Literacy Partners

Keeping Kids Engaged With Distance Learning

One of the most common questions we’ve received these past few months inside our Office Hour sessions is around engagement.

How can we make sure we’re keeping kids engaged — especially now when they’re online and not in the classroom?

This is such an important question. Maybe you’re wondering about this too.

First, let’s define engagement, what it is, and what it isn’t. 

A few weeks ago, I attended a virtual workshop with the brilliant Ellin Keene. She’s written many professional books around teaching kids how to read and write. Her most recent book is Engaging Children: Igniting a Drive for Deeper Learning. I was excited to hear what she had to say on this topic, especially after researching and writing a whole book about it.

She started the workshop by talking to us about what engagement is NOT. 

She talked about how so often we’re confusing engagement with compliance. Compliance relates to safety and we shouldn’t be asking kids to be compliant except when it relates to their physical and emotional well being. For example, wearing your mask, trying to social distance, looking both ways before crossing the street. She went on to say, “Compliance isn’t relevant when we’re talking about literacy. When kids are doing something because we asked them to do it, this is compliance.” Then she went on to say something huge.

It’s tremendously problematic because it doesn’t lead to long term retention and reapplication of what children have learned. It lends itself only to the immediate completion of a task.” 

Whoa. This led me to think about all the spelling tests I took as a kid and even gave as a teacher. How many times did I cram for a test, get a high test score and then forget the next day? Sound familiar? If what we’re trying to create is more engaged learners, we need to go beyond a task or a worksheet.

Then she talked about confusing participation with engagement. Now I was scratching my head. Don’t we all tend to think that if our kids are participating, they’re engaged? Well, she gave us an example of a group of kids responding to one another or working together on a state report — one leader in the group assigning each child what to work on. The artistic child does the art work, and so on. We’re aiming for collaboration, and there’s a key difference in participation and collaboration.

In collaboration, there’s a problem to solve. Collaboration is far more likely to lead to engagement than participation. 

Years ago when I was working as a Staff Developer for the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, I worked with some teachers on engagement and independence in the workshop. In second grade, the lab site classroom teacher, Bailey, had a sweet class and during writing workshop, they sat at their desks to write every day.

During one of our sessions, I had a suspicion that they might not actually be writing much. I challenged Bailey and her colleagues to spread the kids around the room in special writing spots. At the meeting, they all agreed and then later that week, I received an email from Bailey saying that she didn’t quite understand why she needed to change the kids’ writing spots during independent writing. After all, the kids were working quietly at their seats. I questioned myself for a moment but then stuck to my recommendation and replied, “Bailey, can you observe them over the next week and see if they’re truly engaged in their writing? Are they focused? Are they producing a lot of writing?

A few days later she wrote me back.

She told me I was right. They weren’t writing much; they were just sitting quietly. Basically, they were compliant.

Can you think of a similar story of compliance? Do you see how important it is for us to move away from compliance to get kids to true engagement?

This week as you’re planning your teaching, I challenge you to look at your plans and ask yourself some questions.

  1. Are there times I’m asking kids to be compliant? If so, what can I do to change that so that we can move towards engagement?
  2. When I study kids’ participation, can I see if they’re just participating or truly collaborating?

These are the kinds of questions we answer in detail during office hours each month.

Office Hours Support is available to you if you’ve purchased one of our online programs or if you’re a current client. If you join us, you’ll have the opportunity to join us on the third Thursday each month from 3:30-4:30 pm Pacific Time.

If you found this article insightful, please forward it to a colleague or share on social media. You might also like these too:

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