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Episode 20: Meaningful Learning — Engaging Students

Note: The audio versions of all episodes are available on the DOE Digest webpage.


[calm background music]

Ken: Hello and welcome to the DOE Digest, a podcast from the New Jersey Department of Education. I'm your host, Ken Bond.

The DOE Digest is a platform for information exchange in which the Department highlights the work being done by transformative educators around the state. This podcast is one of the ways that we utilize our digital platform to help strengthen teaching, leading, and learning, and increase educational equity for the 1.4 million students across New Jersey. Thank you for joining us.

Welcome to our twentieth episode of DOE Digest. We’re looking at student engagement. And at the {New Jersey} Department of Education, we believe students should be the center of everything that we do as educators, because they’re what education is all about.

As I talk to the three guests I have today, listen to themes related to students’ social engagement with each other and with their teachers. With, starting with what you know, really leveraging youth voice and input for both instruction and district-level organization. And also Shakespeare [laughing], which gets mentioned a few times in this episode and I think has some very important implications for what our guests talk about.

We start off with an interview about youth voice and really promoting youth voice as a means for student engagement. We next move to a student interview where a student talks about what she feels engagement should look like. And then we transition to talking about technology and how to utilize technology to build on both of these themes.

Kimberly Dickstein-Hughes, 2020 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year

Kimberly: My name is Kimberly Dickstein-Hughes. I’m the 2020 New Jersey State Teacher of the Year and the 2020 Camden County Teacher of the Year. I teach English Language Arts at Haddonfield Memorial High School.

Ken: Thank you so much for joining me. I know that you have a lot going on as you wind up your award term, and as you gear up for the school year, so I really appreciate it.

So, I just wanted to start off by asking what your biggest takeaways would be related to student engagement as you, and your term as New Jersey Teacher of the Year, and plan to go back to the school room.

Kimberly: I’ve learned a lot from the students of New Jersey as the State Teacher of the Year, because I’ve had the unique opportunity to visit schools in almost every county, and whether that was in person or virtual, and get to hear about what students care about and discuss with them about what we could do.

My biggest takeaway is that it is imperative we learn how to really listen to our students, and that we give them the opportunities to exercise their voice and amplify that as much as possible. Um, our students want to be heard, so we have to prioritize that.

Ken: That's great. And as I think about what you've done and how you've approached student engagement, you don't only amplify student voices, but you also help students connect and engage with each other. So, how would you-- how would you frame that for teachers who are thinking about both amplifying students and also connecting--connecting students within their sphere of influence around different issues and topics?

Kimberly: That's a great question. And when I think about how to connect students, you have to meet them where they're at. And I think we hear that quite a bit, but I think getting creative in terms of how we reach students. So I’ll use an example for myself.

So I was asked to deliver the closing keynote address for the Statewide Equity Conference this year. And given our current circumstances and this period of social unrest that we've been experiencing, I really felt uncomfortable delivering that address alone. And I wanted to give the space up to a BIPOC educator. And after discussion, I was encouraged to deliver this speech as an ally. And I was really honored, but I also thought that that space was still not my own.

So I opened it up to students and I invited students to submit 30 seconds of their vision for more equitable schools. And I did that not by contacting superintendents and asking for their star student, I posted this on my Instagram stories and on Twitter, reaching out to students about a project on student voice. And I invited them to participate in their own way.

And so what I mean by that is I didn't put the parameters of what I needed as a teacher, I let them speak freely and let it be what it could be. And a lot of students who came to that then had the opportunity to connect and listen to each other.

So, that's where I would kick it back to then our administrators, our superintendents, and our county offices, is that we can start creating spaces for students who are willing to participate in projects like this and then give them additional opportunities to learn how to continue to exercise their voice…uh, as a collective.

Um, so another example of that would be in Camden County. So our Executive Superintendent, County Superintendent, excuse me, Lovell Pugh-Bassett, has been convening students from across the county about every two weeks this summer in courageous conversations to…talk about topics that don't necessarily always get priority in the classroom, and…really demand student input. And so by bringing these students together from all of the districts in Camden County, we can start to empower our students to then empower others and elevate others.

And this is a model that I think in every county that you could exercise. So I know in Passaic the County Office is also interested in inviting students to answer questions around equity. And I think that this is really powerful and important.

