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In Place of Turn and Talk, Ways to Monitor for Engagement When Working With Students Virtual Part 2

Last week I witnessed my kinder daughter, McKenna, enter a class zoom call with an enthusiastic, “Hi everyone!”  Her teacher started the writing lesson with a mini-lesson where she was demonstrating and talking to them about how they are writers.  About 6 minutes in, I noticed McKenna start to wiggle and around 10 minutes in she was literally melting out of her chair. I attempted to redirect her attention back to the lesson and that is when chaos ensued. With a great deal of emotions bubbling over she announced, “I can’t do this!” and ripped her paper.    


How did McKenna go from an enthusiastic start to a complete meltdown in less than 10 minutes?  I sensed that her young enthusiastic brain was on overload and needed some time and space to download and process this new information.  It reminded me of Eric Jensen’s work on “Teaching with the Brain in Mind” which provides some helpful guidelines for how many minutes students can sustain engagement with direct instruction.


These guidelines are critical for us when thinking about engagement. Our pacing has a direct impact on student engagement and their ability to process and retain what we are trying to teach them.  Another motto that I teach by is, “to always teach towards transfer and independence.” Our natural inclination as teachers is to explain, reexplain, demonstrate, and redemonstrate in hopes that something will stick. In light of this brain research, I have tried to shift my teaching to engage students as quickly as possible.  


This leads us back to the BIG question we are all grappling with. How do we engage when teaching virtually? Below are a second set of strategies to add to your toolbox. Actually regardless of how you are teaching this year, all of these are great to try. If you missed the first engagement post, you will want to check out some more great tips that were included there!  


Use hand signals: 



  • Thumbs up, down, or sideways. This works especially well if you are having kids evaluate something that is being demonstrated or to rate their level of understanding or feelings about something.  For example, you might demonstrate finding a good reading spot for kids and have them give a thumbs up if it is a good reading spot, thumb down if not good, and sideways thumb if somewhere in the middle.   

  • Rate it. Show me with your fingers on a scale of 1-5 or 1-10.  There are endless possibilities for this engagement move. You could use this in a similar way as the thumb example above to rate things. Another way this could go is you could put numbers on your charts next to the strategies and ask kids to show you which thing from the chart they are hoping to try during reading/writing today.  Think of how powerful this could be during read aloud?  Pause the read aloud. Show the anchor chart. Which thing from the chart is the text calling us to think about?  Then respond with another appropriate engagement move to get the students trying or responding. 

  • Use your hand as an organizer. Touch your hand and say it out-loud while muted.  For example, you might read a text aloud, pause, and have them use their hand to say the main idea and details.  You would prompt them to touch their palm and say aloud the main idea. Then watch them say the main idea. Then use their fingers to touch and say the supporting details.  Again, have students get in really close to the computer so you can watch them engage.  

  •  List across your fingers while muted.  This is similar to the engagement strategy above, but this one works well if you want students to create a list.  Again, have them hold up their hand and touch each finger as they talk.  An example of this could be in writing workshop you might want them to generate a list of ideas they could write about. 

Other engagement moves to consider: 

  • Ask a question.Turn your ear toward the screen. Pause. Share predictable student responses.  (Think Dora the Explorer style) In place of a traditional demonstration where the teacher does all the things and names them for kids, shift into more guided practice and ask for student responses. This engagement move works especially well when recording your teaching.  If you need a mentor for this, just watch Dora the Explorer.  She’s a master at it!    

  • Gestures!  Gestures! And more Gestures!  You do them and get the students doing them too. Gestures are a great engagement tool to make our teaching and language more comprehensible for students.  When in brick and mortar, we utilize gestures. When working virtually we should be thinking about ways to gesture even more to engage students.  

  • Say, “Lean in. Get close to the screen.” This is a lean move to monitor for student engagement.  

  • Use visuals and charts.  This is no different than when in brick and mortar, but now we have to think about how to share these with students both during and after the lesson to make our teaching stick.  I have been using Padlet as a place to store our charts for easy access for our students.  See example:


  • Say, “Touch your head when…” 

  • Act it out.  This works really well if you want the students to practice certain skills such as envisioning, or fluency, or to step into the characters shoes and describe feelings/traits.  For writing you can have students act out their scenes as a way to rehearse.  

  • If using Zoom, use the poll feature.  One of the advanced features in Zoom is creating a poll.  You could use this as a quick and easy way to get feedback from students.  It could be as simple as asking, “How are you feeling today?”  or to pose a question like, “which of these examples best shows that Opal is kind hearted?”  Tip: you can set up the polls in your zoom account prior to starting the call so that they are ready to launch when needed.  

(This is a sample poll feature from a recent staff development call that I was on from TCRWP. ) 


Pro tip!  Use a second device to sign onto your calls so that you can see more kids’ faces to monitor engagement!  It’s also beneficial so that you can check when you want to share your screen. I’ve made many mistakes when I think I am sharing the correct screen and it was actually the wrong one.  



As I wrap up this blog series on engagement I know that even as I write, you all are reinventing new techniques to engage your students. Please do share how things are going!  Especially during this time, we have to work together to innovate and educate.  It truly does take a village and I’m so grateful to be a thought partner with you!






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Schedule a free consultation today to learn more about our services and how we can work together to meet the staff development needs of your site or district.   

Erica Reardon inspirelitcoach@gmail.com

Chara Rodrigues seerodteach@gmail.com

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