Teaching through Disruption: Maintaining Connections (Part 2)

One of the major challenges of transitioning to online learning is finding ways to keep students engaged with the class, the content, and their classmates.

Best Practices April 27, 2020

In Part 1 of this series, we discussed struggles and general tips related to a sudden transition to online learning with high school students. In this article, we will focus on ways to keep students engaged and connected during this transition. One of the major challenges of transitioning to online learning, particularly with high school students, is finding ways to keep students engaged with the class, the content, and their classmates. Luckily, the high school teachers that I talked with had many tips for encouraging students to stay connected.

Keeping Students Engaged with Content

One way to keep students engaged with the content while learning from home, according to Steve Moor, who teaches language arts and social studies at Hood View Junior Academy, is to change emphasis away from a mentality of rating to one of coaching. One of the advantages of having students at home is that they have more chances for the introspection that having time alone offers. It also provides an opportunity to focus on elements that require more practice and experimentation. That makes this is an excellent chance to coach students as they work on developing complex skills instead of focusing purely on imparting information. Choosing a coaching attitude will help students feel valued and engaged.

Keeping students engaged while learning from home requires balancing creating interesting material with keeping things consistent enough to not overwhelm students. Making too many changes can backfire. Bryce Sampsel, math teacher at Auburn Adventist Academy, noted that he has tried to “maintain something similar to what they would have in class. The assignments and expectations are not significantly different.” Where exactly you choose to strike that balance will depend on your students and your personal teaching style.

Create Class-like Environment
Although duplicating the physical classroom is neither possible nor desirable, creating elements of similarity may help students when they are dealing with many changes. Being able to see you and their classmates can help with this. David Nino, music and Spanish teacher at Highland View Academy, notes that “It is important to have an aspect where students can see and hear you, so a lot of multimedia materials are important.”

Several teachers mentioned using video conferencing tools such as Zoom to connect with their students. In addition to allowing students to see you and their classmates, some video conferencing tools allow screen mirroring as well, which can be used to show PowerPoints and other lesson materials. It is generally best to use less time video conferencing than you would usually spend in class. Martin Surridge, who teaches English, AP Literature, and AP History at Lodi Academy, recommended a blended approach: “I use videoconferencing to check-in on my students, tell jokes, keep it lighthearted, let them ask questions, and then allow them to get on with their own assignments at their own pace.” One common method for allowing students to ask questions and keep discussions going outside of the formal class time is creating a Google Hangout for students in each class. Using a blended approach can also be useful because as Randy Bovee, principal and teacher at Armona Academy pointed out, many students need to share devices with siblings and parents.

If you choose to do video conferencing, make sure you set up safety measures to protect your meeting. For example, Zoom has recently had instances of people hacking into meetings and saying or showing inappropriate things, so some simple precautions are a good idea if using that service.

Keeping Students Engaged with Their Teacher and Each Other

School Connection
One method for helping students stay connected with your school and their classmates is through larger group video conferencing sessions. For example, Sierra View Junior Academy has a brief Zoom meeting each Monday morning with all their upper grade students, and a short meeting on the other days for each homeroom individually.

Connection between Students
As already mentioned, communicating on one messaging app during class time can be useful, but Steve Moor suggested using Google Hangouts to help students connect outside of class as well. Because of the potential for misuse, it helps to set clear expectations in advance and communicate with parents about its use.

Connection with Individual Students

Individual check-ins and calls can be helpful, especially for students in tough situations. Bruce Sampsel suggested that setting up virtual office hours using technology like Google Handouts can provide more connection as well. Messaging students individually with feedback and encouragement to engage can also be helpful.

Whatever strategies you choose for maintaining connection with your students, remember to give grace to yourself and to your students. Finding what works for you and for your students will be a gradual process with adjustments needed along the way.

In Part 3 of this series, we will look at online resources you can use in your teaching and reflections on how the current crises may affect education in the future.


Keri Conwell graduated from Walla Walla University with Bachelor's degrees in English and Psychology and an MAT degree in Secondary Teaching. She is currently serving as a project manager for CIRCLE and has served as a high school English teacher at Mount Vernon Academy and a K-10 Physical Education teacher at Ukiah Junior Academy, USA.

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