In the summer of 2019, I was reeling from the worst year of teaching I had experienced in ten years.
We all work in different school environments, so I’ll stress that this wasn’t the worse year anyone could have in the classroom. To be totally clear, I can imagine worse ...
Student engagement didn’t exist in my classroom and my heartfelt attempts to succeed at creating and nurturing it failed miserably. I have a tendency to exaggerate, and I’ve often wondered if it really was as bad as it felt. We are our own worst critics, right?! But, no matter how bad it was or wasn’t, it surely felt horrible.
In fact, the COVID pandemic made it more likely for you, if you are a teacher in a traditional brick-and-mortar environment, to relate to this plight. Remember the year 2020 when, more than likely, you were forced to adapt your plans to be an effective teacher via video that streamed directly into student homes? Well, that’s my habitat! I am a high school chemistry teacher who works with students and families that have chosen distance learning in a cyber school over traditional learning. And, while their reasons for doing so might be varied, the challenges I have faced for 12 years are the same ones you may have experienced during the chaos that was 2020.
Throughout the 2018-2019 school year, few of my students even acknowledged me when they logged into the virtual classroom. Here I am, Ms. Bubbly, warmly welcoming everyone as they arrive, and I’m met with crickets each and every day! They didn’t even type “hello” in the chat.
I’m a second-career chemistry teacher. I left the lab and the corporate world to be more social and more directly impactful to society, so this reality hit me really, really hard. Looking back, I’m not sure it was any different in the years leading up to that 2018-2019 academic year, but in that particular season of my life and my career, my spirit was overcome by it. I even went through a bit of depression over it, for sure. I daily searched for an escape, to find a traditional, brick and mortar teaching job in my area or an alternative remote work option editing curriculum or even tutoring. The grass is always greener on the other side, after all! But, I just couldn’t seem to jump the fence and none of those options were ever realized.
We’re supposed to “make lemons from lemonade”, so they say. So, I chose to turn my misery into my mission. I stopped whining about it, and, as that school year ended, I spent a lot of time on the internet researching research. You read that right! Instead of searching for new jobs in a desperate effort to leave my classroom, I searched for guidance to help me make strategic, instructional changes and transform my classroom.
Finding Inspiration for How to Promote Student Engagement in My Virtual Chemistry Classroom
It was during the summer that followed that I decided to make the switch to student-centered learning. I had been working through a really insightful text called, “Visible Learning in Science: What Works to Optimize Student Learning” by John Almarode, Douglas Fisher, Nancy Frey, and John Hattie. As I laid in my anti-gravity chair, watching my young kids splash around in their inflatable pool, silently reading through this text, it was like I was being hit by brick after brick of a wall that was crashing down on me! I was being awakened to an idea as bright as the sunshine in the sky: I need to provide the opportunity for my students to do the hard work that is learning.
In the very first chapter, the authors of this text provide a lengthy argument for why “students need more than demonstrations to learn content”. Not to discount the value of a demonstration, especially in science class, they did also accompany that claim with a thorough description of an ideal demonstration and aspects of the demonstration that made it superb. But it was these words, “students need more”, that came jumping off the page to me.
As I began to ponder how the many examples of authentic, student-centered learning activities used in traditional school settings outlined throughout this book could inspire me to do the same in my virtual science classroom, I bookmarked the page where they made a suggestion for creating and delivering these activities.
The introduction of this text also emphasized the value of instructional feedback. You’d think that’s an overarching goal of every teacher, to provide valuable feedback. But, as I reflected on my regular instruction in the virtual classroom, I realized that I spent most of each class period talking at them. I wondered, “How can I give truly valuable feedback, the kind they can learn from and act on, when all I’m asking them to do is answer questions?!” Sure, I can tell them their answers are wrong and explain why, but that hardly seems valuable as it pertains to my philosophy as a science teacher: to prepare students with the skills necessary to function as independent, informed, responsible citizens of our world.
Though I still have so much more to learn and practice from the suggestions made throughout this text, the inspiration to create meaningful learning experiences and lean on student exploration as a central instructional strategy motivated me to make the switch to student-centered learning in my virtual science classroom. I emerged from that study over the summer with three main goals for the 2019-2020 school year:
I wanted evidence of their learning, and I wanted that learning to be challenging. Perhaps most importantly, though, I wanted my students to feel loved and nurtured throughout the learning process. My unique, largely at-risk student population didn’t need only my attention, direction, and support, they also needed to learn to give themselves grace as they practiced the hard work of learning. That’s where my lesson planning began, and that’s where the 5 Elements of Effective Interactive Science Lessons for Student-Centered Learning was born.
