Across the country, the pandemic has wrought a troubling trend towards disengaged students. However, Green Acres stands in defiance of that trend, offering a virtual and hybrid program that continues to authentically engage students and nurture their curiosity and sense of wonder. Michael's 5th, 6th, and 7th grade social studies classrooms are exemplars of engaged student learning, prompting students to cite some of his lessons and projects as among their favorite Middle School experiences. In this interview, Michael discusses what genuine engagement looks like in his classroom—be it virtual, in person, or hybrid—and why that engagement is so essential for students' learning outcomes.
What are the hallmarks of an engaged student?
When students are fully engaged, they come to class excited. When the kids start showing up early to class, either in person or virtually, and there's something they have to show me or tell me, that's when you know that they're genuinely excited to be in class. It's not a chore—coming to class is something they actually like doing.
What strategies do you use to engage students?
I try to meet the kids where they are to make class fun and exciting. I don't want it to be boring for them, so I find out what they're interested in. We work hard in class, but we play hard, too. And I think that's what students enjoy.
How have you adapted these strategies to accommodate the different modes of learning during the pandemic?
We've used Nearpod, Flipgrid, and Kahoot, and I've used this as an opportunity to do some distance reach-outs, like partnering with a high school in Gaither, FL, and playing Mystery Skype by having people from all over the place come in virtually and having students guess where they are. I'm trying to liven up things and keep it interesting.
What projects or assignments from your classes do you think especially highlight the ways in which your students fully engage in the coursework?
The Black History Museum shows this the best. This is a joint language arts–social studies project, and this year, because we're virtual, students will be designing websites to present what they've learned. I pick out lesser known African American figures from history who students will research, and I try to match students up with a person who I think they'll develop a strong relationship with. We don't have Barack Obama or Gabby Douglas or anybody like that; we have people like Jean-Michel Basquiat and Henrietta Lacks. These are people who really do have some fascinating stories, and the idea is that, as curators of this museum, students are cultivating, documenting, and maintaining the stories that deserve to be told but are not as well known. It's always fun when students start to learn about their person and realize why that person was interesting. Students get very passionate about this and are proud to learn about these people. You can see it in their eyes when they say, "Wow! I can't believe..."
What difference do you think that genuine engagement makes? How does engagement enhance a student’s educational experience?
Students begin to want to learn, and they take ownership of their education. They want to learn this material because they want to know it. There's intrinsic motivation to be there, to learn, to work. Every topic may not be the one that they are most excited to learn about, but we are able to have good, organic discussions about the material. When students are engaged, they come to class, they want to be here and participate, and they get something out of it and want to demonstrate their knowledge. ❖
Interview conducted by Talia Fishbine. Originally published in Middle School Beat Vol. II No. III in February 2021.