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Strategies to Build Engaging Digital Lessons for High School Students

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It's now early April. For the last three plus weeks, I, like most of you, have been at home consuming news and feeling a daily mix of trepidation and astonishment. As a teacher, I have been physically (and mostly digitally) apart from my students, wondering how they are and wishing I could help them. As a history and government teacher, I’m also ruminating on the fact that 30 years from now, my grandchildren will want to interview me as a primary source for a future Social Studies project on the Great Pandemic of 2020. Perhaps I’ll call upon the words of Mr. Rogers and tell them that I looked for the helpers, or perhaps my role as an educator in these bizarre times is just that, a helper.

Providing Clarity, Choice and Engagement for Students 

My charge for the foreseeable future is to help my students feel something normal - to learn and grow and feel supported. To keep things simple for my students over the coming weeks or months, my lessons will focus on three things: Clarity, Choice, and Engagement.  

My school, a public high school in an urban district with amazing students and difficult challenges, is still in the process of forging our digital learning plan. Out of a desire to keep busy and to reach my students, I have forged ahead. One of the courses I teach is AP U.S. Government and Politics. Although the AP exams are still happening, there are significant changes to the scope of the course, the delivery method, and style of the exams.  

Providing Lesson Clarity from a Physical Distance 

My first task is to figure out how to make my lessons clear. I am working without the benefit of being able to circle the room, providing clarifying directions and directly addressing students who may need additional scaffolds or support. Therefore, the lessons I create need to have relatively simple learning objectives. Although critical thinking remains important, this is not the time for multi-layered assignments that require the interplay of several objectives and different roles for students. For now, the Moot Supreme Court simulation that I would be doing next week has to hit the shelf. We still need to learn about what the Supreme Court does, how Justices are chosen, and the critical decisions in essential Supreme Court cases. 

The PBS PreK -12 Resources for Emergency Closings 

PBS LearningMedia has a fantastic collection, The Supreme Court, to support these objectives. In fact, the newly created PreK-12 Resources for Emergency Closings collection has a number of sources I will depend on while teaching my last remaining AP Government unit: Civil Rights and Civil Liberties. There is an excellent short video with support materials on the Gideon v. Wainwright case (one of the 15 required cases for the AP exam). I will also be using the Above the Noise video about “Free Speech vs Hate Speech on College Campuses” and a video entitled, “What was Freedom Summer?” from American Experience.

Giving Options to Encourage Interest and Curiosity 

Without face-to-face instruction, I also need to make sure my students have options. Choice is always a good practice in the classroom. It promotes student autonomy, makes them the agents of their own learning, and allows for them to demonstrate learning in a way that makes them feel comfortable. For the next few weeks, most of the assignments and activities I create for my students will have many choices. I know that I have students who are bored - they are aching for normalcy and are excited to have something productive to do. I also know I have students who are caring for younger siblings or have family members who work in harm’s way as doctors, nurses, police, and firefighters. I have students who work at nursing homes or grocery stores and are classified as essential workers. My task is to create assignments that are flexible enough to meet all of these demands - simple but meaningful for the student who has 30 minutes in their week but with enough options for the student who needs a break from reality or an escape from boredom. 

One option is to create a “Hyperdoc” - a digital assignment in something like a Google Doc or Google Slides that has links to a variety of resources and activities. At the start of our statewide school closures, I created one for my AP Government students to preview our next unit and shared it with other educators to use as a template. Using PBS LearningMedia, I was able to incorporate some clips from a FRONTLINE episode that I was going to use in class. The episode, “Supreme Revenge,” does a fantastic job of helping students understand the relationship between the President and Congress when it comes to nominating Supreme Court Justices. You can find the Hyperdoc I created here:

Ultimately Engagement in the Material Matters Most

Finally, as I create assignments for students to learn outside the classroom, I have to find materials that engage them. In a classroom, this is much easier. I can muster my own excitement, use stories, collaboration, or movement. Most of all, I can read the room and adjust on the fly to make sure students stay engaged. Most of that goes out the window in a digital classroom. Collaboration is possible, but given the present circumstances of my students’ community, I’m not sure how much “working together” on projects is reasonable.  So, I’m left with relying on materials that I know are interesting, fun, and thought provoking. Over the coming weeks and months, I have to find enough articles, interactive websites, short videos, and games to help students reach our objectives and not get bored in the process. 

For my history and government courses, PBS LearningMedia will be my first stop. The sheer scope of PBS materials is at once immense but also easy to navigate as you search. There are thousands of relevant video clips (in perfect 3-7 minute segments), interactive websites, documents, and even full lesson plans that can be easily converted for online learning.  For many teachers, the integration with Google Classroom or Remind will make using this platform even easier.

This framework: Clarity, Choice, and Engagement, can be used for any lesson you create in your new digital environment. First, determine that one big question or take away that your students need. In my history and government classes it might be, “What does the 14th Amendment mean and how does it impact the rest of the Constitution?” or “What were the conditions, motivations, and actions that drove the Civil Rights Movement?” Design your lesson to hit that one specific goal. Next, provide elements of choice for your students. That could be choosing from a small collection of videos, articles, interactive websites, or podcasts. Recognize that students will have varying amounts of time, technological know-how, and responsibilities at home. Try to meet the needs of both the student who is still working and caring for siblings, and the student who is aching for something productive to do. Finally, choose media that are highly engaging, concise, and meaningful. I’d suggest starting at PBS LearningMedia. Whether you teach Social Studies, ELA, Science, or something else, PBS has materials you can trust and a platform that is easy to work with. Every community will face its own challenges and we, along with our students, will be living through history in every moment. The best we can do is to be the helpers. Creating a clear and engaging virtual classroom that offers students choices that fit their reality is something we all can do.

Dave Olson

Dave Olson Educator

David Olson is a veteran teacher and leader in Social Studies and Civic education. He currently teaches AP U.S. Government and Politics, Criminal Justice, and Modern U.S. History at James Madison Memorial High School in Madison, WI. David believes that many of his lessons are best accomplished with digital content, saying, “When I have my students experience life inside a solitary confinement cell using a VR headset – or [invite them to] create their own political advertisements, it sparks their curiosity and leads them to think of new problems to solve.”

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