Identifying Resources to Promote Student Engagement in My Virtual Chemistry Classroom
The next question I sought to answer was, “How am I going to create meaningful learning experiences in science without providing my students with tangible tools?”. I thought I wouldn’t be able to ensure equity if my district didn’t provide them with materials to support hands-on exploration. In fact, there was a time that my school did send each chemistry student a box of materials to do some wet labs, but we, the teachers, eventually recommended they discontinue that practice because the boxes weren’t always packed with all the necessary items. As a result, the initiative was more disruptive than supportive.
To achieve the instructional goals I had set for my virtual science classroom, I created technology-based learning activities. In my research and constant quest for engaging activities and alternatives to the virtual lab assignments included in our existing curriculum, I had already stumbled on a fantastic website offering a wide variety of supplemental curriculum tools for science and math courses which include customizable virtual textbooks, adaptive practice sets, and simulations that are visually appealing and presented in the context of relatable scenarios. With this website, I first attempted to devise activities wherein students’ experience and exploration would form the foundation of a lesson. As I worked to create an entire library of interactive science lessons for student-centered learning, my resourcefulness became worth its weight in gold! The following is a list of other websites I’ve used and would surely recommend to other science teachers across specific disciplines searching for technology-driven simulations or tutorials on which to build interactive science lessons while seeking to incorporate all five elements of my science lesson planning framework:
Prior to the pandemic, one-to-one technology may not have been possible for many districts to provide. But, governmental funding for schools post-pandemic has been distributed to relieve those fiscal strains and specifically ensure teachers and students are equipped to adopt virtual learning, as needed, in the future. These new tools will offer tremendous new possibilities!
As a chemistry teacher, the content I teach is focused squarely on sub-microscopic objects. Many people think of chemistry as a collection of BOOMS! and BANGS! and light shows, but at least half of a high school chemistry course describes the behavior of atoms and electrons in atoms which needs to be fully characterized before the macroscopic properties of an explosion could ever be understood. Including imagery in lessons is an important instructional strategy, and it certainly helps. But, student-controlled simulations with responsive animation allow students to experience and explore the facts, concepts, and skills they need to master, that which they could never experience and explore in a wet chemistry lab no matter how many fancy tools or chemicals it had.
Using Technology-Based Learning Activities to Promote Student Engagement in Chemistry
Most of my chemistry lessons incorporate some type of technology-based learning activity. One of my favorites to teach (and I have many!) is the lesson about isotopes. It’s so representative of the structure and content my interactive science lessons and the five-element framework I use for planning that I’ve made the entire isotope product line free for teachers to download, study, use to teach, or even use as a model to create their own interactive science lessons!
In this lesson, the action students take is quite simple. Using the simulation, students merely build isotopes by adding or removing neutrons to and from an atom of their choice. As they manipulate the simulation, they also observe and record the number of each subatomic particle in the atom, the mass number of the atom, the exact atomic mass of the atom, its name, its symbol, and its abundance in nature. As a chemistry teaching team, we used to have students complete this as a “lab assignment”, a worksheet-style homework activity we scheduled monthly or per unit of study. They’d complete a data table of observations and answer some questions only after we demonstrated most of the changes for them in class using only one or two atoms in the simulation. By transforming this into a classwork activity used to teach the concept of isotopes, I was able to complement the design of the activity with a critical social aspect. I assigned different atoms to different students or small groups of students and they reported their data and observations back to the main group. This divide-and-conquer approach also mimics that which occurs in the discipline; career scientists share their findings in daily and weekly meetings!! Additionally, by transforming this into a classwork activity, I was able to provide real-time feedback and I reviewed student progress. When we called this activity a “lab assignment” and had them submit their work for grading, it would take much longer to provide redirection of misconceptions and, in that time, those misconceptions would’ve had the opportunity to become part of what students’ perceive as their foundational knowledge of the concept.
