Keeping Students Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Classroom [guest post]

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When laptops first arrived in my classroom, I worried about classroom management. How could I create an environment where students used their computers as tools rather than toys?

I was worried for nothing. The following are suggestions for keeping students engaged in a project and accountable for their time with computers:

Students make a plan. 
Students are most tempted to open widgets, games, and social chats when they are faced with a blank screen and have no plan.

Much of the time, students think they have a plan. If you ask them What are you going to do?, the answer is usually I’m gonna make a Power Point about… or I want to make a movie about… Those answers indicate that students are thinking of technology before content.

Instead, ask What are you trying to learn? or What are you trying to communicate? or What are you working on as a writer? Those questions get answers like I want to know more about the horses that Civil War generals rode or I want to convince people that Justin Bieber is the best singer ever or I’m trying to describe the character’s actions.

When you ask about learning and communication, you are signaling that the content is more important than the technology. Pull aside those who are struggling with plans. Let them talk together and encourage them to sketch their ideas with diagrams or bullet points and return to the computer later. Students with a plan tend to stay on task.

Students set time-bound goals.
Once students have a plan, they break the project into smaller tasks that can be finished in 10- to 15-minute chunks of time. Have students write the specific tasks on Post-it notes. Post-its are set beside the computer. On their Post-its, students finish the sentence, “In the next [x-amount of] minutes, I plan to…” They generally write things like…

  • Create an outline for my essay
  • Write my introduction
  • Find three pictures about…
  • Do my voice recording
  • Finish four slides of my Power Point/Keynote
  • Find at least three database articles on…
  • Draft at least three paragraphs
  • Use Google docs to peer-edit so-and-so’s essay
  • Upload my story to Voicethread

Tasks should be specific. I’m gonna work on my project is not specific enough. At the end of class, Post-its become “exit slips”. Students tick off the tasks they have completed and hand the Post-its to the teacher so the teacher can see the progress.

Laptop screens are “fisted” or “put at half mast”.  

Teachers don’t lecture much in a project-based learning environment. However, sometimes student work time is interrupted so the teacher can give reminders or clarify directions.

Ask students to “fist” their computer (or “put the screen at half mast”). Screens should be gently lowered so that students’ fists fit between the edge of the track pad and the screen.

When screens are fisted, students are not distracted by items on their screen nor can they type. At the same time, students do not lower their screens to the point that the computers go to sleep. In an iPad environment, students might carefully face their screens down on the desk.

Fingers indicate the amount of time students need to complete a shorter task.
Some tasks are shorter and need to be completed within a few minutes of class. After students have worked for a reasonable amount of time, ask students to show fingers for how many additional minutes they need. Fisted computers signal completion.

If a student is far behind the rest of the class, try to determine whether the student got distracted or if the student needs reteaching. Have the student take a screenshot of his or her progress. Screenshots are helpful to guide future conversations.

Circulate the room, conferencing with students.
Walking and talking with students is important with or without computers. In her article 10 Ways to be a Terrible Teacher, Vicki Davis describes the terrible teacher as one who is working on his or her own computer and not paying attention to students. 

Students welcome teacher conversation. They are eager to share their progress and request advice when they’re stuck. You build relationships with students when you talk to them about their work.

Rather than banning chat, teach students how to use it for collaboration.
Chat features are programmed into Gmail and Google products. The first year, I banned chats. Then, I realized that chats can be used for student collaboration.

I glance at the chat windows as I circulate the room. Since students have specific, time-bound goals, most chats are used to ask peers to look over a paragraph or help with another aspect of the project.

Don’t be afraid to have tough conversations with individual students.
Each year, I have to pull aside one or two students to talk about time management. It’s not a punitive conversation. The conversation goes something like this:

I’ve noticed you haven’t made much progress on…I need to know what’s getting in the way of your progress. I’m not asking because I want to get you in trouble. I’m asking because you’re now x-years old and I’m worried that, if you get in the habit of…,then school will be really hard for you in the future.

Many of the suggestions above apply to project-based learning environments both with and without computers. The trick in a 1:1 environment is to maintain focus on learning and communication. Then let technology naturally enhance those outcomes.

What tricks do you use to keep students engaged?

