Four Ways to Keep Boys Engaged in Online Learning

Stories, know-how, and guidance from the experts in educating boys.

Kristen Kerwin

Four Ways to Keep Boys Engaged in Online Learning

Avon Old Farms, the CT private school for boys, is no stranger to online learning: after all, we’ve been helping students get an edge up on the fall term with our summer online courses for eight years now! So, when the coronavirus pandemic forced all of our classes to run digitally, we had the benefit of experience under our belts. The question was, how would we box up our everyday boy-centered on-campus classes and deliver them via Zoom with the same vitality we’re known for? Fortunately, Avon Old Farms has a systematic methodology to teach boys—how boys learn best—firmly in place.  

In a heartbeat, we turned to R.E.A.L. Learning to guide engagement practices for our online classes. The principles of R.E.A.L. Learning—Relational, Experiential, Active, and Lifelong—blend together to create a prime academic environment for boys... both within the walls of our famous brick-red buildings and now out from our teachers' homes into the portals of virtual classrooms. 

To get a better idea of what an actual Avon online class looks like, we opened the electronic gateway to peek into Ms. LuBonta’s Zoom-room during her English class. Here's how the four principles of R.E.A.L. Learning translate into online classes:


As students from Ms. LuBonta’s 35-minute Zoom class logged in for attendance, each student greeted one another and Ms. LuBonta. One of the students even took a moment out to ask “how are YOU doing Ms. LuBonta?” Playful banter and jokes about dress code (or pre-class lack thereof) abounded. It was obvious that the students valued their relationships with each other and with their teacher. Just as in the on-campus classroom, meaningful connections are prioritized in an online setting. Once the students felt seen and valued for bringing their personalities to the Zoom-room, a foundation was laid for a rich and potent virtual learning space.  

Ms. LuBonta notes, “The boys desperately miss each other. This online learning process is making it very clear to them how much those relationships are significant in their daily lives."

In the following video, the camaraderie of this tight-knit band of brothers is palpable as they determine who will go first in a project presentation.

In a school structured to teach boys to be risk-takers, the Brotherhood—a network of relationships that bolster and challenge one another—plays a key role in relational learning. Five minutes into Ms. LuBonta’s class, ‘the Brotherhood’ made an appearance in the form of the school’s community-building web page known as Morning Meeting. The page is updated daily with relevant content that is strategically procured to unify students from around the globe during this distance learning season. This particular day, students collaboratively watched Noah Matalon’s spoof of Ferris Bueller’s Day Off—again, bonding the Brotherhood together in the collective calamities inherent to online learning.  


After each student felt his place of belonging in the online space, Ms. LuBonta got to work deliberately presenting the material from an experiential standpoint. By utilizing video of our very own legendary folk singer and activist, Pete Seeger ’36, students heard, saw, and felt his connection to the literature they were studying.

Ms. LuBonta wanted the students to pocket this key takeaway:

“This lesson is one of many in a series for students to make self-to-text-connections to our current situation with the pandemic and our readings in Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried. The book is a collection of short stories that are based on O’Brien’s experiences in the Vietnam war. While the stories are based on his truth they are also fused with fiction in order to tell the greater truth. The Pete Seeger assignment was meant to introduce the boys to a famous Avon alumnus, while also making connections to their desire to be back on campus, and feelings around that disconnect. There are many ways to use language, words, and writing in self-expression, while also bonding together to peacefully 'protest' their current situation.”  

During the Vietnam War, Pete Seeger performed Bring Them Home as a plea to consider the plights of our troops in an unprecedented time of war. The class took a journey to 1970 to listen to Pete’s performance and feel the emotion behind his words. They experienced a different era through the eyes and heart of Man of Avon past. 


Next, Ms. LuBonta’s class took an active approach to the lesson. Students learn better if they are able to move around and use their motor skills to stimulate brain activity in class. In an online class, teachers have to be creative to structure an environment where students can “move around” a bit. In a previous class, students were discussing The Things They Carried; more specifically, they were considering the things that are important to humanity. To exemplify what was important to them, the boys toured each other around their rooms: MTV Cribs style! Not only were the students being active, but they were building the Brotherhood by giving each other a glimpse into their personal lives.