My role in this lesson was, of course, the planning and preparation involved in its instructional design but also the facilitation of data-dependent analysis at the end of the active learning time. Knowing I’d guide the whole group of students using data and observations collected by many students in the class, I was able to proactively plan for questions I’d ask more strategically to accomplish many instructional goals:
formative assessment of the technology-based learning activity’s effectiveness
critical thinking and deep learning from emphasized aspects of the technology used
redirection of misconceptions that may have emerged during the technology-based learning activity
standard-based goals related to the characteristics of isotopes
Technology-Based Learning Activities Allow Me to Be the Teacher I’ve Always Wanted To Be
When I became a teacher, I wanted to lead students in a way that was different from what I experienced. I didn’t want to teach students what to think but, rather, how to think. In scientific disciplines, the only way that’s accomplished is through doing science – investigating and exploring to learn that which we do not know. In this regard, I think we could learn so much from our elementary teacher friends!!! Each day, they know their students won’t have yet developed robust memories capable of recalling nuances of content. They rely heavily on experience to guide student learning. To prepare my interactive science lessons for student-centered learning, I put on my mom-brain, honestly! I ask myself, “What could students do to extract this idea?”.
Wholly student-controlled simulations aren’t always available, though. There are topics for which I’ve scoured the internet to no avail. When this happened, I revisited my instructional goals:
to collect student artifacts of learning
to enhance rigor
to foster growth mindset
I rationalized that as long as my students did the heavy lifting of learning -- if I just thoughtfully considered the list of resources I had in years past and charged students with using them to extract key concepts instead of leading show-and-tell as an instructional strategy -- then I could accomplish these goals.
Lesson topics for which I couldn’t identify a simulation to promote student engagement, I leaned on my library of YouTube videos I’d amassed over the years. I used to just show videos to provide relevance or another aspect of the concept we were studying. Once I made the switch to student-centered learning, though, I made videos the center of technology-based learning activities and required students to do something with the knowledge they gained from watching them.
One example of a technology-based learning activity I’ve created that uses video in this way is in the lesson I’ve prepared to teach the history of atomic theory scientists and how atomic models have developed over time. I found a fantastic, cartoon depiction of the timeline on YouTube that provides an account of the most influential scientists from Democritus through Heisenberg. The timeline-based production allowed me to easily transform a video into an activity. This technology-based learning activity requires more than passively watching a video. It requires more than rote note-taking. This technology-based learning activity requires students to arrange the names, dates, corresponding atomic theories, and image depictions of each atomic model on a timeline I prepared in advance. The timeline I prepared is completely blank except for tick marks indicating events, a visual indication of where students should drag and drop (or cut out and paste with glue!) the matching text-based and visual information. This activity promotes student engagement and accomplishes the learning intentions and success criteria of the larger lesson. The final product serves as an artifact to which students can continually refer or from which they might study. In practice, I archive copies of these student artifacts for a variety of reasons:
to inform my understanding of each student’s individual academic and behavioral strengths and weaknesses
to share with other instructional support personnel as needed
to include in future related lessons to achieve activation of prior knowledge during Review & Preview
to include in unit test review or semester test review
to share with my assistant principal and instructional coach as evidence of my instructional efforts
Another great source for student-centered learning activities is text. Learning experiences can be prepared such that students are able to practice skills related to the common core standards as it pertains to disciplinary literacy, analyzing informational texts to ultimately express understanding in writing and receive real-time feedback. Some chemistry lessons for which I have been unable to find any dynamic visuals like videos or simulations include “Polyatomic Ions” and “Synthesis and Decomposition Reactions”. With specific text-dependent prompts, these literacy-based learning activities require students to define discipline-specific vocabulary, collect and express text-dependent evidence, and compare and contrast to describe relationships.
Structuring Student-Centered Learning Activities to Promote Student Engagement
No matter the medium that’s chosen to deliver a student-centered learning activity, there are some aspects I am always mindful to include as a means of facilitating delivery, minimize confusion, and ensure students uncover concepts, precluding the need for me to cover them in a lecture-style presentation. These include the following:
a list of often multi-step instructions called “Your Task”
active links or QR codes to web-based resources
a resource with graphic organizers, data tables, guiding questions, or prompts for students to record observations and data as they work through the activity
The instructions, the “YOUR TASK” PowerPoint slide, is presented to the entire class throughout the time students spend completing the activity.
