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How Should Teachers Engage Students Online?

Student engagement is a topic that has been plaguing teachers for years. It is the focus of dissertations, professional development, and lunch room discussion. It’s no secret that students learn better when they’re actively engaged in the material. How do we engage students in learning? That’s the million dollar question. How do we engage them in an online setting? That’s worth two million. 


In the classroom, I employ many strategies to engage my students in the content, which is no easy feat when asking middle schoolers to get excited about grammar. I use their names in sentences; I allow them to work with partners; I give choices in order to give kids a sense of ownership; I give them manipulatives; I try to allow students to be creative and silly; and yes, I’ve even given out the occasional Jolly Rancher or Dum-Dum lollipop. 


Unfortunately, most of these strategies just aren’t possible when teaching remotely. Given the very real possibility that learning will take place even partially online this coming school year, the question begs consideration. 


Rethink Motivation


In order to create successful online students, teachers must first rethink motivation. In the classroom, there’s a good chance that the teacher starts most lessons with a small token to motivate students. Even if it’s something as simple as, “Learning to calculate percentages will be helpful in figuring out sales tax, loan interest, or when there’s a sale at your favorite store,” something that grabs students’ interests will make them more invested in the lesson. In an online setting, this is equally as important. If students think something is “busy work,” you’ve lost them. 


There’s a quote by Zig Ziglar that reads: “People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing. That’s why both are recommended daily.” Anyone who’s tried a diet and exercise plan knows this to be true. It’s a hard fact to face, but most students just aren’t intrinsically motivated. In an online setting, we need to focus less on motivation and more on commitment. 

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Ask for Commitment


If I asked most adults if they were motivated to get up and go to work each day, the answer would be no. But we do it anyways; not because we are motivated, but because we made a commitment (and the paycheck helps.) Commitment and motivation can go hand in hand, but they don’t have to. 


I ask my students to make a commitment at the start of the school year. I will let them work out the actual wording themselves (small writing assignment), but the concept will be the same for all. I will ask them to commit to one thing. They will commit to completing homework. They will commit to participating in class more often. They will commit to working harder than they did last year. It will be different for each student, but they will commit to whatever behaviors will lead them to success. 


In the business world, commitment is an indicator of success. Craig Petrus, Executive Director of Career Services at the University of Florida says, “Commitment leads to career ownership and career ownership leads to success.” I believe the same principle can be applied to education. 


Education experts agree that when students take ownership of their learning, they become engaged in the learning. They have a stake in it. It matters to them now. Shifting the mindset of our students will shift their thoughts, behaviors, and success in and out of the classroom. 


Create Ownership


Part of student engagement is getting students to do those little tasks along the way that will lead them to success. That’s why it’s often more meaningful to set processes and not just goals. It’s great to say that your goal is to be a millionaire one day. But how will you actually go about achieving that goal? It’s going to take commitment. 


Because I Said I Would is a social movement and nonprofit that promotes bettering humanity through making and keeping promises. Ask students to write down their promises to themselves as it pertains to their education on a promise card. Then, make sure they are following through on their promises as the year progresses. When students see their own words to themselves in their own handwriting, it will create ownership in the promise. It’s not one more thing their teacher is telling them to do. It is a commitment they made and will keep, because I said I would.

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So What? 


Whether in a classroom or online, schools are a magical place. We teachers have the opportunity to teach standard grammar and calculating percentages at the same time as teaching commitment and good habits to our students. 


If teachers could all teach Fortnite, Celebrity News, and Sports G.O.A.T.s in our curriculum, student engagement might not be quite as tricky of a topic. Unfortunately, being an adult in today’s society requires a few more skills than video games and YouTube can teach us. Most kids may not start to see the value in these skills until late in high school. Getting students to commit to behaviors leading to success may help them see the value in what they are learning and therefore, become more engaged. 

Author: Anne DeGerolamo

Anne DeGerolamo is a chocoholic, bookworm, and mom of two. Because of her immense love of grammar, by day, she works as a middle school language arts teacher. She earned a degree in writing and a master's in education. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA with her family. Anne's words to live by are, "Be kind. Eat chocolate."