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.

Hybrid Learning: Two Models to Ponder

Here’s the introduction to what I’m fumbling through today:

First, I want to start with two resources that have reinforced or shaped the thinking that is going on here. Start by going to the Global Online Academy to explore their resources. Then, check out The Emergency Online Blog. Caufield’s video “How I would approach the fall semester” is a much watch, and has helped with the models I’m conceptualizing here. While he’s writing to a university audience, his structure has merits for the K-12 population.

Continuing to build routines and procedures

At the start of any school year, setting up the organization of the classroom is an important part of classroom management. The organization of the course in our LMS is essential. Below is a mock-up of what my Schoology course will look like in the opening week:

In this mock-up, I’ve included essential items that will always be present within my course: a link to “office hours,” a “Help Desk” folder with How-to videos on technology related items, and a dedicated parent folder with the course syllabus and FAQ document or page. The entire course can be viewed on the screen. There’s no scrolling down to see items on the page.

There’s also a folder for the content of the week. The folder is dated, and the items within the folder have specific names and due dates included in the titles. Notice that there’s no links to PDFs or other documents. In the “Take the Quiz on the Syllabus,” I would embed a link to the syllabus within the quiz. While every grade level is different, I do very little reading of documents and review of documents and directions to students. With something like a syllabus, I would expect students to read it on their own, come to class with questions for clarification, and then take a quiz to show that they had read the document. This kind of move is even more important in the coming year where I’ll have little time in a face-to-face setting.

As I move week to week, I will either unpublished old folders or put older materials in to “Previous Weeks” so students can access.

This organization and design will be present and it’ll be maintain consistently. From the first day, students see the organization, it can be reviewed with them in those first classes. In this way, I’m setting a routine for them and how they access materials. I also build credibility with them–I’m organized, I’m taking care of you, and I have the forethought to put this together in a way you can easily consume. It’s another foothold for our relationship building when we get to the academic part.

What I’ve described above is one way in which Schoology can be used in a streamlined way that’s easy for students to consume. I have some other suggestions that I’ll get to in future blog posts.

Two Approaches to the Hybrid:

In my introduction, I summarized the current plan the district has to bring students back into the buildings through a hybrid schedule. Some students two days of the week and other students on opposite days. In the graphic below, I puzzle on how this might look:

Reflection on these models:

  1. Once I decide which of these to pursue, I would stick to the plan for the first quarter, and then assess through self-reflection and discussion with families and students.
  2. In-depth formative assessment is essential. The need to know where students are at when they are coming to a class session helps to give the best chance at developing a lesson plan to address those needs. Sure, quizzes and other objective measure are one part of this. But, I also see email, discussions, Flipgrids, and video chats being important to collect the “What do you need me to talk about in class today?” This is making me think that I need to model these student input pieces and make some procedures for them in those first weeks. I’m totally leaning towards Flipgrid as the go to tool for this, as students don’t necessarily need to be in their video.
  3. What is the best use of class time? In the above diagram, I use the phrase “Essential Direction Instruction.” While I’m an advocate for video lessons and students learning through watching video, there are times when I have a piece of content that I want a live audience for because there are always immediate clarifying questions or my need to check for understanding.
  4. As a writing teacher, the workshop model is valuable. In this model, the teacher provides some instruction at the beginning of the class, and then the students spend the rest of the time working on applying that concept into the writing they are working on. When students work, the teacher then is free to circulate to check on the application of the material, work 1:1 with the students, or conduct writing conferences. Is this the best use of class time in the cohort model? It seems less so in the “Zoomflex,” and perhaps even problematic.
  5. In his video, Caufield speaks to the use of breakout rooms as part of a class meeting, so that students can collaborate and connect. Additionally, if there are students in the physical room, they could socially distance by each joining a different breakout room. This will take some work to fully conceptualize and to figure out how to manage productively with high school students. However, I do see the application in a literature classroom for discussion, for peer conferencing, multimedia project planning. I also like the idea that in the “Zoomflex” we build an attitude of “together, apart.”
  6. My takeaway from items four and five above, is that class time should really focus on student interaction. Discussion, collaborative activities, and stuff that can’t be done through a screen. Like many, by April of last spring, I felt burned on virtual meetings. Given what we’re facing in the coming year, there will be lots of virtual and lots of video. If possible, can we use class time to reduce digital technology use, and be a bit analog in our work and in our relationship building.
  7. Does the cohort model essentially double the preparation load? I don’t think so, but I certainly will be grading each day to make sure I can be on top of where students are at. This works fine for me. I’m not someone who can sit for hours to grade all the students I’m responsible for in one sitting. Also, some of the “grading” is really assessment checks to guide lessons, and may not necessarily need the clerk-work of grade assigning or recording. This is another reason I like video responses from students in Flipgrid.

This is a good start at capturing the two models as I see them currently and at starting to evaluate their effectiveness. Sorry, no outro video today, but maybe next time. Do you have other ideas for how it might look in the hybrid model or what other models for the school year have you heard about there. Leave a comment or DM me.