What is student engagement?
I stood at the front of my class with a massive smile and a full heart as my students cheered because it was time for math class. I had succeeded in applying strategies for student engagement, and it was paying off.
Student engagement is when you, the teacher, see interested, curious and motivated students who show through their actions, words or products that they are acquiring new knowledge and are focused when they are being taught.
Why is student engagement important?
Why student engagement is important – because children are designed to learn. Given the opportunity, they will explore constantly.
Sometimes, to adults, their exploration looks like stupidity, like seeing if tongues really will stick to a frozen pole, but really they are just being curious.
They are just learning about the states and properties of matter the hard way. 😇
I remember starting my journey in the classroom and being overwhelmed with the responsibility of finding something … anything … to keep them on task … all of them … at the same time …. at different levels … all day long! Oh wow!!
I was teaching grade 8 and 9 math and science, and I was struggling to stay afloat.
Strategies for student engagement were just one of the balls I was struggling to keep in the air.
Teacher burnout is real for a reason, and I had to find a way to avoid burnout. But then I thought, “What if student engagement wasn’t teacher driven, but was, in actuality, student driven once I had created the right environment?”
So … why is engagement important in the classroom?
Disengaged students require constant rewards, consequences, extra time, extra homework, and notes to parents, which leads to their frustration and our disenchantment.
Strategies for student engagement keep students motivated, inspired, curious, and easier to manage because they are on task. They still need support, but they are a joy, and we teachers end the day with full hearts.
How to measure student engagement in the classroom?
I often lost sleep over the tension between the time I had, the curriculum, and age appropriate attention spans. How far do I need to get in this unit during this period?
Too often I lost my focus on the truth that my job was to teach children, and I would focus on teaching the curriculum instead.
As I pushed them for more, I lost them. I started practicing the constant and active monitoring of student engagement.
When we have to drag students back to the lesson, then we know these are not engaged classrooms, and this can happen even with subjects, projects or lessons the students love.
My responsibility then is not to discipline the children for having a developmentally appropriate attention span, but, rather, to adjust the length of my lesson.
How do I work within their developmental levels when there is so much to do?
I remember once, when my vice principal was observing me for my official evaluation, a challenging art project, Button Blankets, had not gone as quickly as it had with another class the year before. We weren’t going to be able to finish it well in the time remaining that day.
As I looked around the classroom I could see their enthusiasm and dedication. However, this project involved some tricky tracing and cutting felt which was hard on fine motor skills.
Their eyes looked keen, but their engagement could quickly be replaced with frustration as I tried to stretch them too far.
This happens, of course, but what was I going to do … my vice principal was watching.
And taking notes!!!
What to do? Would he see that I had overplanned, or think that I was incompetent and had chosen a project that was too tough?
My job here was to remember the kiddos and avoid creating off-task behaviour.
Breathing deeply I assessed, and I looked at these beautiful faces that had listened so well and worked so hard.
The Most Important of all Strategies for Student Engagement.
I passed out the Art envelopes to our unfinished projects until the next Art class.
They were so grateful to go to Buddy Reading and have some reading/social time after that intense effort of mind and fine motor skills. They also knew I was proud of them for their hard work, which is a much better way to end a lesson than frustration from both sides.
Interestingly, my vice principal, Mr. Z. applauded my decision so my fears were to no purpose. He too could see how hard it was and how well they had done.
Of course he did!! I was still learning to let go of focusing on my fears.
Of course, the next part of the project involved sewing buttons. Mr. Z. might have supported my decision so he didn’t have to thread needles. Hmmm.
So … how to measure student engagement in the classroom varies according to the situation.
Certainly, I am looking for hands up, eyes focused, and on task behaviour, but that isn’t always enough.
I am also adjusting how and when I deliver the lesson, using my knowledge of their physical, mental and emotional limits and needs and am ensuring I am working within those parameters.
In short, of all the strategies for student engagement, first, know your students.
How to Increase Student Engagement?
Structures for Student Ownership
Creating structures for student ownership creates buy-in to the classroom.
Establishing classroom community via developing structures for student ownership is one of your strategies for student engagement.
There were many, daily classroom management questions and answers:
- Do you want to choose your own partners, or would you like to use partner cards?
- Would you like to run laps or do GoNoodle for an active game?
- Should we pull out the STEM kits or directed drawing for free time?
- Should the birthday person be at the front of the line or the Star of the Week?
- Would you like to stand on the carpet or sit?
- What should we do for the party?
- What would you like to decorate your bikes with for the rodeo?
By giving students simple choices I raised their sense of ownership and authority in the classroom.
Student engagement increased, I got to know their preferences better, and they felt that they had input into their own learning and environment.
Creating Engagement and collaboration within the class
Of course, kids need to be kids. Nothing gave me more joy than creating play opportunities both within and outside of the curriculum. Within the curriculum, there are many ways to have students engaging in collaborative activities.
They want to play with their friends!!
So … how to promote curiosity in the classroom?
I loved watching students play. They loved our STEM kits, which can be as simple as index cards, paper clips, toilet paper rolls and paper clips, tape, or string, Playdoh and toothpicks, access to paper for airplanes, and more.
