4 Steps to Student Engagement in the New Year

happy-new-year-1063797_1920As we move into a new calendar year, teachers will return from their festive and relaxing holiday breaks back into classrooms smack in the middle of a school year. Winter will have claimed its territory, evident by the cold, rosy cheeks and sleepy-eyes that will pour into dimly-lit, January morning classrooms. With the first half of the school year behind them, teachers will enter the New Year with resolutions that the second half of the school year will be better than the first.

As I think forward to a few days from now, when my kiddos return, I will undoubtedly be met with the usual, curious morning greeting that eagerly asks, “Are we doing something fun today?!” While I like to look at this greeting as a compliment (I mean, I like to think all learning in my classroom is fun!), I know, at times, I can fall short in this category. But in all actuality, it isn’t really “fun” students are looking for, right? Instead, what they really seek is to be engaged. Students may not know this, but teachers do. We also know that with more schools implementing mandatory curriculum, common assessments, ever so frequent benchmarking, and an increased focus on coaching kids to master test content, it is has become more and more challenging to provide students with the kinds of engaging activities that foster in them a love of learning.

Resolution: Engagement

So here it is, the New Year, and you’re looking for new ways to make sure your students remain engaged as they come back to face the longest quarter of the school year. Before I share with you one popular activity that is sure to get your students engaged, I’d like to discuss a few important steps that I take to make sure engagement happens in my classroom. After all, lessons aren’t engaging right out of the gate–we teachers have to work hard to make them that way! So, let’s talk about it!

Step 1: Teachers must not forget that student engagement begins, first and foremost, with our passion for what we teach.

Students know right away what teachers think is “fun” and what they think isn’t. They can tell just by the look on our faces when we introduce something new! So, when concerning ourselves with engaging students, we must consider our presentation of new learning. I don’t mean presentation as in your Google Slide deck, so to speak. I mean, the way in which you frame your lessons or activities, how you share the opportunity to learn something new with your students. My students often refer to me as being “extra,” their slang term for when I am being excessive or over the top (www.urbandictionary.com), when presenting new information. I love to show excitement for the learning that is about to take place so that my kids get excited, too. They know I’m being deliberate, but that “extra” little bit of enthusiasm is enough to get students energized about what they are setting out to accomplish. Please know that I do understand every teacher has his or her own style when it comes to classroom teaching, but it remains our responsibility to be enthusiastic when presenting students with new opportunities for learning. After all, if we aren’t excited about learning, why should our students be?

Step 2: In order for learning to be engaging, it must be goal-oriented and valuable to students, at the same time.

Although they may not say it, students, like us grown-ups, want to know that what they are being asked to do is not just a means to some end, but instead, in reaching their performance goal, they have also gained something useful. It is important that teachers help students to understand an activity’s purpose and relevance, so students are more apt to engage fully in what it is we are asking them to do. Look at it this way: you are asking students to invest their time and energy into your activity, so undoubtedly, they want to know what it is they are going to get out of it…beyond just a letter grade. During this discussion is a great time for you to tie learning standards and I can statements to the real-world value your activity provides. By setting the stage for the learning that is about to occur, you are emphasizing not only the goals that are you have set forth for them, but also what students will personally gain from participating in the activity. It is vital for teachers to help students understand that real learning occurs when they move beyond their need for a passing grade in the grade book.

Step 3: Learning should be both interactive and challenging, involving higher order thinking as often as possible.

It might be obvious that boredom is the antithesis of engagement, but far too often, students sit in classrooms more enthralled by what’s going on outside the window than what’s happening within a foot of them inside the classroom. Remember, engagement is doing, and doing is learning. Activities that engage mean students are in motion; their brains are working; and they are collaborating with or learning from their peers. The most engaging activities make kids work without them feeling as if they are working. Pull out that Revised Bloom’s Chart or Webb’s Depth of Knowledge Context Ceilings to see if your activity cuts the proverbial mustard. Put kids in pairs. Make them create and evaluate within the context of your lessons. Simply asking them to regurgitate facts and information is a death sentence for engagement in the classroom.

Step 4: Learning activities should take into consideration individual students needs and learning styles.

Educators know that in order to fully engage students, we must be sure to tap into what makes each student tick; however, this fact is too often ignored. Yes, this may be challenging to do, but with a little upfront work, teachers can get the most resistant students actively involved in the learning process. Plus, you already have the information you need–use those beginning of the year inventories! Ask students tough questions about things that interest them. Give them a task that makes them think differently about a long held belief or value. Offer them a choice in the learning adventure on which they are about to embark. Stay up on the latest in social media and ask them about it. Watch them perk up with shock and awe as you strike up a discussion about ASMR or Fornite’s Ninja. Now, tie that to the lesson of the day. Another good place to start is to evaluate your activity’s integration of Gardner’s Theory of Multiple Intelligences. Figure out which learners need visual components with which to interact and which need to access their intrapersonal skills. Who are your verbal/linguistic folks and who does better when they’re moving and shaking? Add space for this information in your lesson planning. It will pay off exponentially where engagement is concerned. You can do this, you’re a teacher!

So, while this is not an exhaustive list of the ins and outs of student engagement, it serves as a quick checklist when putting together engaging lessons for your students. Now, let’s take a look at an activity my students found quite engaging, or “fun,” as they called it!

