How to Make After School Programs Engaging in Today’s Classroom

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September 16, 2021 by
How to Make After School Programs Engaging in Today’s Classroom
School Aids, Inc, Elaine Swart

 After School Programs:  What are they?

 The reality is that after school programs vary widely in scope, content, and staffing. These variances impact their effectiveness and benefits to students and the communities they serve.  After school programs can focus on intervention, remediation, and enrichment.

boy holding robotic carAfter School Programs:  What can they be?

Since After School programs can look different and are able to support all students with a range of environments and instructional programs, after school programs can be designed to meet the range of needs in engaging and relevant ways.  Students can be provided with rich and complex instruction, encouraged to solve problems, and consider difficult content, learning vocabulary and new content to support their daily instruction.

At their very best, after school programs can enhance family engagement, allowing for families to truly invest in learning, with authentic opportunities for engagement. They will also hone in on asset-based approaches to student learning, with the ultimate purpose of recognizing the power of what students bring to their learning each and every day.

two students reading books from Exploring Reading

After School Programs:  Developing Content

In addressing the instructional gap that often exists for many students, after school programs can open doors for students to engage with relevant content that is worthy of spending time with.  Programmatically, students can engage with content that is filled with rigor, interesting texts, real-life applications, and complex ideas and questions. From their inception, after school programs can highlight worthwhile and meaningful topics, use rich and powerful texts, and be designed to allow students to encounter tasks designed to create thinkers, problem solvers, and instill creative thinking and design opportunities.

Should standards drive the instruction?  Of course.  After-school programming should ensure that students have regular opportunities to engage with grade level standards, diving into powerful learning opportunities that unearth standards in engaging ways, developing a deep understanding of concepts, and ensuring that students have the skills needed to develop college and career readiness.

Should content be challenging?  Yes!  Mitigating the opportunity gaps that many students face with rote instruction, after school programs can highlight challenging materials with access to scaffolds to support success within the program.  Students should be reading difficult texts.  Students should be solving complex mathematical problems.  Students must engage with content that extends vocabulary and knowledge at every turn.  While the challenge is vital, teachers must also be equipped to support students through thoughtful scaffolds. Sentence frames, background building opportunities, explicit vocabulary development, and planned connections can drive the planning of content to support students as they navigate the challenging content.

After School Programs:  Designed for Engagement

What engages students?  Considering the brain, engagement requires both routine and challenge for ultimate engagement. The brain desires routine, showcasing the need for after-school programming to have strong lines of instructional practice that allow for students to predict instructional routines. Programing with structure and consistency allows for young people to find themselves engaged, without being forced to decipher the instructional program at every turn. Likewise, programming should elicit thinking and provide students with authentic opportunities to ask questions, solve problems, and work through challenges.  Bottom line:  students need to engage with content that is worthy of engaging with, and be provided opportunities to truly engage with content.


After School Programs:  Designed to Motivate

Elementary students reading from scriptsWhen we consider the reality for many students that after school programming is indicative of the need for additional instructional time, remediation, or review, after-school hours must be designed with an intentional focus on motivation.

Using Daniel Pinks Three Elements of Intrinsic Motivation (2009), educators can identify some simple tools for ensuring motivation in after school programming. The three elements Pink articulates are:  purpose, mastery, and autonomy. 

  • Establishing purpose: For students, learning needs authentic purpose. In designing after school programming, teachers can identify learning objectives that are clear and authentic.  What will students learn?  How will it impact them? What connections can they make between the learning and their lives?

  • Reaching mastery: Providing students with clear goals, in student-friendly language and a clear pathway to success opens the door for students to identify how they will be able to reach mastery.

  • Autonomy: The instructor in the room is integral.  Providing students with the tools to conduct their business of learning on their own is motivating. Ensuring that students know how to ask questions, develop understanding, and organize information supports their need to be autonomous in their learning.

Strategy Spotlight:

The Sorting Bag

The Sorting Bag allows for all students to engage with content and vocabulary in ways that inspire students by giving students choice in how to demonstrate their understanding of concepts and vocabulary.  The sorting bag begins by providing students with a bag full” of vocabulary and content-related ideas.  The bag can be a real bag, encouraging students to work with realia, but can also be a virtual bag or a selection of word and concept cards.

Students work to group together the items in their bag', making connections between the various items, sorting the items, discovering similarities and differences, making inferences, and determining relevance and importance.  Upon sorting, students can engage with additional iterations of the sort, pairing with other students, providing evidence to support their thinking, or writing about their decisions.

The Sorting Bag is one strategy that provides students with authentic purpose and autonomy.  The Sorting Bag is also an excellent tool for teachers working to use authentic activities to assess students.

Programming Spotlight:

Discovering ways to support literacy and math skills and standards while providing students with authentic problem-solving opportunities can be achieved using STEAM challenges. Teacher Created Materials Smithsonian STEAM readers are designed with rich content from a partnership with the Smithsonian Institution. Each reader provides all students with the opportunity to engage with an authentic STEAM challenge that mixes content learning with real-life problem solving.

Odoo • Image and Text

About the Author

As an Academic Offer, Jen Jump provides professional development and training on TCM curriculum materials and Shell Education professional resources for districts, teachers, and educational trainers. She is a passionate educator who has spent 15 years in various roles dedicated to student achievement. Before joining TCM, she contributed curriculum and professional development support to the fastest-growing urban school district, the public school system in Washington D.C. She led the curriculum work, providing teachers with organized, content-rich, text set curriculum for ELA in grades K-5. She also provided professional learning for both large groups of teachers and individual teaching through coaching to improve the literacy outcomes in the district.


How to Make After School Programs Engaging in Today’s Classroom
School Aids, Inc, Elaine Swart September 16, 2021
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