Five Lessons the Pandemic Has Taught Us About Student Engagement

By Rolando Fernando II
December 8, 2020

The original design of the YARI Project aimed to support a cohort of youth researchers at the intersection — those who are from historically marginalized groups and who also possess learning differences — as they interrogate the education system from the perspective of their lived experiences. By supporting youth with principles of Universal Design for Learning, we applied a blended approach to engagement and scaffolding by hosting in-person convenings, virtual check-ins and mentoring sessions to support the youth researchers. Then the pandemic happened.

Along with the rest of the education field, everyone involved with the project had to adjust and adapt to remote learning almost overnight as we prioritized safety and wellness. Despite facing daunting restrictions for any researcher – never mind first-timers in high school– from distant support to doing fieldwork remotely, the youth researchers continued to gather data using virtual tools and to make sense of what they found.

We continue to be awed and inspired by the youth researchers’ resilience in facing unprecedented challenges. In fact, this experience has provided rich lessons on working with intersectional youth within volatile situations, supporting them to persistently pursue their projects while allowing for the responsive flexibility to adjust to rapid and unexpected changes within home and school environments.

As we continue to learn from this experience, we would like to share the following emerging lessons about engagement with other educators looking to conduct youth-led research projects in and beyond their classrooms.

Meet students where they are

At the beginning of the lockdown period, support staff met with each youth research team to find out how they were doing, how they were responding to recent events, what changes and adjustments were they facing at home and school and what additional support and resources they needed to continue with their projects. Support staff made sure to prioritize flexibility in setting up remote engagements amidst changing demands on the youth’s time from remote learning, home duties and other obligations.

The communication structure was adjusted to give both the youth and mentors more direct access to support staff members so that emerging needs can be addressed in an agile and timely manner. In addition, we recognized that sustaining the students’ motivation to continue the project is one of the most difficult challenges we are facing; therefore, support staff and mentors doubled down on follow-up reminders and remote check-ins to keep the youth researchers engaged and enthusiastic.

Clarify expectations and provide a responsive and flexible space

Recognizing that the provisions of the project were designed and set before the pandemic, we determined a range of adaptations to support and engage the youth, such as placing the highest priority in developing relationships between students, mentors and support staff, and building a resilient community with a strong sense that we are all in this together. We increased direct access with one another, eliminating communication structure layers that were previously designed for efficiency. These adaptations were still aligned with the YARI Community Norms and Boundaries which we’d established with the youth prior to the pandemic.

After that, we repeatedly conveyed that we would closely work with the students to adapt to their changing needs, including the pacing of project scaffolds and deliverables that was adjusted to give the youth, mentors and support staff the time and space to commensurately respond to the home, school and work challenges that the pandemic abruptly brought.

Adapt systems and processes to minimize change impact

The pivot to a fully virtual mode presented challenges of disruption that we addressed by adapting project components to platforms that they are already using in school. For example, we integrated a project calendar with their existing classroom-based Google calendar. The combination allowed students and their advisors to look at both their academic and project schedules in one place and enabled them to plan student activities and deadlines according to each specific student’s needs and commitments.

Keep close and transparent relationships with support partners

The pandemic emphatically brought home the critical importance of relationships. Staying closely connected and transparent significantly helped support partners in responding to the youth researchers’ support needs. We centered our relationships with partners by acknowledging that they are also deeply affected by the pandemic. We regularly checked in on how everyone was doing and supported one another by extending grace, understanding and additional help when adjustments to schedules and deliverables were necessary.

Explore multiple and non-traditional ways to share findings

Once the planned in-person local exhibition and capstone convening had been canceled, we continued to collaborate with the youth researchers, mentors, partners and The Met High School to find fun, innovative and authentic ways to bring their findings and insights to their intended audiences.

To feature and amplify the students’ YARI stories, we are setting up individual profiles, recording experiential interviews and asking the youth researchers to provide a short video presentation of their capstone project to be used for a virtual celebration and exhibition event at the end of the project. In turn, this video can also be used for the students’ virtual exhibition as part of their school’s requirements.

Learn more about the YARI Project and explore additional resources.

As the project winds down, the youth will be encouraged and guided to convey what they have to say to the audiences who they believe need to hear their message. At the onset of the project, there is no way that anyone could have anticipated the level of disruption that the pandemic has brought to our lives. But all of us in the YARI Community have learned valuable lessons in planning and responding to uncertainty, and in rising to the occasion to steadfastly pursue a goal while increasingly leaning on one another.

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