Engaged in 60 Seconds

Preparing engaging learning activities can sometimes take a lot of planning. Other times, though, engaging activities can involve nothing more than a few slips of paper and a timer! One activity my students really enjoyed this year is an activity called 60 Second Speeches. (You can find a free copy of this resource in my Teachers Pay Teachers shop). As you might guess, with the mere mention of the word “speech” some students were immediately drenched in the cold sweat of dread, while others were antsy with anticipation. Turns out they had more fun than they could have ever imagined!

The Process

It’s very simple. 60 Second Speeches work like this:

  1. On strips of paper or index cards, print out or write a variety of conversation starters that include simple questions or phrases meant to provide students with an impromptu speech topic. Make sure the topics are relevant and appropriate for the age or grade level using them. One bad or misunderstood topic can ruin the opportunity for kids to feel a sense of accomplishment.
  2. Next, either fold the strips into small pieces and put them in a jar or dish, or stack the cards one on top of the other so student speakers are pulling random prompts from either the jar or the stack. (I find cards more useful than strips because they can be used over and over again.)
  3. Random Name PickerYou may use whatever method you like to chose student speakers. Perhaps you wish to allow students to volunteer, or you may simply call on students randomly. During our activity, I used the “Random Name Picker” from Classtools.net. This site offers a wide variety of tools that can be customized in a variety of ways to randomly choose students for activities. (Note: this site it jam-packed with tons of fun, interactive tools. Have fun exploring while you’re there!)
  4. Once a student has been chosen to present a 60 Second Speech, he or she moves to the front of the room where they will select a topic card. They should be given a few seconds to consider their question or prompt. Once the speaker is ready to begin, have them face the class and read the prompt aloud, then immediately begin their speech. The goal is for students to speak fluently and continually on the topic card they selected for the entire sixty seconds. Students will soon discover that one minute can quickly turn into what seems like an eternity!
  5. Timing the speeches is the most important part of the fun.  As students speak, you might have placed behind them on the Smartboard or other presentation device  a countdown timer. In our class, we used a ticking bomb counting down from one minute while the entire class listened. No pressure at all, right! Online-Stopwatch is a great source for all things timer related and was my go-to for this activity.Bomb Countdown
  6. Those students not actively participating as speakers are busy working on listening standards while their peers present. They are equipped with half-slips of paper on which they are writing down memorable quotes from their peers’ presentations and/or positive affirmations about their peers’ speaking skills.
  7. When the timer finally “explodes,” the speaker immediately wraps up his or her speech. They return to their seats, sad (or happy!) their time is done and with a new found sense of confidence and accomplishment!
60 Second Thumbnail
Get your free resource here!

The Four Steps

As you can see, this is a very simple activity. It requires little planning and resources, but leaves students wanting to do it again and again. Not only does this activity help students meet the ELA Speaking and Listening standards for grades 6-8 outlined by the Common Core, the four steps to engagement readily apply:

  • This is an activity that is easy to get excited about! Share with students how important public speaking has been to you, both personally and professionally. Ask students to think about times where they have had to speak or heard others around them speak: weddings, funerals, parties, school events, etc.
  • Set the stage for learning by explaining to students what they will accomplish by participating. Ask them to think again about when and why public speaking will be important for them, even after their schooling is done.
  • Explain to students that this will be a challenging activity, but that you know they can do it. They have your support and the support of their peers. In the end, students will be able to boast about their ability to stand before the class and do what they didn’t think they could! Their peers will share with them all the great things they saw them do!
  • By using relevant and interesting, age-appropriate prompts, students will have the knowledge and insights to answer the questions you pose. By simply appealing to their interests, you are setting them up to be engaged. Even students who don’t want to speak are still engaging in listening skills. And, if you absolutely feel it is necessary for all students to speak, arrange time for reluctant participants to present to you individually, outside of regular class time in order to eliminate any anxiety they may have at the thought of speaking in front of their peers.

A Brief Word on Adaptations & Assessment

This activity is easily adaptable to fit into other content areas or to align with specific skill sets identified by most types of ELA standards. For instance, you might have students focus on using sensory details or descriptive language. You might emphasize limiting movement while presenting, or minimizing the use of “ums” and “uhs” while speaking. Student listeners can nominate MVPs (Most Voluble Presenters) by evaluating their peers based on fluency and relatedness of content while speaking. Feedback slips can be given to students by the teacher at the end of their presentation, offering a critique of overall performance or individual evaluations of a particular set of skills. Depending on the timing of the activity, with regard to its placement in a unit, this activity could be used formatively, summatively, or even as a diagnostic measure of students’ abilities related to speaking skills or any other skills described here.

So, there you have it, one awesome activity and four simple steps to fun–or, rather to student engagement! Use these steps regularly and your kids will thank you. And better yet, they won’t have to ask any longer if the day’s activity will be fun, because they already know it will be!

Happy Learning!

Further Reading

If you would like to read more on improving your students’ learning experiences in your classroom, below are some resources that you may find helpful:

Student Engagement:

Article:  The Golden Rules for Engaging Students

Article: Weaving Key Elements of Student Engagement into the Fabric of Schools

Higher Order Thinking Skills

Guide: A Guide for Using Webb’s Depth of Knowledge with Common Core State Standards

Free Resource: Revised Bloom’s Taxonomy Quick Reference Sheets for {Analyze, Evaluate, Create} (courtesy Hello Literacy)

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