Authentic Student Engagement
Year after year, students tell me they don’t like to write, but they LOVE my class. They insist they hate reading, but can’t wait for English. So how does that happen? How do I increase student engagement among even the most reluctant students?
After 24 years of teaching middle school ELA, I KNOW the answer. I know why my class inspires even the most difficult students and why my students stand outside my door eager to come inside.
What I Know For Sure
What I know for sure is this: the students’ enthusiasm for my class is a byproduct of 3 things that I do every day, 3 things that increase student engagement, set the tone for my class, and make issues with discipline almost nonexistent.
So if you are a new teacher looking to start the year off on the right foot or an established teacher looking to shake things up a bit, below are 3 things that every teacher can do in his/her classroom starting TODAY.
1. Know your AUDIENCE
I teach 13 year olds, and it helps to know what my students like and respond to, so I can incorporate those into my lessons. For example, I use memes as an engaging way to teach spelling and grammatical mistakes. I scour the internet for silly puns and real-life examples of irony. My students remember the works of Edgar Allan Poe and Robert Frost not only through my lessons, but also through my collection of funny parodies. I know my students love video shorts, pop music, and dark humor . . . all of which I’ve worked into my unit on Gothic Literature because if there’s ONE thing I know for sure, it’s that students respond when things are RELEVANT.
2. The FUN Factor
Last summer I learned to knit. I sat around a table and learned how to “cast on” while belly laughing with a bunch of other newbies. And I had a blast when I learned to paddle board, and when I took my first photography class. Somewhere along the way, classroom learning that is FUN has been given a bad rap.
My students love my class, in part, because I love my class. And my love for my content shows itself in my thoughtful, purposeful, unique, and FUN lessons. I’ve observed that my students learn best when they are engaged, being creative, competitive, and doing hands-on activities.
When I’m teaching how to correctly punctuate dialogue, my students use pasta! I’ve made an Escape Room to study Poe and a baseball game to review for The Outsiders. I have no control over the standards I teach, but I can control HOW I teach them. Some content is dry and boring by nature, and that is where the fun factor is most needed. I created a color by number activity for verbals!
When I taught puns in the dead of winter, my lesson included pop icons as snowmen. My students knocked it out of the park with names like Kim Kardashing Through the Snow, Justin Timberflake, Taylor Snowdrift, and Barracking Around the Christmas Tree (the lesson is free in my TpT STORE). Enthusiasm is contagious! When you love what you do, when you love the lessons you’re teaching, your students will love them too.
At the end of our Gothic Literature Unit, the students wore dark clothing and mustaches while playing review games for our final assessment. I know kids learn better when they are having fun! They do better on the final assessment after spending the day in competitive games with their peers. We also dressed as Greasers and Socs at the end of The Outsiders Unit, and had a rumble (dodgeball game). What a perfect way to teach the themes of loyalty and friendship.
At the start of our unit on Charles Schulz, we made ourselves into Peanuts characters, and at the end of the year, we reenacted Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery”. Yes, one student got stoned to death (with paper balls as rocks). All of my units could be completed without these FUN activities, but adding that element of FUN is essential when kids are learning new things. Kids who try hard and push themselves are invested in their learning and RETAIN what they have learned. These are the lessons that stay with students long after the final assessments are scored.
3. Be You
I am corny and puns are my jam. I am nerdy and silly and laugh at my own jokes. When my students think of me they think of my addiction to Diet Coke and my ridiculous t-shirts. Yes, the students made me a Diet Coke cake. My students know I love Gilmore Girls and Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and that I have a sixteen-year-old son named Zack. I am real and friendly, but not their friend, warm and easy-going, while still commanding respect.
I tell embarrassing stories, show them pictures of when I was in middle school, and join in the conversations about Stranger Things. My sincerity in turn allows students to be real. They can share their love of 90’s Boy Bands and Dungeons and Dragons. They can express themselves through poetry or Japanese anime. Community happens when students feel comfortable being themselves and feel a sense of belonging. I know for sure creating an atmosphere where students are free to be their quirky, unique, nerdy selves has benefits that cannot always be measured. If building a sense of community is important to you, I highly recommend my blog post on incorporating CLASS PETS into your classroom.
If all of this sounds exhausting, it is! Hours spent on Pinterest, late evenings in my classroom, and trips to the Dollar Store. And my husband knows exactly which aisle in Walmart the jumbo bags of Jolly Ranchers are located so that my game winners get their rewards. So WHY do I do it?
Student Engagement Works
My students have proven they learn better when they’re having fun, and apply it when it matters . . . on state assessments. Their scores have consistently been among the highest in my district proving that fun and learning CAN and SHOULD go together. My students see how much time, effort, and love I put into my daily lessons, and that the tasks are thoughtful and purposeful. Students respect that, and they perform better for teachers they respect. They go into the assessments confident they have been prepared for the tasks at hand. And when they know the state assessments are important to me, they are important to them too.
Decrease in Discipline
The truth is that I rarely have issues with classroom management. When students can’t wait to get to class, are enthusiastic about the lessons, and engaged in a variety of FUN activities based around their interests, they are not a discipline problem. That is the benefit of authentic student engagement.
The effort I put into my lessons pays off in the ease of delivery. There are very few students off task or disruptive. The positive rapport I have with my students has made my day to day teaching less stressful. The atmosphere in my classroom is full of laughter and optimism. There is a “We Can Do It” vibe around even the most difficult of tasks. In my class students share their writing, praise their peers, ask “stupid” questions, and take risks . . . all essential components to true learning.
The Class They Love!
My students know I love my job and genuinely love teaching middle school. They are fiercely loyal, with a tender heart, and immensely creative young people. They are devastated when I am absent and cheer when I return. If you want to feel like a rock star, teach middle school. Do these 3 things, and your class will be THE class students love!
P.S. In the comments below, I’d LOVE to hear ways YOU make your class THE class students love! How do you build student engagement? What are the fun activities that have your students eager at the door for your class?
Setting the Tone from Day 1
My BACK TO SCHOOL resource contains great activities to help you set the tone for your classroom with lessons on respect and setting goals. It’s also filled with activities that will help the students get to know you, help you get to know the students, and more importantly, help the students get to know each other. Student engagement starts DAY 1!
I also believe the key to starting the year off strong is organization. I project an agenda on the white board daily so the students know what to do once they enter the classroom (Do Now), they know the agenda for the day, and all upcoming due dates. Established routines make all the difference. I add a new slide each day so the students and their parents have a running list of agendas to help with absenteeism and late assignments. My students enjoy my MONTHLY AGENDAS decorated for each season.
Other Fun Resources to Increase Student Engagement
The WRITING DIALOGUE resource is perfect if your students struggle to write dialogue correctly. Then this 3 day unit is for you! They will learn The Rules for Writing Dialogue, Practice writing dialogue, and participate in the Punctuation Contest. Lastly, I’ve included a Final Assessment and Modified Final Assessment (all activities with answer keys included). There is also a Print and Go version that has the students making punctuation out of pasta.
The HOMOPHONE resource contains no-prep ACTIVITITES that will help your students master misused homophones and commonly confused words in an engaging and interactive way. This resource can be used as a class activity or friendly competition . . . and are also perfect activities to leave for a substitute teacher.