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Teaching Strategies | June 7, 2024

How to Design Engaging After-School Programs

After-school programs have the potential to benefit students and families. Whether they focus on intervention, remediation, or enrichment, they can be designed to meet a wide variety of needs in a wide variety of environments. This article includes strategies and resources for designing effective and engaging after school programs.

After-School Programs: What Are They?

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

After-School Programs: What Can They Be?

After-school programs offer a lot of potential to schools. Since after-school programs can vary widely to support students in a range of environments and instructional programs, these programs can be designed to meet needs in engaging and relevant ways. In after school programs, students should receive rich and complex instruction, be encouraged to solve problems, and encounter challenging content, learning vocabulary and new content to support their daily instruction.

At their very best, after-school programs can also enhance family engagement. Engaged families truly invest in learning with authentic opportunities for engagement. Effective after-school programs 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.


Developing After-School Program Content

After school programs can open doors for students to engage with content that is relevant, helping to address the instructional gap that exists for many students, by helping them view the content as worthy of their time. Programmatically, students can engage with rigorous content, 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.

Design for Standards

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.

Design for Challenge

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.

Design 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 to be provided with opportunities to truly engage with content.

Design for Motivation

When 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 Pink’s 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.

Building 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, to develop understanding, and to organize information supports their need to be autonomous in their learning.

Strategy Spotlight: The Sorting Bag

The sorting bag strategy 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 strategy begins by providing students with “a bagful” of vocabulary and content-related ideas. The sorting bag can be a real bag, encouraging students to work with realia, but it 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 them, 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 strategy is one strategy that provides students with authentic purpose and autonomy. The sorting bag strategy is also an excellent tool for teachers working to use authentic activities to assess students.

Program Spotlight: STEAM Readers

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.

After-school programs have the potential to empower students, support teachers, and engage families. Apply these considerations, strategies, and resources to design after school programs that are standards-based, challenging, motivating, and engaging.

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Teaching Strategies

Author Bio:

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Jen Jump, Academic Officer

As an Academic Officer, 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...

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