Connections to peers and teachers in particular creates a sense of safety and empowerment for students, making way for them to ask questions and express curiosity without fear or embarrassment. In more typical circumstances, having more time with a teacher is beneficial to learning because students can assume that teachers will provide lessons and activities that are aligned with an accurate assessment of their skills and abilities. Because students are experiencing less one-on-one time with teachers, it may take more effort to establish the same trust in teachers that enables engaged learning.
While remote learning is creating new ways to educate students, Bonawitz notes that rapport between students and teachers is harder to cultivate as classrooms move to video conferencing platforms. Adding to that, teachers are even more pressed for time these days, notes DeBose.
“So much of the work that we do is building relationships with students, so that we can know them as people, which really then allows us to tap into figuring out what’s going to motivate them,” said DeBose. “Because we have an understanding of their interests and their stories and their experiences, we’re much better suited to create instruction that takes all of those things into account.”
“If kids cannot connect to what they are learning and the people that are around them, they are far less likely to be motivated to actually engage and learn,” she said. In these times of crisis, it becomes vital to make classroom content related to what students are experiencing in their day to day lives. HGSE professor Jal Mehta similarly suggests incorporating more variety and responsiveness into classes, saying teachers should “enable kids to propose different ways into topics.”
In practice, DeBose recommends activities that give students specific responsibilities when they are taking on class activities in groups, such as screen sharer, time keeper and a vibe checker. That way, “they all have a particular leadership role that impacts the success of the group.”
Fostering curiosity and motivation in your classroom
In some ways, distance learning has paved the way for students to have more positive school experiences. With shifting schedules, children have the ability to get more sleep, and online learning has released students from the anxiety of having to perform in classroom settings. In best cases, students are proving that they are able to thrive and learn in a variety of conditions.
“This work is so hard, period. But it’s even more difficult under these circumstances,” says DeBose. Because today’s educators have been tasked with reaching vulnerable students in the face of unprecedented uncertainty, trying to revamp and restructure classes starts to seem like an enormous undertaking. To counter this pressure, DeBose suggests connecting with other educators, prioritizing personal time and planning ahead as ways to free up bandwidth to iterate lesson plans.
With educators’ efforts in mind, there are three subtle moves that could bring about a significant change in approaches to cultivating classroom engagement.
Remember your own genius
Drawing from Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s 2020 book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework, DeBose advocates for teachers having faith in their own resourcefulness and ingenuity in navigating the pitfalls of the pandemic and its effects on teaching and engagement. As an educator herself, she says definitively, “What we are doing is so incredibly hard and we are doing good work.” In the face of blank screens from disabled videos and things outside of their control – like hybrid teaching or suddenly going online – teachers can benefit from seeing and modeling their own genius, intellect and curiosity as they try to draw these responses from students. To do this, DeBose shares her own learnings with her students, such as talking about being a beginning capoeira student. “I would tell my kids stories like ‘Yesterday I got kicked in the head!’ It’s really modeling that curiosity, that vulnerability of not being good at something and that you’re still doing it. And I think also modeling that you are seeking out opportunities to grow and learn.”
Less is more
Mehta has been advocating for education institutions to “Marie Kondo” their curriculum, applying the decluttering expert’s principles to keep only things that spark joy. He says it’s critical to lean into the approaches that engage students and allow for space for those ideas and practices to grow. While most teachers are under pressure from curriculums and standards, he rationalizes that “If it’s really important, there will be another chance to learn it, and if it’s just nice to have, you can let it go.”
Empower student agency over their curriculum
Empowering students to feel like they have agency over their curriculum can be as simple as offering a few options on assignments and classroom activities or asking for feedback on what is working, according to Bonawitz. These small actions can have a huge effect on whether students feel like they are the drivers of their own learning.