Keeping Kids Engaged: 5 Ways Teachers Can Connect with Students During COVID-19
This article was originally published in Smartbrief on September 15, 2020.
As a Reading Connections teacher for middle school students, I usually get to spend two or three years teaching, working with, and getting to know my students. I prioritize building relationships and I believe that’s the foundation of education.
Not surprisingly, when school as we know it shifted due to the coronavirus pandemic, it really affected me and my students. For example, I usually get to say goodbye to my eighth graders when they go off to high school, but that wasn’t possible this time around.
The COVID-19 school shutdowns created many other disconnects between students and their teachers. The good news is that teachers are a creative bunch, and we have technology at our avail to help fill some of those gaps.
5 tips for staying connected
Through the shutdown, and as we look to the upcoming school year, here’s what I learned about how to maintain human connections even when teaching remotely:
1. Communication with parents is huge
When we started teaching remotely I handed out the assignments and let my students know that we’d continue using the Lexia PowerUp Literacy platform. Unfortunately, about 50% of my students fell off the bandwagon pretty quickly. I couldn’t get in touch with many of my students or their parents. I learned quickly that communication with parents plays a major factor in their children’s participation.
2. Finding new ways to keep students engaged is valuable
It’s not always easy to keep the attention of students when you’re not standing in front of them. Something I tried was to have them “help” me cook remotely. I’d pull out a home chef meal and send them the directions. I had a huge Zoom-room full of students reading me directions on how to cook. For them, it wasn't just adventure; it was reading for information.
3. Reading platforms are foundational
I started using Lexia for the 2019-20 school year after my administrator suggested it. She heard many great reviews about the platform and knew our existing tool was a bit outdated. I personally don't like monotony, so I was eager to change things up. When the pandemic hit, we made up packets for the kids — including those who didn’t have access to technology or the internet at home — and used all of the offline activities and lessons that come with the program to support learning. I would print everything out, circle each student’s level, and have the front office distribute the packets to families.
4. Small virtual classrooms are best
Teaching a full class using Zoom is very difficult. I saw some schools doing this, but it just didn’t align well with my teaching (or their learning) style. Instead, I used small groups and paired the virtual conference with the Google Classroom platform, where students could get all of the support materials that they needed. Working in small groups made it much easier to identify students’ needs, determine their challenge areas, and then address those issues. Sometimes we would just chitchat and talk about whatever was on their minds—because maintaining that relationship is so vital. Small-group sessions were both engaging and way more effective.
5. Recognize the individual “wins”
I had one eighth grade student who struggled with reading his whole life. When we went into a shelter-in-place mode, I made sure to stay engaged remotely. He finished his reading program through Lexia within two weeks of us being home, way ahead of the school year calendar. Here was a student who wouldn’t read three sentences out loud when I met him, to one who now was reading on grade level and ready for high school — all within one school year. I celebrated his success by making him a “congratulations”yard sign. He was so excited and his parents sent me a picture of him standing next to it.
As we continue to work toward a workable educational approach for the 2020-21 school year, there’s a lot of uncertainty in the air. The good news is that everything I learned through remote learning this spring will make me a better teacher this coming year—no matter where my students are.
Ashley Perkey is a reading teacher at Carroll County Schools’ Bay Springs Middle School in Villa Rica, Ga.
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