It provides an overview of the activity listed as a short series of bullet points, all of which beginning with depth-of-
knowledge, standards-based verbs that match or complement the success criteria I’ve outlined for the lesson. I nearly always provide a visual image of the technology or video or text source with annotations to indicate areas that should be accessed or from which data should be recorded. When I present this information, I talk through the activity instructions and process in a general way, using only the image for reference rather than demonstrating the entire process. In Pennsylvania, one of the common core standards for science and technology reading includes “following precisely a complex multistep procedure when carrying out experiences, taking measurements, or performing technical tasks, attending to special cases or exceptions defined in the text”.
As a teacher in cyber school, my students complete their classwork, all learning activities, digitally. So, I also provide clickable links to my students. You might also consider doing this if you share your lesson notes as PowerPoint files with your students or wish to distribute the activities using a cloud-based learning management system like Google Classroom. (In this case, you might consider building your lessons with BookWidgets instead. Check out my Digital Interactive Notebook for Learning Isotopes to see what it can look like and review the premium version to explore the promise this holds for automating some of your tasks!) In the interactive science lessons I sell, I also provide a QR code for students to connect directly to any required technology, realizing that it may complement classroom management efforts as a quick, easy way to get students access as soon as possible. Printing out this QR code and having it ready on students’ desks before they enter class would be a great idea for traditional in-person instruction. Similarly, it’s typical for me to share any learning activity technology links with my students during the Review & Preview element of lessons when they may be otherwise just waiting for class to begin. As you can imagine, avoiding or ironing out technical challenges early is important in virtual learning environments when the lesson leans heavily on technology. I’d expect it to be equally important in a face-to-face learning environment, as well.
Finally, it’s critical that students have a resource on which to document their observations,
analysis, or otherwise answer guiding questions that deepen their learning. This is the information I collect from them for participation credit at the end of each class period. I also select from these artifacts to showcase and discuss the work of individual students or student groups when the student-centered learning activity time has ended. My favorite part of leading a student-centered classroom is sharing student artifacts of learning I collect. I often do so anonymously to praise or offer redirection. Much like the strategy of “My Favorite No”, this is the key to nurturing growth mindset in my classroom of at-risk, teenage learners. I’ve found that when learning activities in my chemistry classroom are focused on observation and inference (hypothesis), the notion that students need to or should be correct all the time is dispelled and student engagement is naturally promoted. Whenever possible, I review multiple student responses to demonstrate that many ideas can be “correct” but expressed differently. There are many times different students observe different aspects of the same resource during the student-centered learning activity. When this happens, it’s especially useful to present and discuss. Sharing student work also enhances the collaborative culture among students in my chemistry classroom, allowing students to learn from one another even though they may not spend a great deal of time verbally discussing problems or scenarios with one another. Especially in my unique environment, often sought out by students so they can be quiet in the classroom, they feel a range of positive emotions intended to boost personal self-esteem and confidence. They may naturally feel personal pride from anonymous praise. But, especially if a student has recorded an erroneous or misguided observation or made an ill-informed analysis, when I choose and use that response as a teaching moment, I can avoid embarrassing that student while redirecting misconceptions and increasing the likelihood they will try again in the future.
Timing is Critical When Trying to Promote Student Engagement in Science Using Technology-Based Learning Activities
The student-centered, technology-based learning activities I’ve defined and discussed throughout this article are planned to use 30%-50% of class time.
If we’re designing challenging, technology-based learning activities, we need to encourage and allow for deep thinking time. And, of course, all students complete tasks at their own pace. There may be some early finishers and there may be some students who can never seem to finish within the time provided. Even when I’m proactive about providing differentiated, technology-based learning activities, it’s rare that every student is finished within the time provided. This is another reason that teacher-guided data-dependent analysis should take place once the learning activity time has expired. It allows me to ensure that every student in class gets to see what they should’ve seen from the resource provided and has the opportunity to think critically through the same follow-up questions. For those students who don’t quite finish the entire thing, they’ve got all the data and most important observations with accompanying explanations should they desire to revisit the technology at home, during office hours with me, with a tutor, or with another instructional support personnel.
As I’ve already suggested here, this strategy of presenting and discussing student outcomes with the whole group, this “Data-Dependent Analysis”, is intimately connected to the student-centered, technology-based learning activity you’ll prepare and deliver. Surely, without the learning activity there can be no data analysis, and the data analysis is what allows us to create conclusions. It’s an essential aspect of practicing the scientific method!
Be sure to review my article on “Data-Dependent Analysis” coming soon!