Noteworthy Voices 2-MIN. READ

Catalysts for Classroom Engagement: Creative Connections and Wonder

By: Gary Miller 09/12/2023
Use these six tips to engage your students in the classroom and instill an eagerness in them to learn.
Two young students sit together in class. One is wearing headphones holding a tablet.

In Visible Learning, a meta-study of what works in education, researcher John Hattie writes, “No manner of school reform will be successful until we first face and resolve the engagement problem.” When you think of engagement, you may wonder how you can keep students actively participating throughout a lesson or even the entire school day. Often, though, the first few minutes of a lesson are the catalyst for student engagement and participation.

Here are six ideas for launching an engaging day with your students.

1. Multiple Correct-Answer Openings

If you grew up in the ’70s watching Sesame Street®, you might remember the song that goes, “One of these things is not like the others.” It was a quick jingle while four pictures appeared on the screen at the same time. The goal was to figure out which image did not fit. But what if there was not one correct answer? What if you could look at the images and find the uniqueness of each? This type of activity draws in more students and promotes reasoning and justifying, which are key ingredients of higher depth of knowledge thinking.

2. Use Wonder

Think about a time when an image grabbed your attention. Maybe you were on vacation and had that moment of awe as you looked out over a mountain range and valley. Perhaps it was a stain on your favorite shirt, and you spent a moment contemplating how it got there. Wonder is a powerful engagement tool. Wonder is open to interpretation and allows for personal speculation and perspective. Start your day with a single image and ask your students, “What do you see? What do you notice? What do you wonder?”

3. Make Cultural Connections

In our classrooms of beautiful and diverse people and backgrounds, acknowledging groups through interesting facts creates “aha!” moments for some and a sense of pride in others. As a result, classmates grow closer to one another, which leads to greater participation and is essential to student engagement.

4. Share Hometown Stories

When was the last time you did an online search on your hometown and discovered an interesting piece of history? Do your students know what existed on the land on which the local mall now stands? Do they know how the school systems came together after segregation? Have you ever asked what they would put in a time capsule to share with future students to understand your town today? You can increase engagement by simply rallying students around community pride.

5. In-School Field Trips

Some of our fondest memories of school include field trips. If you got together today with old classmates, there’s a good chance someone will remember and reminisce about the class trip to the pumpkin farm, history museum, or amusement park. What if you created a field trip within the confines of your school property? Think about places your students never really spend a lot of time. The goal is not to emulate a theme park's ambiance but to discover new routes to increase school pride and awareness. Take your students on a tour of the kitchen in the cafeteria, where the food is stored, the dishes are cleaned, and where some of the friendliest people work. Take them into the teacher's lounge to see that you, too, need community. If the middle or high school is within walking distance, take them to the gym and the locker room and inspire students to pursue both academic and athletic goals.

6. Choice Boards

Monotony is the antithesis of engagement. The structure needed in our classrooms often creates a feeling of doing the same thing every day. Your lesson plans of five-minute bell ringers, 15-minute lessons, 20-minute centers, and 10-minute discussion/review may occasionally need a little shake-up. Choice boards are a great way to give students self-agency—and consequently spark engagement—that can impact the opening few minutes of class or the entire instructional period. No matter how you choose to implement them, the goal is not only to give students some freedom but to also promote a growth mindset. When students justify their choices, they simultaneously increase their own engagement in learning.

Engaging your students through new and innovative methods of learning and igniting excitement for it leads to well-rounded students and high achievers. Hattie encapsulated this idea best when he said, “We should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that because students look engaged and appear to be putting forth effort, they are necessarily achieving; this is one of the myths that is held in too many classrooms—busy work in classrooms does not make the difference.” But you can.

To hear more from Gary, listen to this episode of the Extraordinary Educators™ Podcast.


Sesame Street® is a registered trademark of Sesame Workshop.