Janet Moeller-Abercrombie is the author of Expat Educator. She has 16 years of teaching experience and currently works full time at Hong Kong International School. Janet is a doctoral candidate with the University of Minnesota and has begun curriculum consulting with administrators and teachers. She is certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. @jabbacrombie


[cross-posted at 1-to-1 Schools]

16 Responses to “Keeping Students Engaged in a 1:1 Project-Based Classroom [guest post]”

  1. Great questions! Thank you for sharing.

  2. Great ideas. I think they will work even with 2nd graders. Generally I have them hit the home button (I have 2 students to 1 ipad situation). I like the idea of turning the Ipad over -as long as their desks are clear. Bit worried about scratching the screens. Most situations hitting the home button – will get them back where they were.

    • Hi Kimberly, Good thoughts on the iPads. I’ve had a class use iTouches but not iPads.

      Do the iPads have soft cases? If not, maybe some parents could paste felt over cardboard – make them look like iPad “beds.” Maybe others have additional ideas :).

  3. THanks, Jennifer! It’s amazing what a difference a little wording makes :).

  4. Great tips Janet. As a school moving towards 1:1 I can share this informative article with involved teachers. Thanks for posting!

    • Jim! Great to hear from you. Share away! I’ll be doing some regular posts for 1:1 Schools blog (cross-posted to this article).

      Happy to talk to you or to teachers about the implementation – what has worked for us.

      I can hardly imagine teaching without 1:1 computers.

  5. Theresa Lipsett Shafer Reply January 30, 2012 at 6:51 am

    As I was reading this post I was not only viewing it as a great model for students in Kindergarten AND in college. Setting those mini-goals is such a great strategy no matter how old you are. Even in the schools I’ve visited that are the most open to technology, they view the “chat tool” as a mere distraction, I love your model for this!

    • Thanks, Theresa. When we first started with 1:1s, teachers had a lot of discussion about “if students do this, then we should…”

      To me, that focuses back to the technology rather than the character development or self-motivated learning we strive to instill. And, truthfully, I’d never be able to police all their screen flips.

      I’d like students to determine for themselves what constitutes a “tool” and what serves as a “distraction.” I’ve had students voluntarily take things (like widgets and Skype) off their dock. Some students have voluntarily turned on Freedom ( when they are writing.

  6. In a high school environment your students will mock you (not necessarily openly) if you ask them to “fist” their computers as they will be more familiar with the sexual meaning of “fisting”.

  7. We can all come up with a million ways to make a 1:1 adoption unsuccessful. Usually this occurs when the attention is focused solely on the device and not on how instruction should and must change as a result of the device being a part of the students’ tool box. It’s such a welcome change to read a list of tested strategies and ideas developed to make sure that kids are focused on learning, understanding, and doing using technology. Thank you so much for sharing this with us.

    • Very true. I didn’t understand that at first. All I knew was that the final student products were not, in the end, what I had hoped.

      I’m lucky to have a great teaching partner who was able to talk me through the specific “missing pieces.” We went back to the curriculum documents and compared standards/benchmarks to student final projects. It became clear that some students were missing content, others were missing grammar/mechanics, etc.

      We now work together to formatively assess student progress at various points throughout the project – especially noting groups of students that need extra teaching or re-teaching.

      Thanks for reminding me of this. You’ve given me an idea for another post :).

  8. Janet, you bring up some very good ideas. I find that simply setting a tone of urgency is extremely helpful. Conveying to students that there is much to accomplish in a limited amount of time goes a long way. When students feel that there is a premium placed upon instructional time and there are clearly defined purposes for doing learning activities, they are more likely to stay focused and on task. As a high school assistant principal, I feel that we are often afraid to implement new ideas because we are worried about what problems may occur. We tend to make rules, policies and procedures to ward off future, possible problems that may rarely happen. Instead, we should be aware of potential pitfallsand have a plan of how respond to those individuals that need redirected. Focusing on the positive behaviors tends to reduce the negative ones.

    • That’s a great way to phrase it – “sense of urgency”, Thanks.

      Problems will occur, but there is no way we can make rules that address each one. And, since each learner has different needs, making rules doesn’t usually get to the heart of a student’s issue.

      Part of “not making too many rules” is a willingness to give up the (perceived) sense of control. Admittedly, that was difficult at first. I eased up over time as I learned the tricks mentioned above. The class is still controlled, but it looks a lot different than before the computers and the individualized projects.

      Thanks for your perspective!

  9. Barry Mernin (@LarryHermanHK) Reply February 29, 2012 at 6:40 am

    Outstanding. I am going to share this with my team.

  10. I read some of your post and I learned a lot of knowledge from it. Thanks for posting such interesting articles.

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