Five Tips for Increasing Zoom Engagement

A MiddleWeb Blog

This post is an ode to all those teachers who remember Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and might hear these words slip out – “Bueller? Bueller? Bueller?” – while we are calling on Ike, whose camera is off and whose black silence is like that of the grave.

It’s hard for Ike. I know it. It might be especially hard with tween and teen learners. They have a dearth of autonomy in school to begin with, and are also in the middle of a world-changing event where even their normally stable circumstances are likely well out of control. So where are they going to find some sense of agency?

Teens and tweens discover myriad, sometimes rude, sometimes truly funny, ways to game remote schooling.

In the months between September and now, I have seen blank documents and PowerPoints uploaded to mimic work, drawing functions used to scribble in thick red lines over daily agendas, mooing into an anonymous microphone like a cow, and – most recently – entering the Zoom room fictionally and unannounced under the name of the principal. (Add your favorites in the comments.)

I don’t need to say that some of your kids will be having legit tech issues. I can tell you the story of my EL student’s metal trailer roof interfering with her hotspot sometimes, and such cases should be treated with the care and compassion they deserve.

But mostly, what I have seen is garden variety rebellion: cameras off, mics off. And I’m here to tell you that you already know how to handle this with far more cool than Ferris’s economics teacher. (Although that guy was untouchable, honestly.)

Tip #1:
It’s NEVER Too Late to Reset Your Norms.

Never.

Have you never uttered a word about how kids should be using their mics and cameras and now regret it deeply? Reset your norms. Got a week before your second semester class switches out? Reset your norms. A chaotic Friday before break? Reset your norms. Don’t wait until “the right moment.”

Sit down and draw up what you wish you had said in September before getting a few months of this insanity under your belt. Then take a class period to implement, publish, distribute, and practice your new norms – and stick to them.

Better yet, ask the KIDS to help you reset your norms. Ask them what their best online experiences have been so far. Ask them what really irritates them about online behavior (from kids or adults). Ask them what’s hard. Ask them what they appreciate.

And then figure out a set of norms together for your online classes that you review constantly, revisit consistently, and revise occasionally. They will thank you for it – and, in a digital classroom where their teacher is actually listening to what they are saying, they may skip trying to find control through pretending their Internet connection is glitchy.

Tip #2:
Entrance and Exit Tickets

One of the most common techniques I see for kids to seize some online power is to treat start and end times for online class as suggestions rather than expectations: showing up 10 minutes late, half way through the class, leaving for good during a transition to independent work, the Zoom “Admit” bell ringing like an overactive Salvation Army volunteer while we’re just trying to get through our PowerPoint. A solution? To make the kids physically accountable for being active at the beginning and end of class.

Entrance and exit tickets can range from extremely low stakes polls and fun forms to genuine pre- and post-assessments. Do some experimenting and see what kind of tickets work best for engaging your classrooms, and/or what exceptions you will allow. No matter the content, however, the presentation must always be the same: “This is graded, required work, kids. If you’re not online when I need you to be online, you don’t get a chance to do it. Period.”

Tip #3:
The Zoom IS the Hotel California

(You can check out anytime you like, but you can never leave.)

This tip, related to Tip #2, involves setting clear expectations about when students can leave the Zoom classroom. I would strongly suggest never – or at least, never without your permission. That doesn’t mean students can’t (with your explicit say-so) turn off their cameras and mute their mics to do independent work, or use any combination of mic and camera that best suits your teaching.

But establish immediately and early the expectation that students should be in the Zoom room at all times. If they leave, tell them you will assume it is because something is wrong, and just like in real life, you’ll need to check with their families about why.

Tip #4:
Popsicle Sticks

Pull out those popsicle sticks, checklists, and clothes pins! Make sure you’re actively calling on each and every student for an audible, oral answer at least one random, unpredictable time during your online class.

Make clear that this participation, too, is monitored, graded, and required. Give feedback to the kids (and their families) compassionately, but immediately, when this oral work is not completed on the regular.

Tip #5:
No Opt Out

Long ago in the before-times, I reviewed Doug Lemov’s Teach Like a Champion, and if there is one thing that’s stuck with me, it’s his technique of “No Opt Out.” It is quick, easy to learn, and darn effective. I use it all the time. You can see the whole thing here — Pay special attention to the four formats Lemov suggests.

I would suggest that the transfer of No Opt Out to the digital space renders it even more powerful. Kids can choose to not turn in work or not turn on their cameras, but when you’ve started interacting with them on audio, there is a subtle, invisible social pressure for them to respond to you. Use it to your (and their) learning advantage.

A Two-Way Street

Of course, all these tips come with a caveat which, I think, now it’s February, that teachers are ready to hear: the most effective means of engaging students online is to deliver content that is worth showing up for. Where are you asking the kids to use their brains, and where can they get away with passivity? Where are you asking them to do meaningful tasks, and where are you wasting their time?

Online learning’s efficacy is even more sensitive to the question of worthiness than face-to-face learning, I might argue. If your students aren’t interacting with you enough, do think about management fixes – but be brave enough to not opt out on yourself, and ask yourself the questions that need to be asked about your content.

Dina Strasser teaches middle and high school English learners in upstate New York. She is co-author with Ron Berger and Libby Woodfin of Management in the Active Classroom.

Leave a Reply