Keeping students engaged over the holidays

The holidays have never been my favorite time of the year. I’m the resident Grinch in my family. There’s lots of reasons for my Grinchiness (stress, overt commercialism, in-laws…you all know the drill even if you don’t share my disdain for the season), but as an educator, it was always a frustrating time, second only to summer. Along about the 10th of December or so, you’ve lost your students. I know we have a fairly international readership on this blog, so your mileage may vary, but every culture, no matter what holidays get celebrated or which months contain your summer break, experiences a chunk of time each year when the students have checked out early, then they leave for multiple weeks, and then you spend more weeks re-engaging them. There’s no perfect solution for this; we all need breaks. But there are a few bits of tech that can keep students, whether K12 or higher ed, from completely turning to mental mush as we get closer to the holidays.

Keep flipping that class
Not long ago, we wrote about using WizIQ to flip your classes. While the idea of having your students watch a lecture, videos, slide show, and/or other multimedia presentation of class materials during what would traditionally be homework time, leaving class time for much more valuable interactions, is gaining traction, there is perhaps no better time to try it out (or keep it up) than the holidays. If students’ minds are on a long break filled with friends, parties, and being anywhere other than a classroom, keeping their attention during a lecture will be nothing but painful for both teacher and student. Take class time for project-based learning and 1:1 interactions that demand attention more than any stand-and-deliver lecture could. Conduct labs in science classes, build bridges in math classes, write and perform plays in English classes, and start an international pen pal program in social studies classes.

You don’t need to use WizIQ to flip your classroom (although who am I to tell you not to?)…Assigning a few lectures from MIT OpenCourseWare or Khan Academy or having them take notes in a class wiki don’t make for especially challenging homework that many won’t do anyway. In fact, there aren’t many students who won’t at least sit through a YouTube video, even if it is educational. This can carry through the break as well. Have just one thing you’d like students to remember when they return? Record a few lectures and assign a couple short blog responses to them over the break. Want to prepare students for a new class in the Spring semester? Assign background videos from Khan Academy.

Web 2.0 is your friend
I’ve already mentioned blogs and wikis. If there is one thing that the average student does poorly, it’s write. And manipulate fractions, but that’s a rant for another day. I’d be writing until Christmas if I got started on that one.

When it comes down to it, it doesn’t really matter what students are writing as long as they write. The same goes for reading. It’s easy for me to tell students (and my own kids for that matter) to go read a book or write a blog post about the relative merits of Frasier firs versus blue spruce trees. I’m a professional writer who loves reading more than just about anything in this world. Our students (and at least 40% of my kids; the jury is still out on kid #5 since she’s only 2), on the other hand, often struggle with both and rarely find joy in either. So even if students need to simply write a review of A Christmas Story after its 78th showing this month on a class blog or make at least two contributions to a class wiki on the most overplayed holiday movies, they’re writing, reading, and thinking. With the wiki in particular, students can also be editing and commenting on their peers’ entries.

Use ’em if you’ve got ’em (1:1 devices, that is)
Not every school can afford 1:1 computing devices for its students, nor can every student afford a computer or tablet. However, with the advent of cheaper Chromebooks, dropping tablet prices, and continued availability of very cheap netbooks, we’re getting closer to the ideal of a “device in every backpack” (to paraphrase Herbert Hoover). And if your students have access to such a device, then there is no better time to have them use it than over a long break. Whether that means turning them loose with an app like Wooden Bridges, loading up interesting reads in an ereader app, having them write holiday-themed movies and games in Scratch, or assigning virtual teams to write a screenplay about a family debacle over the holidays in Adobe Story (free, awesome software, by the way), put those devices to work.

Meet virtually
I’d be remiss if I didn’t suggest a virtual meeting or three over the break. Are your AP students behind in preparing for their exams? Are students struggling to wrap up assignments before the end of the term? Did you assign a project for the break? Whether you meet via Skype, FaceTime, or, better yet, WizIQ, even optional virtual office hours or a quick check in can keep students from completely falling out of school mode. Whatever platform you use, it’s quick, easy, and personal.

No, tech is not a panacea for drifting attention and holiday-induced mental atrophy. However, the tools available to teachers that didn’t even exist two or three years ago that can be used to reach out to students who have already left for vacation (at least in mind, if not in body) are pretty extraordinary.


Chris is a full-time online teacher since then, focusing on teaching Business English to Adults. Rather than pushing the boundaries of technology, Chris seeks to simplify the online learning process by focusing on authentic human connections as a way to make online learning accessible for learners of all ages.

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