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A Project That Changed Engagement for My Students

To put it lightly-- this school year is different. More different than any of us could have imagined when the world first shut down in March 2020. Remote teaching and learning was a fast pivot in the spring, but mainly a band-aid. Settling into the fall, with the expectation that remote learning was the foundation of the year, was different. In the Spring of 2020, Sam, a social studies teacher, and I, an English teacher, worked together with a pair of Humanities teachers from Liberty, Missouri on a Project Based Learning (PBL) experience titled Breaking Bias. Our project was centered on learning about diverse perspectives from others around the country through a dialogue based on a shared understanding and experience. Amidst the pandemic, this project was a spark of hope. My students engaged with peers from across the country in critical thinking and were enriched by the experience. In December of 2020, Alicia reached out to see if I would be interested in pairing up with Sam and his colleague, August, for another PBL project. I immediately said yes, excited for the potential to again impact a new cohort of students through the use of PBL and a school partnership. I want to tell you the beginning of our project's story that has already increased student engagement during this challenging time of remote learning.

Initial Meeting

The four of us met during our winter break on Zoom. After catching up with how we were handling full-time remote learning, we started brainstorming a humanities connection between Sam's sophomores and my juniors to promote student engagement in our classes. The engagement had dipped after starting the first quarter strong. It was important to us, given current events, to engage in critical thinking to promote spectrum thinking, argumentative writing, and critical consciousness. Sam mentioned a focus on the constitution for his US history class. Inspired by Elena Aguilar’s idea to foster reliance by identifying core values, we decided to define core values to drive the project going forward. This is what we came up with:

  • Democracy We believe active participation is the cornerstone of democracy because students should be prepared to “cause good trouble.”

  • Authenticity We believe our learning experiences should actively prepare them for the world outside of school/zoom.

  • Personal Growth We believe that students can achieve growth beyond test scores through reflection.

  • Community We believe that this moment in time challenges us to rethink what it means to belong to a community.

Project Idea

Using our core values, we started to generate potential project ideas. As the pandemic has raged, some of the darkest sides of America and American citizens have been revealed. We felt the disparities and injustices were worth exploring alongside the resiliencies juxtaposed with the hope and grassroots for change. Ultimately we wanted to empower our students to grow, discuss, and advocate for their view of the pandemic as members of Generation Z with the hope of sparking new engagement.

Ultimately we wanted to empower our students to grow, discuss, and advocate for their view of the pandemic as members of Generation Z with the hope of sparking new engagement.

Settled on our direction and why behind this meaningful work, we then crafted our driving question: How do our individual and collective stories from Chicago and Rochester expose both resiliency and inequalities within our democracy right now? From there, All Eyez on Z began to take shape. Our final product and end goal are to illuminate Generation Z’s voices and the pandemic’s impact from their unique perspective. So far, to reach this goal, we built background knowledge about communities, government, and the first amendment.

Embedding Unique To Us Approaches

As a team, we brainstormed various ways for teens in different geographic locations to build community. Using feedback from the Breaking Bias project, we planned a Zoom launch party. Our launch included an introduction, a Kahoot trivia about our cities, a would you rather Padlet, and small mixed group breakout rooms led by a teacher. It was an interactive, student-centered way to begin to build connections and form our own learning community with a common experience.

We found that many of our high school students struggled to participate during class time due to other obligations. We wanted to find an easy way for all students to participate, how a common project website was born. We are using a drip schedule model, where we slowly put in the tasks as they are needed. Each week we meet, and the agreed-upon tasks for both social studies and ELA make their way to our website. This offers one go-to place for students who may be working asynchronously to participate in the project easily and not worry about the differences in our school learning management systems.

Instagram, a popular Gen Z and Millennial social media tool, is something we established directly after the project kickoff. As the project began, the team planned out posts and stories to slowly build followers and cultivate interactions. The Instagram account is used to highlight our driving question, core values, and recently evolved as a tool to highlight student work and elicit an authentic audience. Ultimately all students participating will contribute a post to the page as part of our All Eyez on Z community., a tool for crowd engagement, is something we experimented with after first using Flipgrid. Our Flipgrid stats from task 1 produced a total of 81 videos and 34.5 hours of engagement. What is unique to is that students cannot read through other's responses until they post their own. Currently, task 2 Slido includes 91 student responses. The level of both the thoughtful, critical writing and student engagement with the help of Flipgrid and Slido is the highest I’ve seen from my students since the closure in March 2020.

Current Status

Our students have completed the first two tasks, and I couldn't be prouder of their work. From the class discussions, to the graphic organizers, to their voices amplified on Flipgrid and Slido- my expectations have already been exceeded. Both schools have seen an increase in participation of about 30%. Student engagement in Task 2 is what encourages me the most. We asked students to apply their knowledge of the constitution to a scenario with much gray area, which connects to our core idea of democracy. The responses were critical and pushed my thinking more than anticipated.

Both schools have seen an increase in participation of about 30%.

I find myself more enriched, providing more thoughtful feedback than ever, and the positivity of a community continuing to grow. This week, we are asking students to complete a mid-unit check-in. This data will drive our plans as we build towards our final product.

Three of our key questions:

  1. What is something you have learned or found interesting so far from this project?

  2. What do you want to do more of or would like to try for the second half of this project?

  3. How interested in this project are you in comparison to other units we have done this year?

Ultimately we hope to measure personal growth, continue to purposefully work towards our core values, and make any adjustments needed to increase engagement.

Our community will next dive into the pandemic's inequities, followed by the resilience to build a foundation for their upcoming posts. We want to foster authenticity in the form of these responses and address an authentic audience, and document personal growth.

Engagement isn't just about students.  It's about teachers too! Here are some recommendations for engaging during the second half of the school year. 1. Collaborate Reach out to someone in your grade level, subject area, building, or beyond. Discuss upcoming standards and how you could pair them together. Can you connect for a virtual dialogue? Be accountability or feedback partners? Be an audience for student led presentations? Peer teaching? The options are endless and can range from low to detailed prep depending on your agreed upon needs.   2. Experiment Choose one easy tool to integrate. For me, it was I first experimented using it as an anonymous check in for my advisory group of eighth graders who were hesitant to share via mic/camera. They loved to see each other's responses and guess who wrote what. It was a low-stakes way to get more conversation going. That same benefit transferred to this unit as well. I say all this to say- make it a small, low-stakes way to try something new. Evaluate how it goes, and take it one step at a time.    3. Ask and Listen Utilize student voices. Ask questions, and truly listen to students' responses. For example, in our mid-unit survey, we ask what students want to try and/or see more of. Based on their thoughts, we will design the opportunities into upcoming lessons and tasks.   4. Create accessible prompts to promote discussion Inspired by a social media post, we first asked students a simple question: do you return the shopping cart when you go grocery shopping? Students who had never participated before eagerly chimed into the discussion. Using such an accessible, universal experience brought out a spark of thoughts, analysis, and enthusiasm.    5. Focus on bright spots and showcase student work One way to engage students is to lift them up. We showcased and highlighted student work via our project's Instagram page. Once students saw their peers' work being displayed, six more students submitted their replies for our task 2 deliverable within a couple of hours. Students are watching and responding to the steps we are taking to recognize their efforts.


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