Make the Most of Remote Learning

Teachers share their secrets for keeping kids engaged with apps.

Overwhelmed by the prospect of keeping kids engaged for a full school day while at home? We spoke to elementary school teachers across the country for their best tricks—and favorite apps—for parents looking to set their children up for remote-learning success.

Keep their options open

Cara Pavek, a teacher in Boca Raton, Florida, used to spend hours at the public library picking out books to introduce to her first graders. But then her class started exploring the 40,000-plus ebooks and audiobooks in Epic.

“The variety of book formats—traditional books, read-to-me books, and audiobooks—helps build students’ confidence,” says Pavek. “They might be reluctant to choose reading as a free-time activity, but they were excited to listen to Epic’s read-to-me books. As their confidence builds, they venture into regular books.”

Read along with Epic originals and classics like Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?

Pavek says Epic’s interactive features—highlighting words in real time so kids can follow along, letting kids tap on a word to hear it pronounced, and awarding badges for reading milestones—go a long way to motivate. But perhaps the biggest incentive is the range of topics and genres.

Pavek’s own third grader was intimidated by chapter books when she first started using Epic—and didn’t get far in the ones she started. “But the variety of books got her excited to explore, and some of the Epic Originals caught her eye. These were longer, and she was having so much fun reading them.”

Pavek advises parents not to worry if their kids just read snippets of books at first. They’re just trying things out, sort of like watching a trailer before the movie, she says. “Eventually, when they are ready, something will catch their eye.”

Differentiate between learning and practicing

Jayne Clare, a special education teacher in Long Island, New York, takes heart when she sees her students struggle to solve the puzzles in Slice Fractions 2. It’s a sign they’re really learning.

The app teaches fractions with challenging games in which kids slice shapes into portions—well before introducing numbers. “Kids get to some obstacles and they have to use problem-solving,” says Clare. “That’s what teaches you.”

Slice Fractions 2 makes key math concepts less abstract—and lots of fun.

According to Francois Boucher-Genesse, CEO of Ululab, the studio behind Slice Fractions 2, that’s integral to the app’s design. Many kids have underlying misunderstandings about fractions that hold them back down the road, he says. But when kids fail a level in the app and have to redo it, they’re primed to let go of those assumptions.

“There are plenty of apps that teach you rote memorization and you just practice, practice, practice,” says Clare. “They have their benefit, but with something like Slice Fractions, you’re using your critical thinking skills. It’s what we call in education ‘deeper learning.’”

Connect the digital to the real world

Jessica Frost, an elementary teacher in Mississauga, Ontario, was surprised when her son, who’s in kindergarten, identified a wood louse in their backyard planters. He’d learned about the insect in Sago Mini School, an education app that covers subjects like gardens, trucks, rainbows, and bugs for pre-K students.

“All the topics in Sago Mini School are things that kids naturally wonder about, so it’s much easier for kids to make connections in the real world,” says Frost.

The journey of a seedling plays a key role in Sago Mini School’s pre-K curriculum.

Frost also finds conversation starters in the companion app Sago Mini Parents. “The app will give me a tidbit like, ‘Your son was playing on doodle stories today and here’s a video of it.’ As a parent, it brings you into their thought process at that time. And it reminds me to reconnect with him about that,” she says.

As a teacher, Frost knows that asking questions about activities in the app or sharing books on the subjects he’s shown interest in will nurture his curiosity. “The more we can make connections through the digital experience and in their real life, the richer the experience will be for them,” she says.

Create through code

Jennifer Nishimoto, an L.A.-based instructional technology coach who teaches grades kindergarten through second grade, spends most of her days figuring out how kids can express themselves in new ways with tech, including through programming. For one project, she had them code their own animated fairy tales.

Using codeSpark Academy, kids learned fundamental programming concepts, such as sequencing and variables, and used that to bring those stories to life with the app. “When they understand that sequencing, they just fly,” she says.

Programming a character’s moves teaches kids the concept of sequencing in codeSpark Academy.

“Coding gives them that freedom to use their imagination and create,” says Nishimoto. Plus it’s accessible to all kinds of learners. “If they’re not great spellers, they have the option to record their voice, or if they’re really shy, they can type it all.”

Make time for the arts

Erika Moser, an elementary music teacher and tech-integration specialist in West Chester, Pennsylvania, wasn’t sure she would be able to teach music remotely when her classroom went virtual last spring.

“All those instruments I give kids to pass around and play—we couldn’t do that anymore,” she says.

She wanted kids to be able to experiment and create their own music, without relying on complicated tools that would require help from a parent. So she introduced her students to Incredibox, an app that lets you compose fun, layered loops by dressing up a silly band of beatboxers.

“One second grader on a Zoom call said, ‘Miss Moser, I don’t even need you anymore. I can make music by myself!’”

She also showed them how to use Tayasui Sketches School, a drawing app on iPad with realistic pencils, brushes, and markers.

“We did a couple of projects with that trying to make the connection to music.” Moser played them a song and the kids drew an emoji that expressed how it made them feel.

“Our teachers started bringing it in for everything,” says Moser. “Kindergarten students created life cycle seed journals, kids did book reports.”

Moser appreciated how the apps helped kids express themselves on their own terms. “It was really important in this environment because it made them feel they had control over what we were doing.”