EdCampNYC: Tips and tricks for student engagement

Yesterday was the spritips and tricks for student engagementng EdCampNYC, a free unconference where educators get together informally and talk about problems and solutions in education. You can read this post to learn more about how edcamps work and how to find one in your area, and check out the #edcampnyc hashtag on Twitter or this Google Doc to see other people’s notes and takeaways from various sessions.)

There were a couple of open slots for the sessions, so I decided to lead one on student engagement. The purpose of the session was to talk about what’s working well: we all know the problems with student engagement, but what are the solutions? How can we get students more actively engaged in their learning?

At EdCamps, no one really presents: it’s more about facilitating a conversation around a topic, so the participants can make or break a session. We had a fantastic group of educators in a diverse range of classroom situations, from a school librarian to a former ELL teacher to a group of vocational education teachers who help teenagers and adults with ED and autism transition to the career force. Each person had so much wisdom and insight to share that I decided to type everything up and post it here so more people can learn from their experiences.

Here are the main points we discussed:

There is a difference between engagement and being busy. Some students know how to go through all the motions, but aren’t actually learning or benefitting from the task.

There is a difference between engagement and being compliant. Some of our best-behaved students are simply people pleasers. They sit up straight and fold their hands on their desks because they’re doing what we tell them to do, not because they’re truly invested in their own learning.

One way to tell if kids are are truly engaged is to notice if they are the ones asking the questions. If the teacher is doing all the questioning and the students are just answering, it’s possible the kids are being busy or compliant but not truly engaged. We can encourage kids to be more curious in the classroom and ask/answer their own questions by explicitly teaching the art of asking questions. We can also model questioning behaviors for them, and encourage them when they do ask questions. The behaviors that we draw attention to in the classroom often get repeated, so pointing out the good questions that kids ask and helping them pursue the answers is powerful.

Getting all students engaged in learning is largely about knowing your students well. That’s not easy to do, especially if you have a large class. Using interest surveys can be helpful. Mostly, though, knowing your students is about observing them, connecting with them, and building relationships.

Student engagement can look different every day.  Sometimes it means working quietly; other times, it means loud and enthusiastic participation. Sometimes it means working alone; other times, it means collaborating with others.

Student engagement can look different for various students. Just because a child has his head on the desk doesn’t mean he’s not paying attention.

Teaching in small groups is a fantastic way to increase student engagement. Trying to teach all kids the same way at the same time rarely results in meeting all of their needs.

Part of student engagement involves trust. We have to model, practice, and reinforce our expectations for students, and then trust them to follow through. This is especially true when teaching small groups: we have to trust that the others are working, because good managers trust those they’re in charge of leading.

You can increase student engagement through active participation techniques. Not all kids like to participate in class discussions, but you can make it a lot more fun by having them toss or roll a ball to each other when it’s their turn to talk. Or, use a wheel of participation on the SMART board, which makes it more exciting to see who’s going to get called on next. But be sure to support the kids who are shy or nervous about participating: give them a heads up before you’re call on them so they have a chance to pay extra close attention.

In group work, assign everyone a role in the group. This gives kids a way to participate and holds them accountable for their portion of the work.

Some of the best student engagement comes through project-based learning. If you really want to see kids being passionate about what they’re doing in the classroom, give them the opportunity to explore an authentic question that they care about through a project they have some say in creating.

Give kids an authentic audience for the work they produce. Who would be excited about writing an essay when the only person who’s going to read it is the teacher (and she’s just going to mark it up and explain everything that’s wrong with it?) Publish kids’ work as much as possible, even if it’s just on a school website or class blog. You could also have kids share their work with students in other classes.

Make sure that students’ learning results in changing outcomes. Kids need to have a meaningful purpose for their work. They need to believe that the tasks they do make a difference beyond the four walls of the classroom. Student engagement comes naturally when kids identify a need or problem in the world and create ways to use the skills you’ve taught them to meet those needs and solve those problems.

What are your tips and tricks for increasing student engagement in the classroom? Please share your ideas or resources in the comments!

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Angela is a National Board Certified Teacher with 11 years of classroom experience and 7 years experience as an instructional coach. As founder of Due Season Press and Educational Services, she has created printable curriculum resources, 4 books, 3 online courses, the Truth for Teachers podcast, and The 40 Hour Teacher Workweek Club. Subscribe via email to get her best content sent to your inbox!

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