  Bookmark this page by hitting “Command + D so you can keep reading it tomorrow!
Or better yet, bookmark it so you can come back when you forget how to use all these EdTech tools!

Need a break from the classroom and EdTech world?
Check out this amazing summer hike in Alaska with two teachers and two dogs!

Kahoot, Socrative & Poll Everywhere

Kahoot is another great tool for making quizzes fun! Search through their database of quizzes or create your own at Kahoot.com.
I reviewed Kahoot, Socrative and Poll-Everywhere after some of my favorite EdTech conferences. I still like Poll-everywhere for its word clouds and its especially useful if you don’t have access to Google Apps.   You can read more about these brainstorming tools in an
 EdTech review I wrote for AppsEvents.com

Padlet for collaborating, sharing and and brainstorming

As a lover of EdTech it pains me to admit that I haven’t actually tried using Padlet with my class yet but it has rave reviews from all the EdTech gurus.  Check it out and let me know what you think.  Maybe I’ll have a long enough respite from lesson planning to try it myself before you finish trying all these tips anyway.

Tips for engaging your remote class on Zoom 

The most important thing about Zoom is that the students should be actively responding either in chat, verbally, by clicking an emoji or waving their hands on screen.  The students need to be doing MORE than just listening to the teacher.  Remember hearing how awful the “lord at the board” was during teacher college?  Well don’t be the a Buffoon on Zoom!  Ask the kids to respond to you (and be patient with their responses)! 

Now that we have that out of the way here are a few more ideas to help you teach on Zoom.

Start every Zoom class by saying each student’s name!

It takes 2-3 minutes just like you would normally take attendance but saying every student’s name to greet them is something you probably did in person so why not do it on Zoom too!

Use Break Out Rooms for small groups

Invite small groups to your Zoom outside of normal class hours.  Think about how much the class looked forward to eating lunch with the teacher.  Inviting a small group Zoom for a few minutes just to chat about the Mandalorian (or Dance Moms as many of my students prefer) can go a long way towards increasing student engagement.  

Let kids vote with Zoom Polls

We vote on SEL questions and about real things that will happen.  Try what book will the teacher read next? What brainbreak should we do? Don’t forget this crowd favorite: “What should we do for Fun Friday?

Use one of the brainstorming/sharing tools in conjunction with Zoom to bring even more engagement to your virtual class. 

Increasing distance learning engagement using Google Apps

Photo share using Google Slides

This photo share takes a little bit of setup by the teacher the first time but can be re-used countless times.  Create a Google Slides presentation with every student’s name on the front page.  Then create a separate page for each student.  I recommend doing this in alphabetical order by first name.  

Once each student has their own slide go back to the title page.  From here you need to add a link from the student’s name to the title page to the student’s page.  

Highlight each name individually and hit “ctrl+k” or “command+k” before finding the slide with that student’s name.  Alternatively you can click Insert at the top and then click link.  

Once you have created your first one click “File>Make a copy” and title this new one “Student Photo Share Master” or something similar.  That way you can easily make a new one.  I recommend telling the class a few days or a week ahead of time to get a photo for a winter fun share, or a holiday share.  

You will need to teach the class to insert a photo by clicking “insert>image”

While the class is working on their slide you can easily monitor their progress and ensure that they are keeping it appropriate by scrolling through the slides.

Click on the picture or this link to make a copy of my sample photo share slides.

Class Brainstorm using Google Sheets

In person school allows us to creatively brainstorm in countless lessons but on Zoom we are very limited and it takes too much time to let everyone unmute and share their thoughts.  There are a few ways to do a class brainstorm but I prefer Google Sheets.  Similar to the Google Slide photo share, this one takes a little bit of teacher prep but than you can turn it into a master template to reuse in countless lessons.  

We have shared favorite animals, books that we are reading, brainstormed writing topics and demonstrated writing complete sentences using this Google Sheets technique.

Click on the picture or this link to make a copy of my sample.

First you need to create a Google Sheet.  I recommend limiting yourself about 6-8 columns and 10-15 rows so that students can see the whole thing on one screen and also doing this one alphabetically!.   This should easily let you devote two cells to each student.  One with their name and an empty one for them to input their information.

To share the link either drop it straight into Zoom or use a link shortener and ask the class to type it in.  I prefer gg.gg but bit.ly and tinyurl work too.

Embed Digital Math Manipulatives on Canvas

I have to give a big shoutout to Becca Stein, my former coworker and fellow Canvas Champion, for showcasing these digital math manipulatives.  If you teach math then you’ve probably used hands on manipluatives to reach a diverse set of learners in the classroom.  You’re probably also struggling to teach that same differentiation on Canvas or Zoom.  Well these digital math manipulatives are exactly what you need!

Click the picture or this link to find lots of digital math manipulatives from the Math Learning Center.

You can use these live on Zoom by sending the link to the kids or embed them directly into a Canvas page.  One of my upcoming projects is to make a module with all of them and share it on Commons.  I’ll update this if that project every happens.

There are two sites for digital math manipulatives.  I prefer using Mathlearning center because those are working on my Canvas course but Didax has good choices too.  To embed these on your Canvas copy the link into an iframe generator and embed like you would any other media.

Click the picture or this link to look at the Didax digital math manipulatives.  I had a hard time getting these to work embedded on Canvas but they are great live on Zoom. Please let me know if you fixed the embed issue with these!

I hope these tips help your students learn, help you work smarter not harder and also help you get a few more minutes stress-free!  Thanks for reading, please comment below to let me know your favorite EdTech trick for the classroom, especially if I missed any!

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Mike Still
Mike is a travel enthusiast, photographer and teacher. He loves adventure travel, meeting the locals and exploring new culture. As an outdoor enthusiast you can often find him hiking mountains or exploring forests trying to capture the beauty of mother nature. In 2013 he founded www.LiveTravelTeach.com as he left his home in America and has been teaching or traveling around the world ever since!

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Brian K Fisher December 10, 2020 - 3:09 am

Hi Mike! Some valuable gold nuggets in your post. Thanks for sharing!

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