Student engagement has been a big topic ever since the pandemic drove us from the classroom to remote learning, but I’ve been trying to supercharge the hype train at my school since starting in August 2020. As the school counselor at Toby Farms Intermediate School in Chester, Pa., one of my roles is facilitating community engagement for our sixth- through eighth-grade students.
We have a large population of at-risk students and our city has one of the highest crime rates in the nation. It’s not uncommon for us to have students with school attendance required as a condition of probation. In that context, the difference between a student who wants to be at school and a student disengaged enough to skip a class here or there may be life and death.
It’s hard on a good day and certainly more challenging in a pandemic, but we keep our students coming back to school day after day with a lot of help from our community. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way to help keep kids coming to class.
Ask for help
I write a lot of letters to companies and other organizations asking them for help. I enjoy writing, so I try to spend some time figuring out what I really want to say. I paint a picture of our school and our students — and even of myself and the other teachers here. I want the people I’m contacting to have a personal sense of the challenges and passions and individual lives that I am talking about changing.
I also don’t ask for anything specific. In part, that’s because I don’t feel comfortable with it, but I also just don’t know what they have to offer. For example, our geography teacher loves having her students create comics to keep them engaged. When we went to remote learning, she found that hand-drawn comics weren’t really working any more, so I wrote to Pixton, a company that sells comic-creation software for the classroom. The Pixton team asked me questions about what we are doing and what we envision for our students — and then they gave us a license.
I have found that there are a lot of people out there who want to help, they just need to be asked. Some companies want to see how their products work in more urban schools, or they may be interested in helping for reasons of social justice and equity, pandemic relief, or any number of other reasons.
If I just tell them who we are and ask them how they’d like to help, I give them the opportunity to say yes in any way they want, instead of setting them up to say no to a specific thing.
Keep the opportunities relevant to students
The Wells Fargo Center, home to two of Philadelphia’s big sports teams, actually reached out to us to see if we’d be interested in hosting a team of people they were putting together to visit schools with underrepresented students to talk to them about their profession. This encounter came as a result of one of my pitch letters that was sent out to the Philadelphia Flyers organization. Students in our school sometimes feel like their only avenues for success are things such as becoming a sports star. But this team from the Wells Fargo Center was full of people doing and talking about all kinds of other opportunities. They explained that they need people to maintain the ice, to put the basketball court on top of the ice, and to sell concessions.
A lot of times guest speakers are from highly-educated backgrounds that might feel unattainable to a sizeable chunk of our student body. While exposing students to those kinds of careers is engaging, I think it’s also important to bring in people doing jobs that our students can imagine their family members or their neighbors doing, because they can imagine doing them, too.
Engagement isn’t always academic
The broader array of careers on display may have been my favorite part of the Wells Fargo Center’s generous help, but for my students it was Gritty, the Flyers’ mascot. I didn’t even know Gritty was coming, but at the end of the presentation that fun orange mess dropped into the Zoom meeting, and the kids went nuts.
Meeting Gritty in a Zoom chat isn’t going to help my students ace a test, but it gets them excited about coming to school and helps them develop a sense of pride and community within it.
Recently I visited a classroom that was playing Kahoot! and I offered some friendly competition to anyone who could beat me. The category was Philadelphia Eagles trivia, so no one beat me that time, but this sort of friendly competition keeps our kids excited about school. The other day I listened to a student tell me their wild theories about The Lion King for 15 minutes.
Our ultimate goal is academic engagement, but students need to be in school, and take pride in their work before we can talk about that. Those fun interactions and personal relationships are the ties that pull them in so we have a chance to connect them to their classwork.
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