Engage your students. Don’t just stick your toe in the water! Jump right in with relevant, active learning. As students become more involved in learning activities, classroom climate improves, discipline problems decline, and you begin to really enjoy teaching. Let’s take a look at some ways you can make your teaching more engaging.
Ms. Sneed Learned to Engage Her Students
Our favorite fourth grade teacher, Ms. Sneed, sat at the side table with her student teacher. “Today,” she said, “we’ll talk about student engagement.”
Mr. Grow nodded, and Ms. Sneed continued. “When I was a new teacher, I pretty much just followed the textbook. As I became more experienced, I tried new teaching strategies. When were students most engaged? Surprisingly, not during crafts or games. Instead, they focused best when presented with active, challenging activities.
“This encouraged me to create rich, complete learning experiences. Not enrichment. Instead, I realized that my students needed captivating, standards-based units of study. My mentor, Mrs. Brown, taught me to deconstruct standards, work backward by creating an assessment first, and select high-quality activities for my students. Now I’ll show you.” Her eyes twinkled at the thought of passing it on.
To Engage Learners, Integrate Learning
“Using interdisciplinary units is the main way to integrate,” Ms. Sneed continued.
“Exactly,” Ms. Sneed laughed. “However, those are smaller instances. Instead, I’m talking about merging two – or even three – subjects for a longer unit of study. For example, we plan our ELA block around genres, such as fables, mythology, mystery, and biography. Because units include reading and writing, kids see the connections. Furthermore, when we study animal adaptations later this year, we’ll include science activities, research, reading, and writing.”
“Another way to integrate comes through technology. Videos provide entertaining snippets that illustrate concepts in a short amount of time. Webquests and PBLs let kids learn through autonomous, authentic activities. Of course, our students can research on the Internet. I could go on and on. They can play games – heck, they can even collaborate on projects. Yes, technology engages kids. No doubt about it. And when teachers thoughtfully integrate it through planned learning experiences, it is truly powerful.”
Ms. Sneed took a sip of her coffee. “One more thing about integrating,” she said. “This one comes from years of observing kids – in the classroom and at home. When kids do things, they gain confidence. When they become more confident, they are more successful.”
“What kinds of things should they do?” asked Mr. Frank.
“All kinds of things! For example, when we have a science lab, kids pick up their own materials and conduct their own experiments. I’m not standing up front showing them. They use graduated cylinders, balance scales, and rulers to measure. When they finish, kids clean up and put everything away. It’s expected. This teaches responsibility and builds confidence. Why? Because they know how to do things. Whenever I plan, I consider what kids will do independently.”
“Hmm,” said Mr. Grow. “I can see how this leads to engagement too. When my teachers stood in front and talked all day, I was bored, my mind wandered, and time dragged on. But when I got to do stuff myself, I paid attention, and time went by quickly.”
To Engage Learners, Challenge Them
Ms. Sneed smiled and rearranged a set of papers in front of her. “Now let’s talk about rigor,” she said. “Very confusing term, if you ask me. Some teachers’ interpretation of rigor makes learning too difficult for some students in their class. My mentor, Mrs. Brown always said,
Every child needs to be challenged with accessible learning experiences each day.”
Mr. Grow looked thoughtful. “How can you challenge your most able learners and keep it accessible to those who struggle?”
“The answer is simple: differentiate. Just alter the content, process, or product. Once you get started, you’ll find lots of ways to reach all you teach.”
Mr. Grow nodded. “I see what you’re talking about,” said Mr. Grow. “If stuff is too easy, kids get bored. If it’s too hard, they become overwhelmed. We need to find the sweet spot for every student in the class.”
Higher Order Thinking Skills
Ms. Sneed slid a paper toward Mr. Grow. “Does this look familiar?”
“Sure,” he smiled. “It’s Bloom’s Taxonomy.”
“Right. As teachers, we know that we should be touching on higher order thinking skills, or HOTS. You may be interested to know that asking kids to apply, analyze, synthesize, evaluate, and create also increases engagement. Kids’ brains like the challenge. Although teachers tend to use HOTS for high ability students, all kids benefit from it. Furthermore…”
“…I know,” said Mr. Grow, “they’re more engaged!”
Ms. Sneed chuckled and nodded her head. This kid was getting it.
To Engage Learners, Shake It Up
“I imagine you’ve heard of a teacher’s bag of tricks?” she asked.
“You mean all the strategies he or she uses?”
“Yep. Educators need a big bags of tricks, and they need to shake it up often. When kids are faced with new, authentic activities, engagement soars.”
“So variety is the spice of life?” asked Mr. Grow.
“Yes, to a degree. Kids thrive on variety within their expected daily routine. If we shake it up too much, kids feel uncomfortable, and chaos reigns.”
“Yikes!” laughed Mr. Grow.
“I know. So as we work together this year, you will learn to establish routines, build your bag of tricks, and carefully incorporate a variety of activities.”
To Engage Learners, Keep It Social
Ms. Sneed stood up and stretched. “Okay,” she said, “time to change gears and get into what really turns kids on. Nothing engages learners more than socialization. I know they come to school to learn, but what they really want to do is talk to one another.”
Mr. Frank snorted. “You got that right,” he chuckled.
“Well,” Ms. Sneed responded, “why don’t we use that to our advantage? When kids work in pairs and groups, engagement skyrockets. Let’s talk about some ways to make learning social.”
“Our students do a lot of science labs,” said Mr. Grow.
“When we do a novel study,” Mr. Grow replied, “we use literature circles.”
“Correct. Literature circles let kids discuss chapters together. Not only that, these group discussions help them make sense of what they’ve read. They notice so many more small details.”
“Details they may miss if the teacher were leading the discussion,” Mr. Grow added.
“So right. When you or I speak, they’d be much more likely to tune out. What else?”
“Projects?” Mr. Grow put the idea out there tentatively.
“Of course! The webquests and PBLs we mentioned earlier are only the beginning. Anything else?”
Mr. Grow remained silent for a moment. Then he sat up with a start. “Sure, all the collaborative writing we have them do. For example, when they were learning to construct responses, we asked them to work together. And many times we let them write collaboratively before they set out on their own.”
“Yes. When they write together, kids become better writers. They can also edit one another’s writing and work on longer writing projects together. As a matter of fact, now that they can work on shared Google Docs, opportunities have soared.”
“So,” Mr. Grow said, picking up his pen, “kids can socialize through science labs, literature circles, projects, and collaborative writing.” He jotted down a few notes.
“Furthermore,” Ms. Sneed added, “kids would rather listen to one another than to the teacher.”
“Sad but true,” Mr. Frank mumbled.
“When kids teach one another, mastery is guaranteed. Our kids need to do more reciprocal teaching and presentations.”
Mr. Frank added presentations to his list. Then he sat up expectantly.
Lessons in Engagement
“Time to wrap it up,” said Ms. Sneed. “I’d like to leave you with these key points:
- Student engagement is not all fun and games. Instead, when students are immersed in serious activities – and they succeed – the joy of learning occurs.
- Integrated learning experiences save time and make connections between subject areas.
- Variety is the spice of life.
- Finding the “sweet spot” for every student is essential. Every child should be challenged with accessible materials and activities every day.
- Students learn better when it’s social.
- When students are engaged, the teacher is engaged too. And that is what makes you enjoy teaching.”
Over the course of her career, Ms. Sneed realized that there were 6 steps to enjoy teaching. In order to survive, she had to organize, plan, and simplify. Then, to thrive, Ms. Sneed needed to learn, engage, and finally – dive in! Follow the Fabulous Teaching Adventures of Ms. Sneed and learn how you can enjoy teaching too.