How a hamburger emoji became a powerful teaching tool

It began as a work-around during remote learning. Then it changed my struggling student’s trajectory. 

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others thinking and writing about public education.

When COVID-19 hit, I was a fifth grade special educator teaching in a general classroom set up to support students with autism spectrum disorder. As is typical of children with autism, my students do really well with structure and knowing what to expect. When the pandemic arrived, my students had so many questions about what would come next — and we didn’t have the answers.

I remember sitting in “afternoon circle” with my students, asking them to share how they were feeling. They were scared about school closing. They were worried about not seeing their teachers and their friends. They were scared that members of their own families might die. This is heavy stuff for developing brains.

Christina Ramsay (Courtesy photo)

As we shifted to remote learning, I did my best to incorporate as many in-person routines as I could into our virtual classroom to make it feel “normal” and positive. Yet despite our best efforts, things weren’t normal. I could tell some of our students struggled to connect, communicate, and come out of their shells.

One of my fifth grade students was learning several grade levels behind. Her family recently immigrated to America and did not speak English, so I used Google Translate and relied on another teacher in our school who spoke Russian to communicate with her. 

This student wasn’t on the autism spectrum, but her family had recently immigrated to America, and she benefited from many of the same interventions as my other students. She was very quiet and shy, so I’d ask her if she understood the material, and I’d call her name to see if she had questions. Although we worked in small groups, she wouldn’t tell my co-teacher and me if she didn’t understand something.

I texted my co-teacher: ‘There’s a hamburger in the chat; I’m going to a breakout room.’

She stayed on her computer during lunch, and I began to build a relationship with her. Eventually, she told me, “I like learning in school better than I like learning online.” I asked her what was different about being in school versus online, what she liked about in-school learning, and what was hard about being online.

She said, “When I’m in school, the teacher walks around the room, and she can see what I’m working on. She can whisper suggestions to me, but you can’t do that online.”

I thought, “Maybe we can.” I told her we should brainstorm on a solution. We settled on choosing an emoji she could enter into our class chat. Only she and I knew what the emoji meant.

“It’s kind of like you whispering to me that you need help,” I told her. “When I see your emoji, we can go into a breakout room, and it’s just you and me. We can work together.”

The hamburger emoji strategy was born.

When she entered the hamburger emoji in the chat, I texted my co-teacher: “There’s a hamburger in the chat; I’m going to a breakout room.”

Because I was using Pear Deck, a presentation tool that engages students in individual and social learning, I could also privately view her activity on the interactive slides. I could see if she had (or hadn’t) started to answer a question. And she could use the tool to ask for help discreetly when she was stuck. By the end of the school year, she was my student who’d improved the most. She started the year below second-grade level, and she was achieving at a fourth-grade level by June.

To celebrate at the end of the year, I invited her into a breakout room and told her how proud we were of her work. She had the biggest smile on her face. Something as simple as a hamburger emoji made all the difference for her — not just for her grades but also for her confidence and sense of belonging.

Many students worry that their peers will overhear them asking for help. They worry about being judged. That’s where technology can come in — allowing students to connect with their teachers in private, judgment-free ways. This continues to be true in person; we now use Chromebooks and iPads in our physical classroom to inspire and elevate quieter voices. The lesson of the hamburger emoji will be with me for many years to come as I seek to create a more equitable learning environment for all of my students.

Christina Ramsay is currently a third grade special education teacher in New York City. She is passionate about teaching and social justice, and seeks to empower her students as well as to help them discover their strengths and talents.