Virtual Teaching Is the Worst Video Game I’ve Ever Played…But I Think I Figured Out How to Beat the Game!

If you’re anything like me, you’ve had to find a good way to blow off steam after a long day at the computer in the virtual world of Zoom.  And if you’re a LOT like me then you’ve probably found that the best way to blow off steam is to go sit in front of your TV and play some video games.  I mean I love reading too, but this isn’t a dating site, so why am I justifying my hobbies to you?  

One of the rewarding things about video games is that they provide these great reward systems where you can upgrade and improve all sorts of elements of yourself and your outfits and your weapons just by completing certain challenges or engaging in certain activities. In the midst of exploring some of those challenges in an open-world role playing game I’ve been into lately, I suddenly had a funny thought while I was battling a Thunderjaw with my Very Rare Shadow Carja Tripcaster while exploring the Frozen Wilds.  I know, at this point you’re wondering if I’m even being serious.  *Sensuous whisper voice* I totally am.

Because here’s that funny thing that occurred to me:  The virtual world of Zooming with student writers actually might be best viewed through the eyes of a gamer.  There are achievements we’re all looking to unlock (student engagement, improved writing, social-emotional growth, etc) and the best way to achieve them is to upgrade our virtual practices with every tool at our disposal.  

To that end, I present to you a list of the Most Powerful Tools and Weapons in Super Virtual Zoom Education Deluxe Edition, presented in true video game format, complete with status upgrades and strengths and weaknesses.  If you want new skins for your character though, you’re just going to have to go the old online shopping route.  

Tool:  Breakout Chat Rooms

Stats: +3 Engagement, +2 Human Interaction

Cost: -3 Class Instructional Time

The breakout room feature has proven to be an incredibly powerful Zoom tool for me simply from an engagement perspective.  I highly recommend starting with something informal–in my class we do Book Chats every day (I usually get to maybe 2-3 students a day during their independent reading time).  The one-on-one time works miracles in terms of raising my kids’ spirits and engagement levels.  Cameras aren’t mandatory in my district, and yet when my kids enter the breakout room with me, they overwhelmingly choose to turn them on anyway.  Something about talking one-on-one like normal human beings seems to inspire them.  Go figure.

As a direct tool for writing, the nature of a breakout room has costs however, given that you can’t be with the whole class and in a breakout room all at once, and the slow moving nature of transitioning kids in and out can be time consuming all by itself.  However, if you can manage to carve out the space for it, kids will absolutely make use of it.  I had three different students request a breakout session immediately when we began a new writing piece today.  Many of your kids are craving the chance to talk to you about writing (or anything!).  I counted their requests as my first Christmas presents of the season; it was lovely.

Tool: Google Doc Comment Feature

Stats: +5 Writing Growth, +3 Accountability

Cost: -2 Human Interaction, -1 Conferring Engagement

The loss of weekly writing interaction with my students–literally sitting next to them and chatting about their written work–has been the hardest gap to close.  Besides stealing a lot of my joy as a teacher, it also creates an enormous hurdle if your goal is to create writers who are independent decision makers and strategic thinkers.  The comment feature in Google Docs has helped to close the gap somewhat, especially when it comes to really getting the kids deeply engaged in thinking about small moves in their writing.  But. it’s only useful if you’re using it as a tool FOR writers, not a weapon to wield against them.  You can certainly use it for grading feedback, but that will be better received if you’ve already used it for constructive questioning, and supportive encouragement for risk taking.  

This tool also happens to be upgradeable, and you don’t even have to find a Dwarven Forge or Mithril Ingots in order to do it (okay now I’m just making stuff up).  The key to maximizing the usefulness of the Google Comments feature is to make sure your kids also know how to use it, and see it as a tool and a space for interaction, not just as a pop-up box that tells them they’re about to be criticized.  Starting off with commentary in something like a digital notebook where you can highlight great moments of writing and tell them where you share an interest or point of view are great starting points to help them feel at ease when those little comment boxes start popping up alongside their higher stakes writing.  

You thought I was joking–I really do have this weapon! It’s as powerful as a 3-Minute Breakout Room writing conference!

Tool: Flipgrid/Audio Feedback (“Slow Chats”)

Stats: +3 Student Engagement, +5 Writing Reflection

Cost: -1 Speed, -4 Leisure Time

I’m going to be honest here, I’ve completely gone all-in on audio writing feedback the past couple years.  Same as with Google Docs, though, by the time my students have heard my recorded narrative about what it was like to read a piece of their writing, we’ve already conferred several times about it (under normal circumstances) or they’ve received other forms of supportive feedback and encouragement from me virtually using one of the tools in this post.  In other words, suddenly watching a Flipgrid vid or listening to audio of the teacher talk about their writing could be a little intimidating for your students if you don’t already have a sense of openness about the writing process as a series of conversations.

The huge upside to this form of feedback though–and I’ll plug Flipgrid here as like the “Rare God-Tier Gold Weapon” version of this particular “tool”–is that it’s super easy to turn feedback into a dialogue.  After my students have listened to or watched my thoughts on their piece, it’s their turn to record a response.  It could be part of a growth mindset or it could just be speaking to where they agree or disagree with my thoughts.  It could even be about the particular challenges they faced while writing the piece and what they did to stretch themselves.

Just fair warning though, recording eats up some time.  Figure even just two minutes of feedback is that much additional time per paper–I’d argue the time spent pays huge dividends, but your sanity matters too.  Choose your moments for this one.

Just like in any good video game, there are lots of “common” tools and weapons as well.  Notebooks are still a fantastic chance to give kids opportunities for low stakes writing topics that they’ll want to (maybe?) share with their peers or with you.  Discussion boards help give kids a space to react to things at their own pace and interact with their peers as readers and writers–a great destresser for kids who might not feel super confident as writers.  That’s the great thing about Role Playing Games…errr…English Classrooms:  There’s a whole world of tools out there to discover and learn to use.  

Get out there and unlock some student achievements!


How do you unlock student achievement in a virtual setting? Let me know on Twitter @ZigThinks or come join us on Facebook at Moving Writers!


  1. I’ve used the Mote audio commenting tool for Google Docs, and some of my students enjoyed hearing the excitement in my voice when I discussed the positive components that I’ve highlighted in their writing. I appreciate the free version, but am actually considering the paid version,.

    1. Yes–I agree completely. There’s something about actual hearing you say kind/positive things out loud that matters a lot to the kids!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s