I’ve been struggling with one of my online middle school classes lately. One of my classes is fine – we connect together really well, regularly sharing jokes and genuinely laughing as we learn. The other class, however, represents a different experience. This class is regularly silent – rarely responding to prompts or participating in any way in terms of answering questions, sharing insights, or asking for clarification. And lately, too many students in this latter group have begun to jettison class soon after attendance is taken. Ugh.
This latter class is truly irking me. I consider myself a kind of engagement specialist – a teacher who can generate a meaningful connection or deliver a lesson that really engages and resonates. What is going on here?
I hate to admit it, but my first instinct was to take the behavior of the latter group very personally. I considered a number of punitive responses, such as pop quizzes to reward the students who stayed in class. I thought about writing to parents or even blocking the guilty students from my online classes for a number of days. Instead of these punitive measures, I decided to instead do some reflection on my instruction practices to see what I could change in order to bring this latter group to the learning table. Among the concepts I considered were my connection to both groups of students, the reality of Zoom fatigue, and the true nature of engagement.
One of the major differences between the above two classes – the one I connect with vs the one I do not connect with – is homeroom. The group I have a solid relationship with is also my homeroom. We meet for about 25 minutes every morning, discussing serious topics such as stress, workload, and parent pressures. We also spend time just getting to know each other, sharing memes, practical jokes, and our concerns. At one point this year, I started making a big deal about who came to our online class first each day. This has evolved into a full-scale competition, with kids trying to join my Zoom class well before the scheduled time in order to get an edge over their peers. I have a student who posts the comment “cheese” on our Zoom chat every day. I have another student who reports on the healthy food choice they had that morning, along with the fitness activity they engaged in. I have another student, Zooming in from another country, who shows off the latest American junk food item they were able to score. Writing this down, I recognize how frivolous this must sound to outsiders. But, my homeroom and I have crafted a community of people who know each other and know how to share insights and laughs in equal measures with each other.
The other class – the ones who ditch class after completing attendance – do not have that connection with me. And vice-versa. We are strangers to each other. Sure, I try to put instruction time aside to build a learning community. I do the same “who got to class first today” thing with this other group. I share jokes with them too. But, there is clearly a difference between the 25-minutes per day I dedicate to one group and the 3 to 4 minutes per class I can spare for the other group. The former group would never ditch my class. They would certainly and immediately let me know if I was growing stale or doing something lame. And in response, I would immediately acknowledge their wisdom and make the necessary changes to my procedures. The latter group – the students who regularly ghost out – they don’t tell me squat. And I have no idea what they need or want from class.
Another thought that occurred to me is that this latter group of class ditchers is my last class of the school day. My school put together a very thoughtful and generous online learning schedule for students when the COVID-19 situation continued at the beginning of the 2020/2021 school year. However, the one opportunity the schedule missed out on was in rotating from day to day to ensure teachers saw students at different times. When students have a non-rotating schedule, it is way too easy to fall into a rut in terms of those classes at the beginning of the day (“Ugh, this is too early!”) and those classes at the end of the day (“Ugh, isn’t the day over yet?!”).
I also have to confront the possibility that I am fatigued as well. After a few hours of online instruction, I might be a little spent also – lacking the spark I had earlier, the energy to inject some magic into my lessons, and the patience and understanding I demonstrated with earlier classes.
Am I Actually Getting Engagement?
I also took some time to think about the concept of engagement. My homeroom group seems more engaged than the other group. The former group makes jokes, responds to each other, asks questions, and shares insights. The other group behaves very differently – little sharing and almost no interaction.
Which group is genuinely engaged? To paraphrase The Princess Bride’s Inigo Montoya, I keep using the word engagement, but my idea of engagement might not mean what I think it means.
To deepen my understanding of the concept, I turned to education guru Dr. Douglas Fisher. He shifted my perception of engagement from the basic idea of an interactive relationship between a teacher and the students, to something more student and learning focused.
“The ultimate form of engagement is around driving your own learning,” says Fisher, co-author of Engagement By Design and The Distance Learning Playbook. In The Distance Learning Playbook Fisher describes an “engagement continuum” where students can exhibit a range of behaviors reflecting their level of engagement, moving from Participating, Investing, to Driving their learning. A number of the behaviors associated with the top end of engagement (Driving) include setting goals and self-assessment – behaviors that would go invisible in my current engagement paradigm. My second group of students, the ones who are not in my homeroom, might be in this top level of engagement, working independently on their own learning strategies objectives outside the Zoom environment. I wouldn’t be aware of this as I am focused on the lower-order engagement behaviors such as asking and answering questions, and displaying common “paying attention” behaviors, such as having their camera on and nodding during discussions.
So, the bottom line for this situation is that I have to focus on what I can actually have an impact on. I have to let go of the schedule concerns. I have one class as my homeroom crew and not the other. And, I have one class early in the school day and the other group at the end.
But, on the other hand, I can have an impact on my perception of engagement. My original concept of engagement, built around visible student interaction and attention behaviors, is a little off the mark. Just because students look like they are engaged doesn’t necessarily mean that they are learning. I need to let go of my existing paradigms and find ways to more accurately measure learning in my classes. Sure, I will still look for the surface-level clues, like asking questions or nodding. But, I need to move beyond these and develop instruction and assessment plans that link to higher-level engagement – but less obvious – behaviors.
In addition, I have to stop taking things so personally. It has been a long year for everyone and we are all tired. This self-proclaimed engagement king plans to take a deep breath and count to ten before overreacting to engagement things.
Take care out there!