By Dr. Tiffany L. Bridgewater, Head of Lower School & Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion-Louisville Collegiate School
The way we look at student and family engagement has changed during the past year. The unique challenges presented to schools due to COVID-19 have made it necessary to reimagine the way schools engage with students and families in K-12 education. This reimagination is particularly true for educators of school-age children who have had to rethink aspects of student engagement utilizing a hybrid (flexible) learning model. Many elementary schools have introduced technology to students much earlier than in previous years out of necessity to continue delivering academic content. Elementary schools have also considered new ways to address the social-emotional needs of students in a virtual world. How do schools continue to engage (academically and social-emotionally) with students in authentic ways that are transferable regardless of where the instruction is taking place? That is the single most consequential question teachers, administrators, and parents have asked themselves since the pandemic began one year ago.
This is true for all schools, private and public. Many private schools can more easily modify the delivery of their instructional content/programming because they usually operate outside of large districts. Private schools often have a smaller population of students and staff to manage, while most public schools do not because they serve thousands of students and employ hundreds of staff in multiple locations. Many private schools also benefit from discretionary funding that can be used to support unforeseen changes in content/programming in order to maintain high-quality student instruction. Despite their differences, private schools, like their public school counterparts, have grappled with a diversity of learners from different backgrounds and economic resources who are all learning during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.
Notwithstanding these challenges, many private and public schools have discovered student engagement in the age of COVID-19 isn’t impossible, but it does require a different, more flexible way of thinking about student engagement. While the methods used to increase student engagement have been utilized by teachers in classrooms for years, what is different is how teachers apply these tools based on the individual needs of each student and how each student is receiving instruction, in-person or remotely. Below are a few methods/strategies to consider:
- Make students active participants in their learning. Putting students in the driver’s seat when it comes to their learning is the first step to good student engagement. First, design participation in the classroom that will allow students to connect with the teacher and their peers in-person and at home. Collaboration in the classroom, especially when hybrid instruction is necessary, is easier than ever before thanks to a variety of online resources – Zoom, Skype, Google Meet. These resources also make it easy to build and maintain student connections to help draw peers at home on the screen into discussions through pair shares, buddy reads, and classroom games. Students’ ability to learn and share with one another is limitless in the age of COVID-19. Giving students an active role in their learning is vital to student engagement and success.
- Create predictability and consistency in every routine. Predictable and consistent routines are essential for students. Establishing routines that are predictable and consistent helps students understand what they need to accomplish. Even the most complicated school schedule (like a six-day rotation schedule) should provide students with a feeling of safety and security about what comes next in their academic day. Creating routines to help guide the ins and outs of the overall schedule provides students with the safety and security they need to fully engage in their learning. When students understand what comes next, building student engagement is easy to do.
- Keep students moving through movement and play. Movement is also something that students desperately need at school and home. Throughout the academic day, provide movement breaks through play at recess and physical education classes. Create stretch breaks as a transition between content area classes. Likewise, extend your walk from your classroom to other parts of the building to keep students actively moving. When teachers and parents can incorporate lots of physical activity throughout the day through play, it not only helps to keep students engaged but it’s good for their overall health and well being.
- Build-in check-in breaks. To keep students engaged, meet for briefer periods more frequently. Also, lean into asynchronous time. Use those screen-free opportunities to check-in with your students in small groups as well as individually. These check-ins allow teachers to gauge not only their academic performance but also where they are social-emotionally. When planning your breaks, build-in breaks directly into the lesson plan. Based on the age of the child, practice brain breaks before students grow fatigued or distracted. Also important when incorporating breaks into the day is to consider the transition from brain breaks back to direct instruction. Mindfulness activities using breathing exercises may be the easiest way to move from a brain break to work. These strategies are useful during in-person and remote-instruction to help maintain student engagement.
- “Chunk” instruction to meet the individual needs of students. If you can only meet once a week, then make that time with students count. But whenever possible, chunk your student instruction three times a week for 30 minutes. Chunking instruction for upper elementary school students (grades 3-5) receiving recovery instruction may require three times a week for 40 minutes instead of once for one hour. Using break-out rooms via Zoom may be useful. This plan’s effectiveness depends on the content area and the student’s age. Therefore, make the necessary adjustments based on the individual needs of your learners. Chunking instruction is another way to meet the individual needs of students while simultaneously increasing student engagement.
- Maximize screen-free activities. Create authentic screen-free activities throughout the day for students in the classroom and at home to limit zoom fatigue. When developing these plans, consider the platforms you are using. Platforms like Google Classroom and Seesaw allow teachers to plan explicit synchronous and asynchronous instruction. Screen-free activities give students the ability to explore their creativity and curiosity. Screen-free activities are also less structured and provide autonomy based on family schedules. Moreover, create discrete options for students to explore and build individual interests. Some ideas include: taking a nature walk, creating a quiet space for independent reading, strengthening math facts or vocabulary using flashcards or journaling. With careful planning and coordination with parents, students can do these sorts of activities in the classroom and at home.
As schools navigate the unique challenges of hybrid learning during a pandemic, it is important to look at these challenges as opportunities to reimage the way we connect with students in-person or at home. No matter where instruction happens, student engagement must be a part of the lesson plan. Therefore, when:
- Students are allowed to be involved in their learning
- Students understand and can predict what comes next
- Students are provided movement and brain breaks throughout the day
- Teachers utilize the latest technology to chunk (differentiate) instruction; every student wins!
Both private and public schools can make deep connections with students (especially our young learners) in the age of COVID-19 that keep all learners engaged and ready to learn. However, it requires a different, more flexible way of thinking about student engagement no matter where the learning takes place.
Dr. Tiffany L. Bridgewater is an experienced educator, diversity facilitator, and early childhood advocate. Tiffany’s commitment to the development of policies and procedures that support the academic and social-emotional needs of students of color is long-standing. Tiffany has served in various roles including classroom teacher, middle school advisor, dorm parent, diversity practitioner, admission outreach coordinator, and adjunct professor at Belmont University in Nashville, TN, and Marymount University in Arlington, VA.
A graduate of Fisk University, Tiffany earned her B.A. in English, an M.A. in English & Humanities, an M.A. in Education both from Marymount University, and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership from Spalding University in Louisville, KY. Dr. Bridgewater is currently the Head of Lower School & Director of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Louisville Collegiate School in Louisville, KY.