Focus time leads to improved student engagement each day

November 29, 2018

Prior to this year, Schuyler Central High students had the opportunity each day to participate in a brief study hall similar to what many other schools around the country have implemented.

And while some students used the 20-minute time frame to complete school work and read, others were disengaged, goofing around and not really putting the session to good use.

“We are coming off of this really being more of a study hall time,” Spanish instructor Brandi Zavadil said during a recent interview with the Sun. “They kind of got to slack off and not really do anything (during that time).”

To promote student/teacher interaction and provide an outlet for students to develop better interpersonal skills, Zavadil and several other Schuyler instructors implemented daily Focus time sessions. Thirty-six Focus groups span grades nine through 12 at the high school and are comprised of freshman through senior students in a homeroom. This gives them the chance to spend time with students they might not otherwise interact with, Zavadil said.

The curriculum-based time promotes a learning environment that’s also intended to be fun – it gets away from the everyday classroom feel by providing students with games and activities to complete.

Students throughout the year have worked on various learning projects, as well as periodically participating in various competitions. Recently, students around the school squared off for a rigorous match of tug-of-war. Several of the activities involve the implementation of technology through students using their iPads. With Schuyler Central serving as a 1:1 technology school, every student has access to his or her own tablet.

On Monday, groups of two were spread out in the hallways and in various nooks reading children’s books. One student read the text, flipped through the pages and showed off the colorful graphics while the other recorded the activity with the iPad from above using the Flipgrid application.

Flipgrid is the leading video discussion platform for millions of Pre-K to Ph.D. educators, students and families in 180-plus countries, according to its website.

Through the app, students were able to read their books, save their videos and then have them shared with teachers at Schuyler Elementary who will provide their students time to watch and learn from the videos of the high schoolers reading.

“This kind of came out of a think-tank session we had a month or two ago, where we thought, ‘what can we do to build community among our students?’” said Dacia Jones, STEM consultant with Discovery Education, an organization that partners with the district to better prepare students with hands-on skills that will benefit them in the workforce.

The elementary school, Schuyler Public Library, as well as high school library and other teachers -- who have little kids – donated children’s texts for students to read from. Books are being read in English, Spanish and French.

“We would have liked to have kids reading in Arabic and Oromo, but unfortunately we weren’t able to find those books,” Zavadil said, adding there are students who are able to read and speak the languages.

Sophomore Rosana Cristobal was one of the several students completing the reading process Monday. After reading aloud while not recording to make sure she was comfortable with the words of the book “Where Butterflies Grow,” Cristobal sat in the hallway and recited the book while fellow sophomore, Giselle Lopez, served as her camera person.

“We are doing this for the elementary students so they can watch it, watch the pictures and everything like that,” she said, adding she picked her book because of the engaging pictures.

Students participating in the reading activity through Focus time is just one of the many ways students can improve critical thinking, collaborate, communicate and create ideas, Jones said, praising the Focus sessions.

“Right now this is the only school in Nebraska that is doing this type of program, and pretty much we would say that it’s one of the first ones in the U.S. that is doing it to this extent with the Focus plan,” she said. “The Focus group is actually (making its way) around the nation now trying to find new ideas to build community. And it can be a really hard thing to do in schools because there isn’t a lot of time to do it.”

Superintendent Dan Hoesing, who Zavadil said really brought forward the vision of having Focus groups, said he believes that moving and shaking up the regular school day is important in terms of building new interactions with students, teachers and the school community as a whole.

“When we look at capturing kids’ hearts, we know that engaging is the first step,” Hoesing said. “And through our Focus program, we want them to go beyond engaging and telling us who they really are. Not just how they are doing in school, but who they really are. Then you are able to open lines where you have permission to communicate with kids, which is really the next level.”

It’s finding a balance of learning and fun. It needs to be engaging, but it can’t be too heavy – it’s not supposed to be a psychology lesson, Hoesing said.

It just needs to be meaningful and consistent.

“For any kind of relationship, there needs to be frequency and interaction,” he said. “That’s why we have this every day.”

Sam Pimper is the news editor of the Schuyler Sun. Reach him via email at sam.pimper@lee.net.

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