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Back to Basics: Keeping Students Engaged After a Year of Remote Learning

A small child in a pink shirt stretches out her arms over her head as she sits at a desk with a laptop on it.
A small child takes a moment to stretch between activities.
After months of remote learning, many teachers are struggling to make the experience engaging for kids, making it high time for a reimagining of strategies. But instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, why not go back to tried-and-true strategies? With that in mind, here are some simple tips and tech tools to help teachers reel their kids back into class.
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Before March 2020, few educators could have anticipated the upheaval that was about to unfold in everyone’s lives.

In what seemed like an instant, COVID-19’s arrival shattered traditional classrooms, and an uneasy feeling consumed the minds of students and teachers.

On the last day of in-person learning, educators were ushered into emergency staff meetings and told to do what many had never dreamed of doing before — teaching remotely.

At first, teachers struggled to pivot. Educators knew how to engage students in the classroom, but how would they be able to do that remotely?

As the months passed and teachers made do, the pandemic continued, making it clear that teachers would need to develop more ways to engage their Zoom-fatigued students.

Almost a year later, we’re in the same boat. The pandemic’s end might seem close, but there are still many more days of remote learning ahead. So instead of trying to reinvent the wheel, why not go back to basics? To tried and true strategies? With that in mind, here are some simple tips and tech tools to help teachers reel their kids back into class.

Foster a Better Learning Environment

Student engagement begins with an environment that is conducive to learning, no matter where the class is taking place. Just like many of us have taken the time and effort to refresh our workspaces, it can be helpful for some students to take a breather and reassess what their work area should be like, even after being in remote schooling for a while. A great way to start is to talk about what makes a good learning/workspace and encourage them to find one in their homes with their caregivers’ help.

Maybe all that’s needed is a little cleaning and decluttering session together, followed by moving forward with the intention to keep the space clean.

This can be challenging for some kids, but it’s not impossible when teachers are comfortable — and able — to communicate with kids and their caregivers.

Make Kids Comfortable with Participating

Understandably, many students are reluctant to participate in a remote classroom, so removing that barrier is key to engaging them in class. An easy way to begin making kids more comfortable is to start with empathy. Over the past months, we’ve all been in remote situations when we preferred to turn off our cameras. Kids are no different. Teachers can share those situations with their students to demonstrate their understanding and model times when it’s necessary to turn on their cameras and microphones. Even asking students to participate in a brainstorming activity to make a list of times when they’re required to turn their cameras and microphones on can be an effective way to give little students ownership of the process.

Teachers can also establish a system using hand signals, emojis, small dry-erase boards or other visuals that kids can use with their cameras to engage in classroom activities. Using these kinds of visual cues can be great fun for kids and can help them communicate effectively with you.

Get a Move On

It’s often difficult for young students to remain seated for long periods, so incorporating kinetic activities that allow them to get out of their seats and move around can also make remote learning more enjoyable. Add in a little bit of music during a transition from one activity to another, perhaps, and you get a great little moment of levity when everyone can take a breather together and get back in the groove of the class. For example, during a math lesson, children might be asked to find an object of a particular shape or size within their homes. These objects can then be shared with the class as a way to help everyone engage with the lesson at least once.

Plan It out As You Would Normally

Once teachers have established an effective remote classroom environment, they can really begin to teach. One key thing to remember is that planning an engaging remote lesson follows the same core principles as planning an in-person class. It’s always a good idea to start each lesson with clear objectives and step-by-step directions. And remember, students of all ages — but especially little ones — thrive in structured environments where they understand their success criteria for each day.

Encourage Collaboration as Much as Possible

Another great skill to flex is encouraging and rewarding collaboration. Within a remote classroom, collaborative activities promote socialization even though students are not physically together. As groups of kids collaborate, teachers can add polling questions to continue to drive discussion and increase student engagement.

Try Apps that Enable Game-Based Play

Kahoot is a popular tool for teachers for a reason: It’s simple, and it works. With an easy-to-understand format, it’s an excellent tool for all kinds of teachers, from those who want to go the extra mile and build their own curriculum-based games, to those who just want to search for games that are age-appropriate for their students.

Its tools also allow teachers to customize their lessons with music and images to make learning more fun for students. Lessons can also be self-paced or not, depending on each teacher’s needs.

One of Kahoot’s best features is that the student interface is very easy to navigate, especially for the littlest learners. And when teachers create competition-style activities on the platform, kids enjoy them so much, and they forget that they’re learning! When students are competing, the level of remote classroom engagement increases dramatically, as each question not only offers students the excitement of getting the answer correct but also leads to further review. Students then gain positive feedback and can use their performance in the game as a means of self-assessment, which, along with quick feedback, are key elements for student growth. The platform’s teacher dashboard can also be used to see which students need assistance or not.

Picker Wheel is another free online service that can increase student engagement in a remote classroom. Teachers can create a wheel that spins and lands on topics or student names. The random nature of the wheel is helpful when used as a way to call on students, since the expectation of who the wheel is going to land on can keep students interested.

It's also a great way to review content. Teachers can place topics students should know on the wheel, then spin it to select a topic for questions, review or discussion.

Have a Jamboard Session

Another great way to engage and assess students is to use the Jamboard extension or shared Google Docs within Google Classroom, which gives students the ability to contribute and express ideas with others in real-time using virtual ink Post-it notes.

Teachers can use the platforms to pose open-ended or opinion-based questions as a way to get students thinking. For example, during a first-grade language arts lesson covering Craft and Structure standards, the teacher might ask students, “What are some words in the text that show people’s feelings?” Students would then add those words and phrases to the Jamboard or in a Google Doc in real-time. Such an activity engages every student and can be a great way to access student achievement in real-time. Like in the game-based platforms mentioned above, teachers can identify students who may need a little extra help or to be challenged a little more, based on their contributions. Jamboard activities also encourage students who may be apprehensive about participating by adding a sense of anonymity to the activity.

While many students may still be forced to learn remotely for the foreseeable future, it doesn’t mean that engagement is dead, and we should resign ourselves to be Zoom zombies. With some planning and a little imagination, even remote classrooms can be places where students dive deep into learning.

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