Engagement Nightmares

August brings nightmares. If you are teacher, you know what I mean. Once the calendar flips pages from July to August, like a dying fish on a dock, my subconscious does a small tick, and I start having back-to-school dreams. Usually, they are about the class that I can’t control. Sometimes, they are about the class that I can’t find. Sometimes, they are about having to teach math.

Last night, the dream was about being trapped in a Zoom with students tuning in and out, the mute function not working, about a student I had never seen showing up to the meeting months into school.

The nightmare is real. Like those out-of-control classes, the ineffective Zoom looms large. Both can be fixed. Strong relationship building, teacher credibility and classroom management plans fix most behaviors; setting Zoom expectations and routines and procedures for remote, virtual experiences will help to make meetings productive. However, my nightmares with Zoom are about a larger issue.

My nightmare will come four to five weeks into school when teachers have made dozens of videos or found pre-made video content, plugged it into their LMS, and then set kids to watch hour after hour of video lecture. By early October, teachers will be burned out and kids will be disconnected. Don’t get me wrong! Video can be an excellent mode of communication, and one that our students see as an excellent means to learn from. However, if all we’re going to do with video is record a lecture of a teacher at a whiteboard from their remote classroom created on the fly in a basement, laundry room or attic, then we’re taking old conceptions of classrooms and learning and using them as a solution during a time that demands the utmost of our creativity and innovation as educators.

I think my nightmare was fueled by watching a replay of Fisher, Frey and Hattie’s webinar found in the Tweet below. It’s worth watching:

Before I go on, I want to also show you an image from Fisher, Frey and The Distance Learning Playbook. It’s referenced in the webinar, but it’s important to be able to focus on it here as well.

(104; Loc. 1842 of 3392)

What I love about Fisher’s and Frey’s work is that they raise the question of what it means to be engaged? [It’s worth reading their Engagement by Design: Creating Learning Environments Where Students Thrive (2017). There’s no easy answer to this, and it looks differently across grades and subjects; however, in the image above, the right hand side identifies key actions that show students are engaged. We might generalize and say that students are engaged when “doing work” or “submitting work” and that they are really connected to learning when they are setting goals for what they want to learn about topics or identifying skills that they want to improve on, and asking for teacher expert perspective on where they could improve.

Again, my fear about seeing remote learning as only a series of videos and digital worksheets or digital flashcard programs is that it doesn’t get us beyond the participating level of engagement. It becomes even more problematic when the videos are poorly produced, the delivery is weak, the content is challenging, then at best you will have students actively withdrawing and avoid.

What to do? Working towards solutions.

Let’s set some parameters for videos:

  1. Videos should be no longer than 5 minutes.
  2. Make videos–students will be able to re-watch and review to remember and reinforce.
  3. More conceptually difficult material that take longer than 5 minutes to present should be broken into 5 minute chunks.
  4. Use video for giving directions and guidance.
  5. Pair videos with other strong digital learning frameworks. See below.

The beginning of August brings not only the back-to-school nightmares, but also the time when teachers are turning their thinking to getting ready for the school year. Here, in my district, we are not scheduled to return to school and have students in front of us until around or about September 8th. That’s about five weeks from now. In that time, I’m going to be working with three active strategies to engage students once we get to the content part of the course. Each of these strategies may be new to you, may require that you think about instruction in a new way, may necessitate you reading books, may require some imaginative leaps to get your content there, AND are necessary to engaging students with learning. I offer them here with the key link to more information to assist you with your back to school planning and as a foundation for the classes I’m going to try to create this coming school year.


Hyperdocs are not just digital work sheets. A worksheet is an assignment for students that helps them to learn or practice and concept or skill. A digital worksheet is a worksheet that’s done in a digital fashion. For those familiar with the SAMR framework, a digital worksheet simply substitutes out the paper, and may offer some augmentation certain elements. Last spring, digital worksheets were the stop-gap during the situation of emergency teaching. If you want digital worksheets, then you go to Teachers Pay Teachers. If you’ve bought anything from TPT, then you are using digital worksheets.

Hyperdocs are different because the teacher acts a curator of the content, provides activities that help the student form knowledge and thinking around the content or topic, and then the student decides how they want to display their learning. Within the doc, the teacher provides links to resources and other web-based tools to help. Here the student is at the center, and the teacher is acting as curator and facilitator.

The best place to go on the web for is the homepage for all things Hyperdocs. This will give you the rabbit hole to fall into, a link to purchasing the excellent manual, and lots of examples.


This set of tools are the work of Marlena Hebern and Jon Corippo. There are now two books with dozen of activities to be used that help students actively engage in the content. Most, if not all of, the protocols have digital applications, so they are easy to pick up and use in remote environments. What’s great about the protocols is that they work across contents and grade levels.

Fall down another rabbit hole by going to the website, found here.

Visible Thinking Routines.

The last rabbit hole I’m offering today comes from Harvard’s Project Zero.

Like Eduprotocols, the thinking routines are activities to help with different kinds of processes that we want students to engage in. They are grouped around particular learning outcomes. There’s a lot to digest in their website, but I think you’ll be bookmarking it and using it throughout your year.


I know that in previous blog posts, I was going to show what the opening weeks of my courses were going to look like. I haven’t forgotten, and I’m getting there. I feel like some pieces are starting to come together for me. These pieces are the two hybrid models, and the opening days of school, and now some instructional strategies for student engagement.

With any luck, this might keep the nightmares at bay.