So I think it's just creating spaces -- to answer the question, it’s creating spaces in your community that you know you can execute. Right? Like that are within your wheelhouse. I don't think this is necessarily the time to try on something totally new. I think you have to work with what you're comfortable with and bring people to that.

Ken: That's excellent. And I’m excited to see what comes out of that work.

Kimberly: Ken, can I tell a quick story?

Ken: Of course. Please.

Kimberly: So this is really -- so as you're talking about, I’m-- I'm so excited about this work. And after our first call I was beaming. And--and the call was like, really heavy. Right? Like there was just so much truth explored in that call, but students were so willing to be vulnerable.

But there was one student on that call that I connected with in the beginning of my tenure as a State Teacher of the Year. As I said that I was touring schools before we moved to remote learning and, but… before I even went to schools, I spoke at the School Boards Association. And I delivered my first speech there.

And right before my speech, students from Creative Arts High School in Camden City, from their choir, sang. And I’m sitting there listening to them and I’m thinking about my speech, which is really about empowering every voice and lifting every voice. And really making an effort to elevate others and all stakeholders. And that was always features about what it was about them. And so they walk off stage.

And before I give my speech, I make a call. And I said, “Well,” I say to the audience before I deliver my speech, “I want the students to come back. I want them to sit with the superintendents. I want them to sit with everyone because this speech is for them.”

So Lovell runs out – [laughing] she’s our Executive County Superintendent – she runs and gets the students. And then this choir comes back in. And they're very confused as to why this woman wants them to listen to {her} speech. And they listen and the speech ends.

We walk out and I reconnect with the group of students. And this one young man comes up to me and tells me, he’s like, “I really like what you had to say and this is what I’d like to say. And I have a few questions.”


And I was really taken by him, because, um, he gave me feedback and also was interested in the work that I was doing. And when I tuned in to my first courageous conversation for the county, there he was, right there. And Zachary is someone who I really admire. And now he has invited me to be part-- a part of the projects he's working on in Camden City, and I'm so honored.

And that, to me, is really like about this relationship about working together. That we can be thought partners with our students. And--and they want to be thought partners with us.

And I think by inviting those students back to listen, and then being willing to listen to them, that relationship will endure. And I’m really happy to share that story because I think that can--that can happen anywhere.

You can start in your classroom. So, for instance I teach a Shakespeare course. I’m the only teacher who teaches the Shakespeare content. And oftentimes I’ve leaned on my students and invited them to help me create assignments and, uh, plans for the unit, because they were my best thought partner. Because if this is for them, and it is for the collective, I should let them, or invite them, to guide the journey. Right?

And I think we can start in our classrooms. And I think from there we can start in our extracurriculars. We can start in our athletics, because that's what we know. Right?

But I think prioritizing a level of advocacy across all content, in terms, like, “what does this content mean outside of this space and why does it matter?” is a priority for me. And I think it could be a priority for teachers across all grade levels. There's like, “why does this content matter and who does it impact? And and what could we do with it?”

And, for me, that's looking at my Oedipus unit and discussions around figurative and literal blindness and taking that to a point where we're talking about societal blindness. And instead of writing an essay about just…figurative language that I could take that to, a research and analysis of what we willfully ignore in society. Right? Like that's a really tangible example of what I can do in my small space.

And I can take that to bigger spaces by then encouraging my students to reach out to organizations beyond our space and state agencies, because I think that these…uh, stakeholders will listen and need to listen. And I think if enough educators start to view their content in this way, about, uh, going beyond the classroom and elevating student voice, then we too will feel really empowered. Right? Like we see the returns on investment pretty quickly.

And so for me, that's a priority to--to commit throughout the year to advocacy and teaching my students how to be advocates themselves.

[end of Kimberly’s section]

[upbeat transition music]

Sabrina Capoli, Student Representative on New Jersey Board of Education

Ken: Now we're going to transition from someone who is wrapping up her award term as State Teacher of the Year, in Kimberly, to someone who is starting her award term as the student representative on the New Jersey Board of Education, Sabrina Capoli.

I'm excited for you to be able to meet her if you haven't yet, and also hear from her as she imparts some of her wisdom, as a student, around what teachers and educators and administrators can do to truly engage their student population as they think about this upcoming school year.

Sabrina: My name is Sabrina Capoli. I go to Seneca High School and I'm affiliated with the NJASC, that's the New Jersey Association of Student Councils, um, and I’m the Student Representative for the New Jersey Board of Education.

