Imagine this. You’re looking out at the conglomeration of desks in your classroom. You take in the sea of raised hands, smiling faces, and steady eye contact. “I’ve cracked the code,” you might think to yourself. “I’ve achieved total class engagement.”
As teachers, we yearn for our students to be truly engaged in learning so they can grow and succeed—plus, it helps validate those hours we’ve spent on meticulous lesson planning. But how can we tell if students are really connected with the lesson?
In my experience, raised hands and eye contact alone aren’t reliable indicators of true cognitive engagement. Those behavioral metrics only tell us that students are choosing to participate, not that they’re thinking deeply or grasping essential concepts. Education leaders Fisher, Frey, and Gonzalez put it this way: “Real engagement isn't just engagement of students (signs of attentiveness and fulfilling requirements); it's also engagement by students, evidence that they are interacting with what they learn.”
Engagement Starts before the Lesson
I’m preaching to the choir when I say that the relationships you have with your students inform the entire school year. The same goes for eliciting true engagement. Ideally, we should understand how our students learn, how they feel most comfortable responding in class, how their cultural/linguistic background informs their learning, and other behaviors that make them unique. Because not every student learns the same way or brings the same experiences to the classroom, it’s safe to assume their signs of engagement may also look different.
Author and educator Dr. Sharroky Hollie focuses on validating and affirming cultural and linguistic behaviors of all students to increase their success and engagement in the classroom. For example, in my family, it’s expected that you wait your turn to talk, so talking over each other might be considered rude. In other families, though, jumping into the conversation shows you’re engaged and invested in it. There are so many ways your students may feel inclined to participate, and varying the ways they’re allowed to do so in the classroom honors their individual needs.
Strategies for Engagement
Implementing engagement strategies isn’t something teachers should do off the cuff. How much time do you have? What are your lesson objectives? Are there certain students you need to hear from today? Answering these questions allows you to choose the most effective strategies for cognitive engagement. Here are a few of my favorite teacher moves.
When you have two to five minutes:
- Silent Appointment gives students who don’t normally work together a chance to connect. Allow students time to think independently about an open-ended question. Once they’ve had enough reflection time, ask students to make eye contact with another classmate and give each other a thumbs up that they will be partners. When everyone is paired up, students take turns sharing their responses.
- Snowballs validate and affirm students who prefer to express themselves in writing versus orally. Pose an open-ended question and allow students time to write their responses on paper. When time is up, students ball up their paper like a snowball and throw it to a designated part of the room.
Students might take turns picking up a snowball and reading it aloud. Maybe they throw all their snowballs at you, and you anonymously share a few responses. Feel free to add your own spin.
When you have five minutes or more:
- Musical Shares encourage movement and provide multiple perspectives. Students respond independently to a thought-provoking question you’ve posed. Like musical chairs, students walk or dance around the classroom while music plays. When it stops, they turn and share their response with the person closest to them.
To engage shy students, you might let them choose the music for the exercise. You could also take a class poll or write two to three songs on the board and let students vote. Layering choice into the process can make students feel more invested.
- Opinion Lines prompt students to explore open-ended statements by deciding how strongly they agree or disagree with the statement and comparing their opinions with their peers. Create a long line for students to stand on and mark one end with Strongly Agree and the other with Strongly Disagree. Divide the rest of the line into regular intervals labeled with Agree, Neither Agree nor Disagree, and Disagree.
Make sure students have enough time to form their opinions on the statement, then ask them to stand on the part of the line that describes their level of agreement. Students can talk with the peers around them and share out to the group or have a whole class discussion. Students can change their opinion as they are hearing other’s points of view.
These are great frameworks, but you can modify them to fit your class. If you can imagine it, you can make it happen.
Want to hear more from Josh? Check out his episode of the Extraordinary Educator Podcast™. For more ideas on how to engage your students in reading, check out this webinar featuring Kelly Cartwright in our Science of Reading webinar series.