Students want to be engaged in class. They really do -- but sometimes other things get in the way of their natural instincts. A few changes to how a teacher runs a classroom can make a huge impact on how engaged students will be in that classroom. It's an issue that every teacher has to face, but it can be addressed in some very simple ways. Here are just a few of my strategies for dealing with low levels of student engagement. They've made a major difference in my classes over the years.
Classroom discussions have been a staple of teaching forever, beginning with Socrates. I have taught using discussions, been a student in discussions, and observed other teachers' discussions thousands of times -- at least. Some have been boring, stifling or tedious enough to put me to sleep. Others have been so stimulating that I was sad to see them end. The difference between the two is obviously how interesting the topic is, but equally important is the level of student participation.
I knew, like so many of us, that Nelson Mandela's days were coming to a close. And still, when I heard on yesterday that he had passed away in his home in Johannesburg, South Africa, sadness of a particular kind and magnitude washed over me.
I notice several students listening to music while busy at work. I have no good reason to ask that they remove their headphones and turn off their devices. As I walk around the room, I admire the elegant, concise prose each produces.
I ask one student why music helps her concentrate. "It soothes me and makes me less stressed," she says. "Plus, Ed Sheeran is just awesome."
More people watch the Super Bowl than vote in a Presidential election.
This fact stopped me in my tracks, and I wondered if the tremendous popularity of football could be used as a way to teach STEM. I took on this challenge with journalist Allen St. John when we wrote a book called Newton's Football, a new title from Random House.
What did we find in terms of science at work on the gridiron? Surprisingly, a lot, and many of the topics fall under the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS). Let me share a few items, which might be useful to you in your classroom.
About a year ago, I read Susan Cain's Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking. I wanted to tell everyone about this book right away, but I also wanted to let what I'd learned sink in. I wanted to sit alone with my new self-awareness, process my experience, and absorb the revelations I'd had -- all in true introverted fashion. See, as I'd read Cain's book, my predominant thoughts were, "She's describing me! I'm an introvert! And there's nothing wrong with that!" The margins of my copy are littered with stars, exclamation points, and scribbles that, as I look back, reflect my profound relief and gained understandings.
Imagine the intentional focus you would bring to crossing a rushing creek. Each stepping-stone is different in shape, each distance uneven and unpredictable, requiring you to tread with all senses intact. The simple act of traversing water on stones is an extraordinary exercise in concentration. Now think of how, with all the tweeting, texting and messaging that technology has given us, our attention is frittered away by the mundane. The speed of communication undermines the continuum of thought. That rushing creek is much harder to cross.
I tried every trick in the book: framing the lesson, detailed instructions, hands-on learning, proximity, hand signals, rewards, punishment, and ultimatums -- all to no avail. My middle school Spanish students continued to want to chat, throw paper airplanes, get out of their seats, and disrupt instruction. Only two things that seemed to work in getting my students to pay attention were total physical response (TPR) and worksheets.
As they enter the room, I wave the big yellow envelope in the air. They know what it is, and the room comes alive with excitement. They can barely wait until I open the envelope and pass out the contents. Their pen pal letters have arrived!