Tips for Increasing Student Engagement During COVID

Your kids might be in masks. Or maybe they’re stuck in rows. They’re probably socially distanced–or even completely distanced and learning remotely. And yet, you’re still expected to be a good teacher with strong student engagement.

How do we possibly do this?!?

Well, I certainly don’t have all the answers (I barely have a few), but I am coming off an entire year of teaching in-person and remotely to socially distanced students in masks. Here are some of my strategies I used for engagement, plus other tips from teachers in the online community.

Teaching Through the Mask

Get the Tech

If you’re forced to teach both online and in person (not easy), you need to find a way to make yourself heard to both students in your room and online. For the first few weeks that I did this, I wore a microphone whenever I taught. However, I learned that it ended up being very loud to my online learners, since I have a tendency to yell when I get excited…and I am an excitable person. However, I did use “talk show host” style it to amplify my in-class students’ responses, since any comments made by someone other than me were lost to my pitiful microphone.

I also used a tripod to Zoom certain classes from my phone. This is another gray area, since I had to use my own personal belongings. (FYI I was offered a school laptop, but not a tripod for it.) I chose to do this because some classes, especially my Shakespeare class, revolve around lots of whole class discussion. By placing the camera and microphone in the middle of the class, it still recorded my notes on the screen but was able to catch more of the in-class performances and discussions that drove each lesson.

Create a Class Yearbook

Deirdre Bradford suggested this amazing idea of having students create a class “yearbook.” In it, each student can create their own slide and show a picture of their face. This not only helps build classroom community but can help you as a teacher with knowing what your students look like!

Get a shield!

This is a small tip, but I did most of my whole-class teaching in a shield rather than a mask. I found that it helped my voice carry more and my students benefited from reading my lips as well. I still put on a mask when circulating the room or talking to a student in close proximity, but the shield helped me communicate and save my voice from mask-screaming.

Classroom Strategies for Students Stuck in Rows

I have to be honest, teaching to students stuck in socially-distanced rows was my least favorite part of teaching in person. I was able to do small group discussions for a short period of time, but ultimately I was forced to rely on lecture-style teaching way more than I like. When I got tired of hearing my own voice, I turned it over to my students. We were able to do impromptu book reports, student-led mini lessons, and chapter recaps despite the limitations.

Index Card Responses

When my students were stuck in rows all year in the name of social distancing, I couldn’t rely on my go-to think-pair-share strategies. In one lesson, I passed out index cards and put the slide on the screen for all to see. I asked everyone to spend the first 3-5 minutes of class responding to the questions. As the students took quizzes, I read over the index cards (plus the virtual ones which were emailed to me) and gathered the general consensus of how my students were reacting to Frankenstein. I even used them to fuel our discussion for the day. Again, this is another no-cost, easy prep strategy that can work with anything.

Employ Media

I found that since my kids were all facing the same direction, it was easier to engage them using media. I used video clips, songs, TED Talks, music videos, and other media to assist so many of my lessons. To learn how to enhance lessons with media, here are two different blog posts on the topic:

How to Reach Students When Teaching Remotely

Warm-Up Music

This one is kind of stupid, but I got a little stir-crazy during the initial months of the pandemic when literally everything was closed. Like everyone else, I was teaching virtually and going out of my mind. My sophomores were doing a unit on heroes and at the beginning of one lesson, I opened up the Zoom call but kept my camera off. As soon as I opened the call, I started playing themed music that went with our lesson that day. At first, my students were confused. But as I continued doing it, more and more began to log on early just for the “lobby music.” It helped boost everyone’s spirits and literally took no prep at all! I believe I went through the Avengers theme song (plus costumes), Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero,” and “My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion throughout that unit.

Respond in Emojis

It can be so hard to reach students when you can’t see them in person. In one lesson I wast struggling to gauge my students’ understanding in a lesson on Frankenstein. While I had a majority of my students physically in class, they might as well have all been online. In a last ditch effort to get their opinions, I wrote my cell phone number on the board (yes, this is risky). I told them they could only respond in emojis, but they needed to express how they felt about the most recent chapters of Frankenstein. Immediately, they came alive. I got responses from students in class and online, which sparked the liveliest discussion we had all week.

Looking back now, there is an easy way to work around giving out your phone number. Simply post a discussion post or required response on Google Classroom or your school’s LMS with the same question and make them respond with their phones in real time. This can work for whatever you’re studying to get their open-ended opinions or a response in a poll.

Coming off the success of this activity, I came up with another introductory activity that I also used for Frankenstein. About midway through the novel, I asked students to summarize the novel so far using only emojis. This was another engaging and entertaining activity that can be used for any text. See the examples below!

Virtual Scavenger Hunt

This idea comes from Jackie Montanez-Ramirez, who felt frustrated by her students’ unwillingness to turn on their cameras or contribute to discussions with their microphones. In an effort to build some community, Jackie created this fun and engaging activity. She says:

“One day for extra credit I created a group scavenger hunt. I composed a list of 40 random items from a juice box to floss to a candy cane (it was December.) I put them in breakout rooms and gave them 8 minutes to collectively find the objects on the list. Each group was awarded points for each item. The caveat was that the item would only count if the kids stated the item and showed it on camera. My AP kids loved the time constraint and extra credit. My freshmen loved the team component since they had never met one another. It was easily my best day of online teaching! I saw all of my kids on camera and with smiles on their faces. At the end of class the chat was full of positive feedback and they hoped to do it again!”

I absolutely love this activity for building community, especially for those forced to start the school year virtually! I also think it can be applied to literature if needed. For example, ask students, “What would Lennie put in his knapsack?” or, “Big Brother is watching. What does Winston need to hide?” I’m definitely keeping this in my back pocket in case I ever have to teach fully virtual again!

Get Multifaceted Teaching Resources

One thing we can all agree on is that teaching during COVID increases a teacher’s work in immeasurable ways. Because of the overload, it’s great to have a few versatile tools that can be paired with many activities and texts. Here are some I suggest:

Task Cards

Two years ago I turned the skill-based questions from the AP Lit CED into printable task cards. I organized them by color and laminated them for repeated use. Last year, I reached for these constantly as bell-ringers, exit slips, and quick ways to enhance a lesson. You can make your own using the CED, or purchase these printer-ready versions from TpT. I recently made a set for AP Lang as well!

In this picture (from a pre-COVID year), we reviewed some of our poems using various AP Lit skills. Students had to select a task card and write a claim on the post-it. We posted them around the room and discussed them as a class. This still works in the COVID world, just pick up the post-its yourself!

Hexagonal Thinking Cards

Hexagonal thinking has been infiltrating into classrooms over the past few years and it’s opening up lots of doors for enhancing students’ critical thinking skills. The Cult of Pedagogy has a great blog post explaining how to use them in the classroom (both virtually and in-person). She even has a free set you can print, laminate, and use over and over again. I’m attempting hexagonal thinking for the first time this fall, but I look forward to trying it with many texts and with all of my different classes.

Graphic Organizers

Another go-to with my AP Lit students are these graphic organizers I created for each skill. These can be paired with any text, so I can use them with small groups, as sub plans, or when I just need a break from creating something new. You can purchase these online from TpT.

What are your suggestions?

I’m continuing to add to this blog post as I hear from other teachers. What are your suggestions for teaching in a mask, in rows, online, or with other COVID limitations? Leave me a comment or email me at and I might share your tips in this post!

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