Thompson Island’s summer program is a five-week hybrid summer school and enrichment program that serves nearly 100 elementary-school students on one of the Boston Harbor Islands.

Key Takeaways

  • Student engagement is increased when their feedback is incorporated into the program.

  • To keep students engaged, instructors need to see what excites the group and follow the students’ natural curiosity.

  • Staff help students figure out what is bothering them if they see a student is disengaged, rather than penalizing them.

Q: What program activities have you found engage students the best?


A: I think incorporating student feedback is a big component of engaging students. For example, we start our mornings as soon as the students get off the bus by bringing everyone into a circle with their crew. During the first week, the enrichment staff teach the students some games, and then the crew gets to vote on what game they want to play in the morning. If a student does not get what they want, there is a system worked out where that student gets to choose later on.


There is not a lot of dictation for what students do in the mornings. We have found they are also especially engaged by novelty and hands-on learning. This is especially the case for our science program because it is exciting and new for the students. We also offer a few minutes for exploration time, which goes back to student choice. Staff have students bring back what they feel is interesting and present it to the group. They get really engaged when they find that they can be successful too.

Q: What about your program – location, structure, content, etc. – engages students? Can you recall a specific example?


A: We are really lucky that we are able to host our program on an island. It is engaging to be on a boat every day. Beyond the site location, we do a lot of training on what students developmentally need at this age. But we also want it to be fun, so even during the lesson there is a break and we tell them to go out and play. We try to develop their curiosity. For example there are turkeys on the island, and sometimes students will ask what they are. There are two ways to answer that, one is “oh it’s a turkey,” and the other is “it’s a turkey, let’s go over there and look.” If we find that there is something that sparks the majority of students’ curiosity, we will stop and elaborate, and then make connections to the content of the program.


You engage students when, as an educator, you are very clear about the outcomes of the activity and looking for that “wow” moment to happen. You can’t force it, you have to find what excites and motivates them. Activities are scheduled, but they are not planned moment by moment. When we plan the program we factor in time to explore. We know when they do they will find something fun that excites them. In a two hour long class, you have to evaluate and anticipate that every twenty minutes there is going to be a distraction, and just honoring that moment of distraction can help them be engaged in the next activity.

Q: What strategies are used by program staff to keep students engaged?


A: If we see a student’s attention drifting off, our staff doesn’t necessarily demand him or her to come back. We might just be take a student aside, especially if we see that they are really disengaged. When kids show up and they are in a bad mood from the moment they get off the boat, we intentionally help the students identify why they are having a bad morning, and show them that the staff here is their ally and here to help. We work with our students one-on-one pretty heavily.


It is also the structure of the program that helps students be engaged. They see the same adults all day every day. We never really come down on our students. We believe that if a student is acting disengaged, something else is going on with that student and we need to figure out what it is.


Thompson Island’s summer program partners with 3-6 schools and have about 60-70 students there on a daily basis. Each crew is 12 students maximum, with one teacher and one island enrichment staff member. In the afternoons they rotate, they are still with their crew, they either do a team building progression, which may involve part of our ropes course. Twice a week students go to hands-on-science- learning, and they use part of our natural resources to learn a lot of scientific concepts, and be engaged through activities with a national park service ranger.