Ken: I'm really exceited to be able to have you talk about your--your vantage point as a student on...student engagement and how schools and educators can dig into making students a center of all that they're doing. 

So, I just wanted to start by talking about your testimony before the State Board, specifically where you address the way that schools need to be engaging their students. Could you give me a few highlights of some of the things that you said?

Sabrina: Absolutely. So, one of the things that I spoke about was the staff helping students get back into the swing of things. And it's very important to remember that we have spent almost six months out of school versus a normal two and a half months in any other summer. So it's very important that staff will understand that it might be difficult for students to, you know, get readjusted to their normal routine.

I also talked about the social aspect of school and how important that's going to be this year since we've been lacking that since March.

I also highlighted that, um, group discussions, specifically Socratic seminars in class, will be -- would be awesome to use as a learning tool.

One of the most important things that I highlighted was remote students, meaning fully remote students, and that it's important that they don't become forgotten. I think it would be great for staff to reach out through Zoom calls, engaging through them through the online tools.

It's so amazing that we have so many tools that we can use right now to still stay in contact with each other. And it's really important that we utilize them during this time.

Ken: How--how would you encourage educators to use digital tools?

Sabrina: I think that casual Zoom calls and emails and stuff like that can really make the difference in a student's life during this. Just knowing that they still have that support system is going to be really important for them.

Ken: Can you think of a specific lesson or class period where you felt particularly engaged and how can educators who are listening to this podcast learn from that and from your experience in that class?

Sabrina: One of the most memorable--memorable class periods and lessons I had was actually a little bit of a while ago. And it was during an English class. And my teacher had us reading Romeo and Juliet. And he had us act out what was going on in the story, you know. And everyone was laughing. They were having a good time. But it helps us better understand what was going on.

And it really showed, to me, that taking a humorous or lighthearted approach to learning can be super helpful and can keep students engaged. And during a time like this where everything seems to be kind of negative, taking a more positive approach to learning can make it fun and make students actually enjoy coming to school or getting online every day.

Ken: Yeah, that's great. That's great.

So, uh, what are ways that educators can make sure they're engaging the voices of marginalized students in lesson planning, policy making, and/or school operations, as they're thinking about reopening schools and and re-entry into the classroom, whether that's digital or in person.

Sabrina: Something as simple as having a student on a team or committee as a representative can really make such a difference in the policy making and making sure that it's going to be good for students.

So, in my school districts, personally, I go to the--I’m in the Lenape Regional High School District--we have pandemic response teams. Our superintendent comes to visit the schools, you know, to get a feel of the climate in our schools in the district. We have long-range planning committees that help students get a voice, in the long term, of what they will be experiencing at school.

So something like that can really make a big difference to the students and the policymakers because they get to, um, hear how this will affect the students that they will be making these policies for.

Lots of the meetings are very, you know, casual. We just have students come in and they just have, you know, a one-on-one conversation with our superintendent, or just sit in. And sometimes they'll be asked questions, just in their opinion, what they feel about certain topics that they're discussing.

Ken: Uh, so, you know, as we close up the interview, is there anything that I didn't ask about or…that you were hoping we would get to, or just that you wanted to add, that you feel like would be helpful for educators to hear as they listen to this podcast?

Sabrina: Absolutely. I just wanted to put out there that I love coming to school as a student and I know educators love coming and teaching. And it's all going to be worth it in the end. And that we should just keep a positive attitude and get through it together. We're all in this together. We're all in this crazy time, but things will get better. And hopefully, one day, we can get back to in-person learning full time.

Ken: That's awesome. That's a great, great note to leave on. So thank you so much.

[end of Sabrina’s section]

Bruce Reicher, Technology Teacher in Upper Saddle River

[transition music]

Ken: This year, as students are entering schools in ways that they haven't before, whether that's hybrid, virtual, or face-to-face, with lots of new protocols, student engagement is going to be more important than ever. One thing that we will have to leverage as educators is digital technology to engage students.

My next guest explains how digital technology can be used to implement the ideas that were talked about by both Kimberly and Sabrina, and also adds to some of the things that they had to say. I hope that you appreciate this as much as I did and find the practical suggestions helpful for your practice.

