The Free Tool I Won’t Teach an Online Class Without

I’m about to share my very favorite online tool with you.

There are approximately six zillion online tools (hey, I’m not a math teacher – it’s an approximation), and I’ve tried almost all of them. And while many of them have merit, and some have even made it into my everyday arsenal for engaging students in an online class, there’s only one that I absolutely won’t teach an online class without.

Are you guessing? I hope that you’re guessing. That makes this way more fun. To help out, I’ll give you some clues. It’s big. It’s colorful. It spins. And it turns every “Ughhhh why is she making us do this?” moment into a party game. It is the ultimate trick and I want to shout it from the rooftops because it makes everything better and I want everyone to use it. Are you ready?

It is THE WHEEL OF NAMES. And name pretty much describes it perfectly: It is a big ol’ digital wheel that you can customize to include as many or as few names as you want. You spin it with a click (and, if you’re me, a hoot or a giggle or some other obnoxious vocal enthusiasm), and whatever name it lands on pops up on the screen amidst a delightful splash of confetti. The spinner has the choice to remove the name from the wheel or toss it back into rotation to be selected again. The spinning! The colors! The canned applause! It is perfection. Did I mention there’s confetti?

So much is scary and serious right now. Shouldn’t we all try to have as much fun as possible?

I have taught online classes for kids ranging from 4 to 14, and every single one of them has been transfixed by this wheel. There is, of course, science behind why it works. Gamification in education is a widely practiced pedagogical method, backed by tons of research and a huge fan base in schools around the world. This is gamification in learning in its simplest form, by turning a mundane activity into a thrilling game of chance. I’m not sure why it’s so exciting, because the results are always the same – the wheel spins, a name is selected, confetti flies – but for whatever reason, it is delightful every single time.

I used the wheel in my physical classes, but my love has reached a whole new level in the world of online learning. Here’s how I use it. As soon as I get a finished roster for an upcoming course, I sign in and create a customized Wheel including every student’s name, and my own. I save it for easy access and pull it up before class begins. From there, I will share my screen and pop the class’ personalized Wheel up every chance I get. Here are just a few examples:

  • First day of class, and you don’t know who any of the kids are but want them to feel like you know them already? Break out the wheel. When it crawls to a stop, whoever is grinning and cheering is most likely the featured scholar.
  • Need a quick formative assessment to tell you how much students understood today’s content? The wheel can help. Ask a question, give it a spin, and your learners will be so delighted to be chosen, they’ll forget that their progress is being tracked.
  • Looking to pull eerily-quiet teenagers out of their shells to kickstart a discussion? Spin. The. Wheel. Even the surliest of tweens, dripping languidly from their desk chairs, cannot resist digital confetti. It is a scientific fact.

At the end of each of my online courses, I ask students for feedback on what they loved, what they didn’t love, and what they want me to know about our course and our time together. About 80% of kids mention the Wheel of Names. Little ones openly adore it and ask me to send the website to their parents. Middle schoolers mention it with flippant irony, often referring to it as the Wheel of Doom or the Wheel of Death, hoping that I won’t notice their rapt excitement as it spins. But love it or hate it, the Wheel helps even the most shy and uncomfortable students feel like a member of the team in the name of good-natured fun. It makes icebreakers and learning each other’s names painless. And because the person selected last gets the ultimate honor – seeing their name so big it fills the entire wheel and hearing the group joke, “I wonder who it will land on?” and “Whose turn do you think it is?!” while it spins – no one will ever cry about going last again.

The world is complicated right now. But the Wheel of Names is simple. I hope you love it as much as I do.


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