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Classroom Q&A

With Larry Ferlazzo

In this EdWeek blog, an experiment in knowledge-gathering, Ferlazzo will address readers’ questions on classroom management, ELL instruction, lesson planning, and other issues facing teachers. Send your questions to lferlazzo@epe.org. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

Encouraging Student Engagement in Remote Learning

By Larry Ferlazzo — April 24, 2020 7 min read
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(This is Part Five in an ongoing series responding to specific teacher questions related to remote learning. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, Part Three here, and Part Four here.)

Note: In addition to a recent 11-part series and video offering advice to educators making the transition to remote learning, and a video offering advice to parents (along with many more upcoming related posts—look for a multipart series at the end of this month in which both teachers and students will be reflecting on their first five weeks of distance learning), I’ve begun a series of short posts responding to specific questions from readers.

Part One dealt with Overcoming Apathy in Remote Teaching.

Part Two was on Five Ways to Boost Student Participation in Remote Learning.

Part Three shared Strategies to Support Some of Our Most Vulnerable Students Through Distance Learning.

Part Four’s headline was Four Ways to Help Students Feel Intrinsically Motivated to Do Distance Learning.

Today’s question comes from Jill Schneider:

What are ways to keep student engagement up? How do we motivate reluctant learners to continue learning in a virtual environment?

This post is not the first, nor will it be the last, response to that question.

I’m adding this response to All Classroom Q&A Posts on the Coronavirus Crisis.

Today, David Sherrin, shares his suggestions.

“Students are more likely to complete tasks that they care about”

David Sherrin is the father (and temporary educator) of three young children, a social studies teacher at Scarsdale High School, author of Authentic Assessment in Social Studies: A Guide to Keeping it Real, and recipient of the 2014 Robert H Jackson Center National Award for Teaching Justice. He maintains the teaching website JADE Learning. You can contact him at: dsherrin@scarsdaleschools.org:

There is no secret magical formula for student engagement in distance learning. While almost everything we do is harder and less effective in this realm, it is the same tried-and-true recipe we’ve known for decades that gets students motivated. Teachers need to provide assignments that are meaningful, joyful, relevant, and dynamic. Simply put, all students are more likely to complete tasks that they care about.

Moreover, we need to recognize that disparities in student engagement in distance learning correspond to disparities in engagement in real school: It is higher in affluent areas where there is significant support at home. In high-needs schools, many times the only factor that gets students to “produce” is the relationship with the teacher and the one-to-one teacher-to-student request to “please complete the work.” It is that individual face-to-face connection and the positive results that follow from it that seem so glaringly missing in distance learning.

That being said, we need to identify the difference between compliance and engagement. In the former, students complete tasks, often passively, without intrinsic motivation or interest. This type of experience can be rampant in high-performing schools, and it follows students into the distance-learning reality. They multitask during a video, check off some boxes, and then move on without fully participating mentally and emotionally in the learning.

Instead, we want students to engage in learning due to actual intellectual interest. This happens when we provide tasks and assessments that are authentic, playful, student-centered, and dynamic. In all disciplines and at all grade-levels, we need to get students moving, thinking, interacting with family members, creating (off the computer), and making choices. Providing a menu of options for small tasks or assessments cultivates student engagement because the empowering act of choosing builds trust, confidence, and motivation. For my son, in elementary school, one activity that achieved all of this was to build a map (or model) of his town using paper and pen or Legos/toys. He chose the latter, and it turned into a joyful family activity to figure out what to use to represent a train station, park, library, etc.

Students can only succeed when they understand the task directions and when those same tasks float comfortably within their Zone of Proximal Development, even more so in distance learning where there is less follow-up support. As such, building in multiple forms of providing instructions, including both text and video, is crucial, particularly at grade levels and environments where written literacy is weaker.

In my own teaching, I really only hit the mark with my second distance-learning unit when I had the opportunity to take advantage of a resource that I had already created the previous year: the Joseph and Myra Brandman Virtual Holocaust Memorial Museum. The “museum” layout and the stories of my grandparents added to the sense of authenticity and helped retain that key personal connection. Each exhibit is clearly laid out, helping to strengthen student confidence as they navigate the terrain. I build in student choice by permitting them to choose which artifacts to read or look at. I ensure accessibility by providing an audio guide for struggling readers. I recently threw in a video introduction for the museum and for each exhibit to make sure students understood the task and how to navigate the options. The use of a variety of source formats, such as text, video, and photographs, ensures that students can find resources that they can understand.

Most importantly, in this unit I moved away from an essay as an assessment and instead opted for students producing historical art about the Holocaust. This type of project sparks more student ownership, meaning, creativity, and joy. Art, as I have argued elsewhere, is just as authentic a form of historical scholarship as formal writing, and its benefits are even more necessary in this moment of crisis.

I’m now expanding from this unit’s success by creating a full World History Distance Learning that includes an Iranian Revolution Choose-Your-Own-Adventure Game as well as an India Colonialism and Independence Virtual Role-Play, all of which is meant to achieve those fundamental goals of engagement, joy, and authenticity. While not every teacher has the web-design background or interest to make that happen, thinking about how to transfer the type of dynamic and student-centered activities that build real student engagement in the classroom into the distance-learning space is what we need to be doing. And, as I pointed out, that type of experience can range from an online role-playing game to a great idea of what to build with Legos.

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

Education Week has published a collection of posts from this blog, along with new material, in an e-book form. It’s titled Classroom Management Q&As: Expert Strategies for Teaching.

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Look for many more questions-and-answers in the future!

The opinions expressed in Classroom Q&A With Larry Ferlazzo are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.