Bruce: My name is Bruce Reicher. I'm a technology teacher in Upper Saddle River all the way in northern New Jersey. I’ve been an educator for 25 years and I’ve been a technology teacher, um, in Upper Saddle River for 14 years.

I was lucky enough, through social media, to find two other media teachers five years ago who are actually in Indiana. And we've written a book called Scripted: An Educator's Guide to Media in the Classroom. And it just came out August 11.

In my computer lab I teach digital leadership, Python coding, uh, and also digital video in sixth, seventh and eighth grade. And I have a fantastic job that the eighth graders actually do a live tv show in the school every single day that we stream out in the school. And then we put the recording up on the website once the show is done.

Ken: That sounds super cool. Ha Ha [laughing].

You are doin’ a ton to engage students and help students engage each other. And as you said in the pre-interview discussion, there is no silver lining in what we're going through right now. But what are you excited about as you prepare for this year in terms of student engagement?

Bruce: You know, I feel like I've picked up a couple of tricks and tips from March 16th until the end of June and the school year of teaching remotely. Things that really worked well. Things that I don't want to do so much. And I think the biggest thing is, um, I’m comfortable on Zoom, Google Meet, on video platforms. And I think the students are too. and we're kind of ready to move to the next level of expectations. That we kind of know how a lot of that works.

So I’m really looking forward to taking all of those good things that I learned and move them forward in remote learning. And hopefully some-- at some point in the year, most, if not all, of the students will be back. And then, you know, I’ll get to see the students again in my class.

But I’m excited about the student engagement, and I really think--I know the students are so excited to either be back remotely or, even better, to be back in person. You know, just for the social aspect, to see their friends, and, you know, to be back with the teachers. They really miss school a lot too. And I’ve heard that comment that, you know, students are really excited for the school year because, uh, you know what happened last school year. They can't wait to go back.

Ken: Excellent. So as educators engage with new digital student engagement tools, you're someone who uses them a lot whether you're in school or or outside of school, and whether you're teaching remotely or teaching in person. So, what advice do you have as someone who engages deeply with technology use and student engagement?

Bruce: I mean my best advice is, “don't get overwhelmed.” And I think that's a normal “everybody gets overwhelmed.” Every tech tool was free to try, um, at the beginning of the pandemic. And a lot of schools, you know, threw them all out there. And even though that seems very helpful, I think for the beginning ,um, technology person, middle or high level, it's like “which one do I use?”

So, if there's ten screen casting tools, which one is the best one to use? So I would keep it simple. And I kind of have, like, a core four of tools that I use that will do everything that I need.

  1. Wakelet
  2. WeVideo
  3. Book Creator
  4. Google Tools

First and foremost, Wakelet for curation. Waklelet is free and I could put all my resources in one place. And, for example, I could put all my classes in one place and share every resource with the students.

WeVideo is my second go-to tool. Uh, WeVideo works on any device and you don't have to be on a particular machine to use it. And WeVideo not only will do videos, but now they've added animated gifs [pronounced with soft g] or gifs [pronounced with hard g], whatever you'd like to say, screencasts, and also podcasts. So everything is in that one tool, WeVideo, and it works on the Microsoft and the Google platform and talks to Google Classrooms. That'll be my second one.

Number three, uh, is a new tool for me that I just started using called Book Creator. Book Creator was only on the iPad at first. Now, about a year and a half ago, they also rolled out their website. And it looks like a comic book. And honestly, I thought it was like an elementary type of thing. But then I started seeing these really slick manuals that were done by tech people on every application. And, um, it's a fantastic tool that can do video, audio. It can read in any language. And it looks like a comic book, so it really draws you in. Book Creator would be the third.

And then the fourth, in my own case, is Google Tools, just the main ones: Google Docs, Google Slides, Gmail. But if I was in a Microsoft school, it would be the same, just the basic tools that you use all the time.

And along with not getting overwhelmed, Book Creator is a new tool for me. That's it. I’m only learning one new tool this year, and I think that's really important. That there's so many awesome extensions and tools that are out there, just pick one to do, like, a deeper dive on. And all the other tools stay with what you're comfortable with. And more importantly, what your students are comfortable with.

Because same thing with them. Go with tools that they know. And maybe introduce one new tool instead of all new tools to the students.

Ken: That's great advice, really looking at digital tools and thinking about what will be bite size for you as an educator and bite size for your students, as we enter a season of really lots of change and transformation, and lots of digging into what education is, and will continue to be the school year.

