Interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Talia: What are the hallmarks of an engaged student?
Ali: I can tell when a student is engaged, whether it's virtual or in person, when they're asking questions and responding to my questions. I'm not a fan of standing in front of a room, talking for 45 minutes, and having silence; if it's silent, I don't think they're learning. There has to be a back-and-forth.
T: What strategies do you use to engage students?
A: Thinking routines are a way all of us at Green Acres engage kids—it's about these big essential questions. So, the way I introduced the India unit was by showing some really engaging photographs of India. Students responded to What did you see? What do you think about what you saw? What does it make you wonder? Very open-ended questions are the key to engagement.
T: How have you adapted your strategies and tools to accommodate the different modes of learning during the pandemic?
A: I think I will retain a lot of the things that I've found because there are some great resources out there! BrainPop has been huge for us. And there are all kinds of interactive math tools online, interactive dice you can roll, playing cards you can manipulate, base ten blocks you can use... There's literally every math material that you can imagine online. This is especially awesome because if I don't happen to have 10 full sets of base ten blocks, for example, we can pull it up on our computer, iPad, or shared screen. For reading, we've always used RazKids online as an assessment tool, but now I'm using it more than ever. This, along with Epic, Amazon Kindle, Amazon Unlimited, and Audible Unlimited, has been an amazing resource because if I want to share a book with a student, we can just find it online and read it together on a shared screen. Some of these resources I'll continue to use because they're engaging and have cute sounds or videos embedded in them that the kids find really fun.
T: What projects or assignments from your class do you think especially highlight the ways in which your students fully engage in the coursework?
A: A good example would be our shelters project, when we built a cardboard city called Primary Village. We started small: We were studying geometry, so I had students just building paper cities with geometric shapes they could identify (e.g., "These windows are rectangles," or "This roof is a triangle"). We had a city-planning meeting first, where we discussed how city planning works and looked at some engineering videos and books. We talked about what types of buildings are important to have in a city, what the needs of a community are, how we can meet those needs with the structures we're going to build, and how it might make sense to lay out this community. Then, the kids thought about what kinds of buildings they would like to make for the community and just started making them at home. (We're very grateful that parents have allowed that!) We had students bring the projects to school and set up the final product in the Gathering Space. Some students are still adding to it!
T: What difference do you think that genuine engagement makes? How does engagement enhance a student’s educational experience and outcome?
A: It's crucial. I cannot imagine trying to teach a student to read who doesn't love books and stories or trying to teach a student to manipulate numbers who doesn't think numbers and figuring out problems are cool. If they're not interested, they won't be engaged and they won't remember. Those thinking patterns and neural pathways won't really form unless there's internal motivation and engagement. You can just tell: When they're interested, they remember material and apply it. ❖
Interview conducted by Talia Fishbine. Originally published in Lower School Quarterly Vol. III No. III in February 2021.