Five easy ways to increase engagement in your classroom

By Michelle Carlson 1 year ago2 Comments

This post is one of many in an effort to make our work and our thinking more visible and accessible, so a larger more diverse group of teachers, kids and communities may benefit from our sharing. Hope you enjoy!

In reflecting with some amazing teachers on what we did last year at one of the schools I support, we realized that something really remarkable happened – we sent an entire grade level of kids on with such a different set of skills that even the substitutes have noticed, saying things like, “I’ve never seen a group of kids like this before.”

So how are they different? These students are more able to participate in discussions and group work; they are extremely confident and imaginative learners, able to tackle unfamiliar topics with ease, and they have great listening skills, which makes this group of children a joy to work with. As an added bonus, this group of kids also showed marked improvement in both English and math, so we’ve got hard numbers to back up what the teachers, school leaders and I suspected was going to be a very successful year. Looking ahead, we believe the skills they’ve cultivated with our support will also help them to achieve a higher level of satisfaction and success as adults, because this is exactly what the most innovative employers are looking for – people who are capable, creative and passionate.

So what did the teachers and I do that generated such a positive outcome? We intentionally and consistently infused hands-on minds-on learning into their classrooms all year with rich, student centered activities (both high and low tech).  Activities like those offered in the Google Apps Edu suite, and no-tech activities like creating shadow puppet theatre productions.  After sitting down with the teachers to reflect on last year and plan for this year, here are five strategies we identified, which we all agree made magic happen for everyone:

1. Ask the kids. How many times have you encountered a situation where someone – a boss or teammate – suggested a plan for the whole team without including the ideas of the group? Or worse yet, they ask for your ideas and then choose to do something totally different that doesn’t resonate with you at all.  Chances are, if you’re a teacher, you’ve got some experience with this. The number one frustration I hear from teachers is that planning is done to them rather than with them.

Planning with your students before you head into the next unit or lesson is a surefire way to get them fired up and ready to learn, because you are giving them opportunities to share their thoughts and feelings and including them in the decision making process. Implementing their ideas guarantees engagement from students, because it offers a way for them to approach learning with genuine interest and excitement. You’re also developing their skills in critical thinking, innovation, leadership and decision making as they are given opportunities to participate in the process that’s normally left to the adults. You’re helping your kids build maturity and confidence, which will dramatically improve your experience as their teacher because you’ll no longer be dealing with 30 unruly kids, you’ll be working together as a team.

Classroom example: “Hey class, we’re getting ready to learn about Native Americans.  Now, we have some things we need to learn, which are…I’d love to hear what you’re curious about. [discussion] Also, as part of this process, we’re going to do some hands-on activities – I know you have ideas about what you’d like to do, so let’s talk about that for a bit.”

Get them talking and sharing their ideas. One of the biggest challenges teachers talk about is that they have so much they have to cram in, and they don’t feel like they have time for things like this. Classroom conversation feels frivolous and there’s real fear that if someone walks in while the kids are talking and the teacher isn’t teaching, that there will be hell to pay. I get that, but these skills are like gold and they’re exactly what kids need to be successful, both in the classroom and as adults.

It takes guts and determination, but you will be able to achieve results that will make your administrator smile right along with you if you can bring this element into your classroom.

2. Make time for discussion. This is related to the strategy above, but with an added element: having regular two way conversations throughout your lessons and units with students. Invite them to share their thoughts, feelings and curiosities with the class.  Again, this takes time, and it’s often time we feel we don’t have because of all the things we’re asked to do, but it’s time well spent and again will pay measurable dividends in the long run.

Classroom example: “Now that we’ve finished researching, making, writing, whatever…let’s talk about it. What did you find interesting in this process? What did you like? What was hard for you? Did you discover something that you’d like to share with the class?

Let your students talk and share, and engage in conversation with them.  As one child shares, it will begin to spark thoughts for the other kids and you’ll see really rich conversation begin to develop. As an added bonus, there’s a ton of research out there on how engaging in discussion with kids helps them to build vocabulary, think more deeply, express themselves better, and learn new things more quickly – all qualities that will help them in your class as well as in their future.