And as you think about engaging with students through those tools, can you think of a particular time where you were using a tool with students and you just really felt that, as students engage with the tool, they were able to go deeper in terms of their own learning? And how is that instructive for teachers as they're thinking about their own classrooms?

Bruce: I mean, the best tool that I would recommend for everybody is to use whatever media creation tools you can. And in my own particular school, we're lucky enough that we built a TV studio in a classroom. The students, 8th grade students, go in every single morning live and do a 10 minute, you know, live broadcast with news, sports, announcements, features, interviews. And I really think it is the--the best medium that you could do, uh, in media for a couple of different reasons.

Number one, the students are very interested in it. It's very hands-on. Everybody could do well in it. And the product that they produce, it's just them going through all of the different, um steps, to put together a TV show, or put together a video package.

In fact, it ties in perfectly to future skills that employers are looking for, um, 2015, 2020, 2025. There are lists of ten of these and, interestingly enough, like, creativity was number nine in 2015. In 2020, creativity is the second biggest tool that employers are looking for.

So even if my students, you know, don't work on the radio, or don't work in anything in broadcasting, they're getting those future skills, and they're practicing them and actually doing them hands-on. And the other teacher and myself are really facilitators as they are doing the show.

Start small. You don't need to do a 10-minute live show. You know, start with a 30-second public service announcement. Or, even easier, have the students do exit tickets, either as an audio exit ticket or a video exit ticket. And they'll enjoy doing it and I think it will be a much richer experience for the teacher.

Ken: A lot of teachers need to hear that, that they don't need to use every tool. And, you know, really thinking about how they can take an idea like a 10-minute TV, well-produced, broadcast for students, and paring it down to what's manageable for them in their classroom and their environment, while still being able to bring that--bring those ideas.

As teachers and educators are thinking about leveraging digital tools, what are some rules of the road that you would have for them as they…really look at evaluating which tool or tools they want to dive into?

Bruce: Sure. I mean, even for tools, I would go with media tools. And to piggyback on the previous thing you were saying too is, for those teachers, let your curriculum drive what media you're creating, not the other way around. So teach what you normally teach and some of the projects could be podcast, video things.

And same for the teachers. I mean use video, WeVideo, there's a couple new tools that came out over the summer. One of them is called Record to Slides by Clay Codes. It's an extension. And this records the slides, works--it's free--it works in Google Slides. And once you put the extension on and open up Slides, it lets you embed video right into a Google Slideshow.

So, for example, if a teacher was looking over a student's Google Slideshow, they could click this “record the slides,” record a video message to their student about what they thought about the project. And the student would have an embedded video that would be video feedback, obviously along with audio, from the teacher. And the student could use it, they could put video into any of their slides just by clicking this, it's called “Record to Slides.” It's a free extension in the Google Chrome store.

The other one is something called mote, m-o-t-e, that gives audio feedback. And I’m reading and learning more and more about teachers, instead of getting hundreds of papers and writing hundreds of comments, going through the docs digitally, and then leaving all audio feedback for the student. And it becomes more of a conversation than them just possibly looking at their grade and seeing, you know ,what you wanted them to do better.

And then the final tool which a lot of people have used, and it's a terrific one, is Flipgrid.

[end of Bruce's section]



[upbeat music]

Our hope is, at the {New Jersey} Department of Education, that this episode has provided you with tips, and new thoughts and new ideas, on engaging students in your classroom, in your school, in your district, and in the state.

As we join together as a professional learning network to discuss student engagement, I’d like to invite you to join me. We'll be having the #NJEdPartners Twitter chat on September 15th starting at 8 30 pm.

We look forward to continuing to connect and engage with you about educating the 1.4 million students around the state and hope to talk to you on the #NJEdPartners third Tuesday Twitter chat.

You can subscribe to the podcast channel for DOE Digest through your iPhone in the Apple Podcast app, or wherever else you listen to podcasts, so that you can get new episodes when they are released.

Also please leave us a review through the Apple Podcast app on your iPhone; it is the best way to help new listeners find us.

Neither the New Jersey Department of Education, nor its officers, employees or agents, specifically endorse, recommend, or favor views expressed by those interviewed discussion of resources are not endorsements.

Thanks so much for listening

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