Over the last year, we’ve learned a lot about ourselves as educators and a lot more about our students and what they need to be engaged and successful. Our tech skills have grown exponentially, and our ability to multitask was put to the test. One of the key questions that has emerged for teachers is: How do we engage students when we don’t see them as frequently, only see them remotely, or have them joining class with in-person learners?
We know the factors that influence student engagement:
- Students need to feel safe and connected to their peers and teachers
- Clear outcomes need to be communicated
- Students need to have choice in how they learn or how they demonstrate learning
- Students need to practice and have regular feedback
- Students need to be engaged in higher-order thinking tasks that challenge them
These factors still apply, but are complicated in remote and synchronous settings; they add a layer of nuance and challenge to the skillset we have been growing since last March. These factors still matter to our kids. And they can be achieved. Check out our Elements of Effective Instruction toolkit for key considerations.
In partnering with teachers since last March, here are some things we’ve learned:
- Relationships with peers and teachers still matter the most. Maintaining contact and fostering positive relationships with students is essential to engagement. Melissa Duncombe, a kindergarten teacher from Hartland, Maine, said that throughout the hybrid learning experience, it has been valuable to spend one-on-one time with her students, to get to know them and learn not only about where they are academically, but who they are as individuals. She also maintains a daily classroom routine that brings remote and in-person students together to build their classroom community. Melissa has found it has been important to have all students join their morning meeting routine. “During morning meetings, students are greeted, have a chance to share something about their lives or something they have done, answer our question of the day, and be part of the class graph, listen to the morning message, and hear a read aloud.” Through this routine, students are able to connect with one another and share things from their lives that matter to them. Students can share their favorite possessions, pets, and even siblings virtually! As we know, positive and meaningful relationships are the foundation of a productive learning culture. When students know you care, they are more likely to engage. Connections likely look different at different grade levels. Starting class with a question of the day that students answer in small groups or in rounds can be an easy way to connect at any level. While there are obvious obstacles to students joining remotely, including lack of devices, internet connectivity, or physical space to allow for a productive work station, teachers and students have found ways to continue to build relationships and honor the importance of connections.
- Collaboration can foster engagement. One thing that many teachers have missed during remote or synchronous learning is the ability to have pairs or groups of students really interacting dynamically, as opposed to ping-pong responses to teacher-posed questions. Teachers have found virtual tools, such as whiteboards, are effective in initiating student discussion. Johanna Sorensen, an art teacher from Newport, Maine, uses a whiteboard tool as a lesson opener with success. “I give students a theme and 10-15 minutes to draw, enter images, and text into the interactive whiteboard and then we look at it together. They seem to really enjoy it.” She has also found that partnering remote and in-person students to practice a drawing skill, like blind contour line drawing, works well. Although breakout room tools in virtual meeting software have made some of these collaborative experiences easier, getting students to the point where they are actually engaging in rich discussions around complex topics can be tricky. Daniel Leaver, a high school social studies teacher from Newport, Maine, shared some strategies he is using to foster collaboration in his classes:
From the examples provided in the video, it is clear that there is purposeful planning of student collaborative time. Dan develops clear protocols for groups to utilize, intentionally builds groups that pair in-person with remote students, establishes roles for individuals within groups, and embeds choice where possible. Dan’s strategies are content-specific, but could easily be adapted to other content areas and grade levels. For example, his “clicks and clunks” text coding activity could be used with any content area as a way for individuals and groups of students to process and make meaning from a complex text.
- Student feedback is critical to success. Teaching remotely or synchronously is challenging, and so is learning remotely or synchronously. Now more than ever, we need to design learning with our students. They know what is working and what isn’t; when they know we care and will act on their feedback, they will share it with us. Julia Beerworth, a high school social studies teacher from Vermont, shared that this year her most authentic feedback has come from discussions with students instead of surveys or written feedback. “Every student group is different and it helped asking for feedback on what worked for them. At the start of the new semester, I had a discussion with my new students and shared the feedback (from a survey) with them. They offered this suggestion: How about a short zoom lesson followed with a Kahoot? It seems simple and I allowed this class to choose the topic for the first session. The lesson was about 20 minutes and followed by a Kahoot. The topics for each session are picked. The next couple of in person days, I gathered more feedback through a short discussion at the start of class. The students wanted to keep this structure in place for a few more weeks.” Importantly, Julia plans to continue asking her students what is working. Maintaining routines is important, but listening to students and adapting to meet their needs is critical. Engaging students in designing what class time looks like can be effective in securing their engagement, whether in a remote or in-person learning environment. Now may also be the time to capture students’ thinking about the structures that have been successful over the past year that they may want to see continue into next school year.
As we work our way through the rest of this school year, whether it is remote, synchronous, or in-person, let’s not miss the opportunity presented by the crisis of the past year. In what seems like a rush to get “back to normal,” what if we pause and reimagine how our new normal could look? Is it best for 100% of students to be in person 100% of the time? Does synchronous or fully remote learning work better for some of our students? What can we learn from the last year that we can act on? What new tools can we incorporate into our teacher toolboxes? Take time as educators to capture lessons learned, discuss promising instructional practices, and reflect on what we want school to be like for our students. Gather feedback from students and families so that our students and educators can re-enter schools next fall with a responsive and student-centered approach.