Creating Engagement within the curriculum
Now you may be saying that that is not within the curriculum.
There are many creative ways to engage students within the curriculum. “Play” in the form of classroom games and activities was incorporated into writing, spelling, math, bible, science, snack time and lunchtime.
In Math I had many engaging games for students, and games occurred almost daily.
Other classroom engagement activities included building Lego models as a part of planning their writing. I know Lego is expensive, but they also used simple materials like wood rounds from a branch my husband cut up for me and little mini figures that I had from the local dollar store.
Reader’s Theater is one of the great classroom activities to engage students.
We built toys and raced them as a part of Force and Motion.
Spelling games. “Are games educational?” you may ask. My students excelled at spelling.
Reading together happened all the time because they chose to do it during breaks, but making sure there was time for it during class was essential too. There is no better way, IMHO, to create reading engagement than reading with a friend.
And there was open-ended play too …
Seashells, plastic sea animals, and animal track moulds to play with during breaks.
Wooden rounds, pine cones and rocks with a few plastic animals became a popular place to spend spare time, and the stories that were told!
I also liked to create team projects such as our Christmas tree mural. Everyone’s individual product was lovely, but together they were better.
Challenging Students Academically and Creating a Growth Mindset
Academic rigour also has its place in engagement, but it needs wisdom. Asking a child who can not yet provide the sounds of the alphabet to read out loud to the class is only going to lead to frustration for everyone.
Differentiation in the classroom is essential, and even differentiated work should include some challenges. Students should frequently be working within their zone of proximal development (ZPD). Working within the ZPD creates a growth mindset vs fixed mindset.
What’s growth mindset? The definition of a growth mindset is knowing that something will be hard to do, and believing that with hard work and perseverance, it can be done. An example of a growth mindset is when a student struggles with a new concept in math, but believes they can do it. Differentiation supports the development of a growth mindset because the activity is challenging but within the student’s grasp..
Any classroom activities can be a growth mindset activites if the student is working within their ZPD.
In truth, we are only really learning when it is a wee bit challenging for us. At all other times, we are practicing.
Perseverance is an excellent growth mindset examples. This involves coordinating student engagement and classroom management by scaffolding for success and observing how the students are managing.
Asking them to practice their song for chapel one more time when they were sick of it worked because they were excited about chapel.
Asking the class to read quietly for 5 more minutes when I needed time to finish one on one reading assessments, worked because reading was a preferred activity.
Math lessons could be stretched by a few minutes as long as it was interactive, and they were using their whiteboards.
What is our role as teachers when we are intentionally pushing the students past their limits?
Other growth mindset activities required that I had considered scaffolding student success while I was planning the activity. During the art activity I mentioned above I had everyone working on the same step at the same time which can create frustration for the fast students and stress for the slow students.
I scaffolded their attention span for the activity and their patience for their peers by having students who were done that step read from their book box while they were waiting.
Works like a charm!
The prep involved in this scaffolding was simple: “Note to self – kids need book boxes at their desks.”
Regardless though, when I finished stretching them, I expressed my gratitude, and I acknowledged that it was hard, and admiration was shown. We looked at our growth mindset anchor charts and reiterated our classroom mantra:
“Did we do hard things?” I asked, “Yes!” they shouted.
“Did we give up?” “No!” they shouted.
“Are you proud of yourself?” “Yes!”
“Can you do hard things?” “Yes!”
And then I glowed with pride.
It is the very pride of accomplishment, and the self-knowledge of the ability to face challenges that creates engagement and develops the growth mindset vs fixed mindset that they will need the next time they are tempted to shut down.
Leadership engagement activities
Leadership classroom activities are essential for engagement. Simple things like being in charge of taking a letter to the secretary can be opportunities. Even the quiet-spoken child can be successful when in charge. The friend that they choose to take with them is only there for company. Instructions to leave it on the desk if the secretary is not there pretty much guarantee success.
I always taught that servant-hearted leadership was the goal for our classroom.
Leading the line appropriately is leadership.
Reorganising the math bucket is leadership.
Cleaning up when it is time rather than delaying is leadership.
Helping a friend who is stuck is leadership.
Bringing opportunities for leadership into the classroom
Can you invite another class in once a week for a STEM or reading time. Your are responsible for kindly leading the students from the other class as to how we engage with the STEM kits. How do we respond when it is time to clean up? Where do we put the kits when we have finished cleaning up?
There are many opportunities for leadership classroom activities.
So … how to create an engaging classroom?
Students need ownership in the classroom, they want to work collaboratively on engaging topics and activities and on real responsibilities.
They want and need opportunities to lead.
They need to be faced with challenges and they need to believe they can meet the challenge.
Implementing Strategies for Student Engagement
My classroom always felt like home to me, and I wanted each and every student to feel like they belonged too.
Essentially I chose to respect my students, and I applied the golden rule to my definition of respect. I treated them as I wanted to be treated.
By implementing the strategies for student engagement that I have shared here, the students felt a part of a team, respected, and they learned that they really could do “it”.