Without the limitations of an in-person classroom session, new opportunities for engagement have space to emerge — even for students without on-demand access to technology.
According to the glossary of education reform, student engagement “refers to the degree of attention, curiosity, interest, optimism, and passion that students show when they are learning or being taught, which extends to the level of motivation they have to learn and progress in their education.” Evidence of learning and indicators of engagement can be commonly observed and relatively easily measured in traditional classroom settings — teachers can monitor students’ behavior as they raise their hands, participate in whole group discussions, or support their fellow classmates in small, cooperative learning groups.
During this time of remote learning, educators around the world are facing a student engagement challenge, as classrooms have transitioned to virtual learning spaces. Instead of in-person teaching and facilitation, computers, tablets, and phones have become the primary tools students use to engage. These changes have also highlighted issues around equity, as every home learning environment doesn’t offer students the same level of access to technology.
And yet, teaching and learning can and will continue — educators around the world have already been reimagining the ways in which they can engage their students. Without the limitations of a 45-minute classroom session, the challenge of hearing 25-30 voices during a short period of time, and the barriers of in-person, adolescent dynamics that make some students less inclined to speak up in front of their peers, new opportunities for engagement have space to emerge.
Zoom can be an excellent tool for engaging students. Teachers can create breakout rooms for small group discussions and pop in and out as a way to monitor conversations in the groups. Consider using student-generated questions or protocols as a way to invite discussion — in advance, students can submit topic-related questions via email, which is a powerful way to garner buy-in and interest. Zoom's chat option is another useful feature that allows students to create a thread of dialogue in the midst of their discussion, and may encourage participation from students who are hesitant to speak up. The chat can also be saved and archived for future discussions.
Google Docs can be a great way to generate conversation and dialogue. Students can be placed in small groups to respond freely to each other using the comment feature, or students can be tasked with responding to two or three other classmates. These comments can become a print-rich discussion that isn’t time bound, and they can allow for metacognition as students track threads of conversation and in turn, think about their thinking.
As a no-tech option, which doesn’t require on-demand access, students can use phone calls or WhatsApp voice notes as a way to have discussions. Consider having students use the technology of three-way phone calls as a way to both check in on one another as well as take part in an academic conversation. Roles can be assigned in each triad, allowing each student to be a facilitator, recorder, or reporter, who will be responsible for sharing conversation highlights with their teacher. If all students aren’t able to find a common time to talk on the phone, consider offering an old-fashioned game of telephone — student A can call student B to discuss the topic; student B then calls student C to share their previous conversation and so on. The last student in the chain of telephone would then be responsible for communicating the highlights of the discussion with the teacher. This process can be repeated many times, with roles alternating within each group.
Engaging the whole child
It’s no surprise that many students are experiencing challenges beyond access to technology during this time. They may have family members who are dealing with illness and unemployment, or who are risking their lives as essential workers each day. If we reflect on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, we can remember that students will likely have trouble actively engaging with their education if their more basic needs of safety and security have not been met. It's important to recognize and acknowledge the social and emotional challenges presented by the pandemic. Consider engaging your students by making periodic calls to check in with them and offer support and encouragement. This one-on-one support, however brief, can help connect or reconnect students to the classroom community.
What if it’s not possible to speak to your students individually, on a regular basis? Educators can find opportunities to engage the whole child by incorporating family members into the learning experience. One way to achieve this is by using the Questioning Formulation Technique (QFT), a popular technique that helps students develop their ability to ask questions. Using resources such as photos, cartoons, letters, maps, and articles, students can work alongside a family member or caregiver to create questions around various sources of text that exist in their environment, and then analyze and share the thinking behind them. Alternatively, students can create a short video sharing highlights from their process.