Engaging Students in Any Environment

student engagement
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Engaging students in these strange times starts with enabling teachers to form connections with those in their classes, said CJ Reynolds during a recent Tech & Learning Virtual Roundtable hosted by Dr. Kecia Ray. 

“If you can empower teachers you can then empower their students,” said Reynolds, a literature teacher at Boys' Latin of Philadelphia and the creator of Real Rap With Reynolds

Ray also spoke with Tony Riggs, an education market expert and CEO for NeedThese, and Michael Smith, head of global strategic alliances at Samsung, about strategies for creating new, engaging lesson plans for students regardless of their learning environment. 

See the on-demand version here

Key Takeaways 

Talk Is Not Cheap

“We’re in this crazy space where kids can disappear so easily,” Reynolds said. “And it's our job to connect to them and I think the easiest way to do that is to talk to kids, maybe in the first five minutes of class, or the last two to five minutes, or in their breakout rooms when they ask a question. Before jumping into whatever you're learning that day, just ask questions like, ‘What video game is everyone playing? What do you watch on YouTube? Did anyone seen anything great on TV lately? Are you playing sports?’ Regular stuff that might give kids space to talk about what they're interested in.” 

After asking these questions, Reynolds advised teachers to really listen to the student responses. “This does two things: one, it shows kids that they matter, it shows them that you're interested,” he said. “In doing that you're making them the professionals in the moment. You're making them the experts. So when they want to talk about some game or video or platform and what they're into right now, they are now empowered because they know everything. And the other thing this does is it lets students who think that they're invisible know that they are indeed visible.” 

Converting Conversations 

Reynolds uses that information he receives from candid conversations with his students to shape the classroom experience. “You take some of what you've learned, some of what kids have mentioned, and you turn it into lessons,” he said. 

For example, Reynolds’ students are interested in hip hop, so he designed a class around the history of hip hop. The students learn about songwriting, poetry, and word choice as well as culture, and meet with graffiti artists and have rap battles with guest DJs participating. 

Some years back he built vocabulary lessons around episodes of the “Jersey Shore” because that’s what his students were watching. More recently, he’s used examples from the uber-popular online video game Fortnite. 

“Whether you are virtual, hybrid, or in person, we do projects in our class that allow students to share a bit of who they are,” Reynolds said. 

For example, he had students read a short story then imagine it was a movie and make a mixtape of songs that would play over different scenes. “Maybe it's the vibe of the song, maybe it's the lyrics of the song,” Reynolds said. “You are creating this connection between what you want students to learn and what they need to learn and what they like. We've gone on to do this with stop-motion videos. We've made movie trailers for different stories that we read and articles that we've read. It is, again, just this simple opportunity to allow kids to marry who they are with what they're learning. And I think that this creates an opportunity for student voice to really come about and also to create engagement.” 

Engagement is Never Just About the Tech

Smith said when technology is working to help educators foster student engagement, no one thinks about it. “If you do technology properly, it goes away,” he said. “It physically disappears, and it allows something much more natural to occur in the classroom. So we're keenly focused on one thing and one thing only, and that's making tech seamless for teachers. It’s one thing to create a lesson plan when you're in a classroom. It's something entirely different, to try to make that translate over a PC and engage the student and bring them in. So that's what I consider to be the experience we're trying to reach.” 

Riggs said that as educators have become more comfortable with technology the opportunities to utilize it have increased. “In the past, if a substitute teacher was called in, they’d come into the classroom and didn't really have a handle on what was going on, they had to struggle through that, the students had to struggle through that, the administrators, and so on,” he said. “Those kinds of problems are going to start to be minimized.” 

Today, even if a teacher can’t make their class in-person, they might be able to teach it remotely, and the same thing is true with students and attendance, Riggs says. 

Funding For Tech Is Here But It’s All About Engagement 

Having the right setup is key to connecting with students in hybrid or remote settings. “Before it was a monetary issue,” Riggs said. “That's kind of gone away a little bit right now. There's a lot of money for education.” 

But he adds investments that schools make should be guided by recognizing the importance of teaching toward each individual student. “What do students like right now, they like clear audio, they like bright screens, they like interactivity,” Riggs said. “It goes back to teaching for the students. It's finding a solution that's engaging an instant gamification type of solution. It doesn't need to be an hour-long conversation on one math problem. It can be just micro lessons and engaging. Our students are just quick quick quick, absorb, absorb, absorb, you know, input output.” 

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Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a Tech & Learning contributor. A journalist, author and educator, his work has appeared in The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Smithsonian, The Atlantic, and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.