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Disconnect to Connect: Engaging Kids Before Engaging Tech

Engaging Students without Technology - TeacherCast Guest Blog

It’s never easy to make connections with students.  It can be really tough when they’re in middle school.  I remember those days.  Standing in the hallway, watching students move to and fro made teachers look less like human beings and more like sentinels.

As more educators integrate technology into their teaching methods, it can be difficult to disengage from the tech itself.  Teaching in an iPad-equipped classroom could begin to feel like the teacher is teaching to the tech, and the students are engaging only with that tablet.

Where this connection to technology can go awry is when both students and educators invest in the methods but not in each other.  This can, in some cases, exacerbate many of the issues school counselors often have to confront, such as bullying and trouble at home.  We can’t help what we can’t see, so it’s time to disconnect in order to connect.  Here are some ways to do that:

In that Hallway

Early this month, a middle school teacher in Charlotte, N.C., made headlines for his unique way of connecting with his fifth graders.  Barry White, Jr., stands outside his classroom as his student line up to enter.  He then exchanges a personalized handshake with each one.

Watching White, Jr.’s routine looks both fun and exhausting.  I remember being proud of myself for remembering the first and last names of all 150 of my high school students by the end of the first week of school.  I’m not sure I could remember over 40 handshakes.

Yet White, Jr., has a great point about engaging with his students before they step into the room:

“The most critical component is the relationship, the rapport you build with your students because sometimes it can go underrated or overlooked . . . Before I'm able to deliver a substantial amount of content to them, they have to invest in the teacher.”

Building that relationship is key.  Students will trust more and engage better with a teacher who has taken time to build a bond before instruction even begins.  I was a nicknamer when I was a teacher.  I’d do my duty by standing in the hallway, which to one administration was a means of policing the hall.  What it really was was a chance to learn about my students.  They’d greet me at the door, usually with a high-five, and I would call them by their nicknames.  I even encouraged them to give me one.  I have a handful of former students pushing 30 who still refer to me as “J-Unit.”

In the Classroom

Technology has been helping transform homework and classrooms for years, as noted by researchers from the University of Cincinnati.  It has helped increase motivation, reinforce concepts, and expand content.

However, its constant use can contribute to lack of social skills, including empathy.  It’s easy for the adults in the room to teach and model empathy, but that doesn’t always quite do the trick.  Music teacher Tammy Axt detailed a recent experience in her classroom that went from the personal connection to lesson.  Axt has extended an open invitation to her students to share music-related interests, such as favorite songs, poems, even a dance.  This has led to her and her students learning Spanish dances, Punjabi songs, even a xylophone solo.

In January, a student asked Axt if she could share a song she’d been learning.  The rest of the class instantly recognized the song from the Pen-Apple YouTube video.  Using her students’ enthusiasm for the song, Axt turned it into a project: writing their own silly lyrics to the tune.

Once you and your students have disconnected in order to build relationships, you will have a much easier time getting engagement.  Then, by all means, get out the technology and create YouTube videos, animated presentations, and interactive homework.

Hattie James is a writer and researcher living in Boise, Idaho. She has a varied background, including education and sports journalism. She is a former electronic content manager and analyst for a government agency. She recently completed her MBA and enjoys local ciders.

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