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A new school year in the middle of a pandemic brings uncertainty—but student engagement is still key to a positive classroom, whether in person or online

4 strategies to boost student engagement


A new school year in the middle of a pandemic brings uncertainty—but student engagement is still key to a positive classroom, whether in person or online

As the beginning of the school year is creeping up on us, many schools are reconsidering the need for online options. There are too many variables at play right now for any educator to feel they have everything under control for this school year. Historically, stability was often a reason for many to enter the education field, but stability is nowhere to be seen this fall. As educators struggle with keeping a variety of balls in the air, one of the key issues in all settings is how to keep students motivated and engaged.

Recently, a study of rural elementary teachers outlined a few key factors for engaging students and then keeping them engaged online.

The first suggestion from elementary teachers was to start the course by setting the stage with a clear set of behavior expectations for students working online. Simple things like expecting students to keep their cameras active, how to attract the teacher’s attention by raising their hand via video or using a Zoom tool, etc. This is not particularly different than setting beginning of the year behavior expectations in a traditional classroom. Students always appreciate having clear expectations. Interestingly, only about a third of teachers responded that they had set video lesson expectations at the beginning of last year.

A second successful tactic online elementary teachers used was to build personal connections with students by holding morning meetings to build relationships. Regular morning meetings provided teachers a great way to get to know student concerns and interests. At the same time, it was a way for students to gain an understanding that the teachers cared about them as people and as students.

Teachers felt being able show a personal interest in each child was helpful in building a successful online learning environment. Teaching Little Leaders provides a nice guide for teachers on building effective online morning meetings.

Movement breaks were the most often identified tactic used by elementary teachers, with two-thirds of the teachers utilizing this approach. One teacher wrote “Towards the end of our remote learning, we did a lot of brain breaks and I would do this again. It gave the students a little time to get the wiggles out and reset for learning.”

There is a lot of research around the need for younger students to be able to exercise and move around. One faceted approach to movement breaks is to conduct short online scavenger hunts. Teachers can ask students to locate a specific item, or potentially just to point to one in the background. It is a great way to provide students with a short break. At the same time, students will be focused on returning with the item, so there is less chance of losing their attention. WeAreTeachers provides a list of 50 potential brain break activities for educators to use with their students.

Being positive and supportive of students is a key for all successful educators. Teachers who reported working to keep up a high positive energy level found their students to be more engaged throughout online lessons. This should not be a surprise. The Atlanta Speech School’s Every Opportunity video provides the same point of showing the need for positive energy and interest in each student. The Every Opportunity video is a good reminder to each educator about the need to engage every student each day in order to build a culture of engagement throughout the school. Carl Hooker provides a list of 25 strategies for engaging students in Zoom environments for teachers to consider as well. Good luck to all as we move into fall and a return to the classroom.

This article was based upon Janelle Frank master’s thesis conducted for the Winona State University’s Educational Leadership master’s degree. The complete thesis is available at WSU’s Open River digital repository.

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