3. Kick things off with video. Not just any video, something really interesting and maybe even a little mind blowing. The videos I use are generally under 5 minutes and fit into one of two categories: how to or provocation.  Here’s an example of a how to video I like to use to introduce tools like Piktochart to kids. Because today’s children have such shorter attention spans, and need a different kind of mental stimulation to focus, I find that they will pay attention longer to a video rather than to an adult in person trying to explain how to use a tool. It’s sad that the constant stream of media and technological stimulus has created this situation, but I find it’s better to think of ways to use that to my teaching advantage rather than to try and reverse an irreversible process. One of my all time favorite provocation videos is SPARKED:A Live Interaction Between Humans and Quadcopters, which I’ve used to introduce coding, engineering, and circuit building activities. Provocation isn’t meant to teach or even introduce the topic directly; it’s meant instead, to provoke thoughts, discussions, questions, creativity and ideas. These videos make getting this process started super easy and fun for everyone.

The other great benefit that you get from using video to create curiosity or introduce topics is it’s a great way to easily bring a more diverse set of teaching voices into your classroom. Give yourself a little break and enjoy those moments where you get to observe your students from a different angle. The perspective can be really invigorating, and for me, often generates ideas that don’t come when I’m in front of the room doing the delivering. A fun example of this would be something like using this video of Robert Frost reading his poem Birches when heading into an ELA lesson. You’ll find tons of videos just like this on YouTube, which will captivate your kids and give you a little break!

4. Offer choices. This is one of the most important pieces of all. I considered moving it to the top, but felt it sits in the framework a little more successfully here as some of the above strategies provide some needed foundation. Choice is huge. As adults and professionals, we crave choices and thrive when we are given the freedom to make our own choices in our work. The same applies for our students, who are just a younger version of us.

The need for choice is universally human and universally invigorating.

Classroom example: Students are working on animal reports. They research their chosen animal, learn a specified list of traits about their animal and then create a poster which features all of those facts. You can change this up by talking with your kids, asking them what ideas they have about showcasing what they’ve learned. Thanks to an amazingly innovative group of teachers, I had the opportunity to lead this discussion in a few classes about a month ago. I told the kids we were going to do something a little different and we needed their help to figure out how to proceed. When asked what ideas they had about showcasing their learning, they were alive with excitement and a flurry of really great ideas came out of the discussion. Some wanted to create a Piktochart poster, others wanted to do a Google Slides presentation, some wanted to use my iPads to create movies about their animals and a couple of them wanted to stand in front of the class and do a presentation on what they’d learned. Their ideas were wonderful and diverse, and the best part was that for each individual kid, their idea made learning about their animal even more exciting. Over the next couple of weeks, the kids were hard at work on this activity and every time I saw one of them, they would say with a huge smile, “Mrs. Carlson, you have to come and look at what I’m working on with my [insert that kids’s project here]!!”

5. Allow students to work in groups – As an adult supporting teachers, I love group work! As a kid, I hated it because of the way it was structured: teacher counts off numbers and we all find our like number and “work in a group” – it was awful. I was shy, usually not interested in what we were doing, and just totally weirded out by the kids who wanted to take control and boss everybody else around. Things have changed. With a lot more understanding about group dynamics, classroom culture, introvert/extrovert dynamics, etc. we are able to allow groups to work in much more successful ways. For starters, if students are actively working, why not let them choose their own groups? Also, I enjoy allowing students to choose their group size (within reason). This really embraces the very different needs of the introvert and the extrovert equally, allowing the ones who learn better in quiet environments to choose a single partner to work with and the extroverts to get into slightly larger teams. Another piece of groups that we’ve found to be very successful, is to allow students choices in where to work. At some of the schools I support, it’s possible for students to work outside at tables, in quiet corners in the classroom, and at desks and tables around the room.  Again, letting them find the situation that best fits their team and their assignment creates opportunities for them to build skills far beyond those which are tested.

A note from my teacher friend, Noelle McDaniel who teaches sixth grade this year: “I always spend a good amount of time in the beginning of the year teaching kids how to use different programs to create their assignments. Then when I assign something, students get to choose, which takes away from a lot of the grumbles.” Love that idea!

One of the best parts about all of this? It’s not a magical fix-all tool that takes precious funding away from where it needs to be spent, and it doesn’t require endless hours of boring, expensive trainings. It’s free, you don’t need permission and you can start using these strategies right away. By integrating these five tips into your daily routine, you’ll be bringing a whole new world of interesting things to your kids and they’ll reward you every time with their attention and their enthusiasm.

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  • Kathy Curtiss says:

    Michelle is right on here in her comments. Increasing student engagement, specifically academic conversation has been shown to impact achievement! Student’s say, “I didn’t realize I knew this until I head myself say it out loud!” And how fun! To create discourse in the classroom around key learning targets! This is where all those little tidbits of wisdom and insight just pop out of the students. Go! Go! Go!!

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