The breakout rooms are an essential key to keeping students engaged and involved in online learning. Ms. LuBonta explains: “some of my favorite moments happen in Zoom breakout rooms where the boys can participate in smaller groups—really roll their sleeves up and work together on the material. I’m always impressed by how vested they are in what we’re working on as I virtually pop in and out of each room. Every time I drop in, I prepare for a possible goof-around session; yet, they’re almost always on task. They're always interacting with each other, which is the most essential part.”

Readied with the relational and experiential foundation of the lesson down, Ms. LuBonta rose to the challenge to capture the attention of boys with action. Each student was assigned a breakout room to stretch their proverbial legs in. In each room, students had the space to flex their voices and even get up from their computers and move around as they were speaking with each other.

In the following video, Ms. LuBonta explains the active portion of the assignment. 

Here was the students' active task:
“Looking at the lyrics of this song, get together with your team and think about what the theme is. As you all mentioned: you’re separated from your things; you’re removed from your campus; you’re displaced; you're not where you expected yourself to be; you’re dealing with a quarantine; and, you’re dealing with a pandemic virus. It’s the first of our generation and the first of many before us—some have described it as not being unlike a war in the way that countries have to come together and coordinate and support and be on the same page in order to eliminate. Work together to make this song specific to you, to AOF, and to the world we are in now.” 

Then, the students reconvened to discuss what songs they created in their smaller groups.

Here’s one group's modern-day Seeger-inspired performance and lyrics: 

Bring Us Back
by Men of Avon
If you want to go to school
Bring us back; bring us back
Don’t listen to the fools
Bring us back; bring us back
This school was our home
Bring us back; bring us back
We don’t have to face this alone
Bring us back; bring us back
The boys miss Beaver Pond
Bring us back; bring us back
Of our school, we’re very fond
Bring us back; bring us back
Stickball was the best
Bring us back; bring us back
My team was above all the rest
Bring us back; bring us back
We need to restore the Brotherhood
Bring us back; bring us back
The Hawk’s Nest sandwiches were good
Bring us back; bring us back
I know we’re full of fear
Bring us back; bring us back
But we will aspire and persevere
Bring us back; bring us back



This season of digital learning during the COVID-19 pandemic is just that: a season. Students are fiercely aware that they will return to the renowned and vibrant physical campus nestled in the hills of Avon. It’s tempting to brush off the experience as a blip in time; however, with teachers that continue to build relationships, discuss topics meaningful to the experience of the crisis, and intentionally guide boys to move apart from status quo screen-staring, these Zoom classes will impact Men of Avon for years to come. 

The lifelong tenet to our R.E.A.L. Learning methodology encompasses a broad range of lessons-learned that can be applied to and resourced throughout an Avonian's entire life. For instance, in the Pete Seeger lesson Ms. LuBonta’s class synergized through, students took away valuable and enduring nuggets of wisdom. First, students gained insight into the power of their own voice as they reflected on the current climate of the world and their lives. Second, they were taught to examine history to see how other people—in this case, one of their own—found tools to communicate ideologies and sentiments of grief. And finally, boys were bolstered by the unmistakable bonds of a supportive brotherhood—solidifying the knowledge that it’s important to have allies... to be there for one another when life takes unexpected turns.

Before class, one of the students describes how he's tanking up on chicken nuggets ...since his plateful-of-pancakes breakfast was so long ago. 

Key Takeaway

Although online learning presents a variety of challenges when it comes to teaching boys, using the systematic approach of R.E.A.L. Learning can transform an arduous platform into a vibrant adventure. The positive impact of genuine and caring student-to-student and teacher-to-student relationships shines through the Zoom-room, resulting in open and spirited conversations on the subject at hand. The groundwork of experiencing a scenario associated with the lesson lays a firm launchpad for identifying with the topic. The energy and motion of breaking into groups and actively participating breathes life into the heart of the lesson. Ultimately, the treasures gleaned from a simple 35-minute virtual video conference can inspire a boy to seek empowerment, opportunities to reflect, and community for his entire life.


Kristen Kerwin


 Associate Director of Marketing and Communications