In mid-October, Edweek Market Brief published a startling statistic: “An estimated 1.3 million students stopped engaging with their schools at the end of the last academic year.” In a school year that continues to be defined by remote and blended learning, this raises critical questions for administrators and teachers: how can we rethink student engagement and adjust our approach to motivate young learners?
For a recent webinar, Newsela gathered an innovative group of educators to discuss those questions and examine lessons learned so far. Over the course of an hour, they shared ideas and examples for how schools can make the most of instructional time in a range of ever-evolving environments.
Dan Cogan-Drew, Co-founder and Chief Academic Officer, Newsela
Heidi Hayes Jacobs, Founder and President, Curriculum Designers Group
Dr. Ann Johnson, Chief Academic Officer, Humble ISD
Amanda Kopp, Grade 5 Teacher, Humble ISD
How a new kind of framework informed a school district’s blended learning plan
Dan Cogan-Drew kicked off the discussion by reminding viewers that when deciding whether to engage, students are asking themselves two questions: Can I do this? Do I want to do this? In thinking about these questions, Heidi Hayes Jacobs noted that when schools don’t have a framework to make game-time decisions and be responsive with their curriculum, they end up just trying to keep students busy. And in a transitional time of blended learning, more is actually less: with distractions all around them, many students see a laundry list of tasks and just feel overwhelmed.
Instead, she said, schools need to ask themselves what they can cut out and cut back, so they can dive deeper into key concepts and move important skills into the foreground. Next, they should consider what can be consolidated, aligning multiple subject areas around common topics and themes. The end goal? Providing streamlined, flexible templates that teachers can use to create clear throughlines and break work into manageable chunks.
To illustrate how this framework comes to life, Dr. Ann Johnson shared how the Humble Independent School District worked with Heidi to shift their approach when COVID-19 hit. The district had already adopted a learner-centric model, but considering the social-emotional issues students were facing with the pandemic, they knew they had to streamline. The key to their solution was developing templated “Learning Sets,” which chunk learning into shorter periods (from several days to about a week) and are built around an essential question that gets students engaged. The Learning Set templates helped teachers identify what they wanted their classes to discover, explore, and practice, with clear tasks and resources tied to each step. As Dr. Johnson explained, teachers got it right away—everyone was hungry for an approach that would streamline learning and could guide communication with parents.
Making district-level decisions that empower teachers to engage students
While Ann detailed the steps Humble ISD took at the district level to adjust to blended learning, fifth grade teacher Amanda Kopp shared the types of decisions being made at the classroom level to further engage students. Since teachers were empowered to adapt the Learning Sets and include their own activities and assessments, Kopp worked to motivate her students with activities she knew would appeal to their interests.
Examples she shared included teaching a lesson on volume using minecraft, filming a TikTok video on light energy, and creating a “Harry Potter escape room” to help students practice measurement conversion. She noted that in addition to capturing her student’s attention, these fun, accessible entry points to lessons also showed vulnerability, and helped create a common interest in the classroom.
Kopp also stressed the importance of using lessons to combat the physical and emotional strain of the pandemic. She designed special activities to get students up and away from their devices, like a volume measurement practice that required finding different types of containers around the house. She scheduled one-on-one interviews to help foster a sense of connection, and she and fellow teachers created a writing unit where students were asked to reflect on the unusual school year through poetry.
Bringing lessons learned into our post-pandemic future
The panelists also spent time reflecting on how what we’ve learned this year is not limited to blended learning—it can, and should, inform future approaches to curriculum and teaching. Jacobs and Dr. Johnson discussed how the pandemic has caused schools to focus on what’s really important, and a big part of that is trusting teachers and cultivating talent: if the teachers are engaged, the kids will be too.
On student engagement, Kopp raised the importance of giving students choice in how they respond to assignments. She shared that some students who might not speak in front of the class would instead dress up and make a commercial on Flipgrid, and providing options increased the percentage of students submitting work. Dr. Johnson added that when it comes to feedback, students overwhelmingly want more projects. They also appreciate seeing the full week at a glance, something the “Learning Sets” have helped make possible.
That theme carried through to the panelists’ final thoughts, with Amanda sharing how her class has been able to shift from a “checklist-oriented” approach in the spring to aligning around a common goal for the week. Dr. Johnson reinforced that they want their students to become self-directed learners, and the pandemic has provided an opportunity to build on reflection, goal-setting, and helping students recognize they can meet challenges. Jacobs closed with a reminder for schools to take the long view: none of us will be the same after this year, but if we can cultivate fresh approaches to learning — that will have been a silver lining.
Watch the entire session here.