As educators, we’re in the business of relationships, and relationships are everything in school communities. One thing the pandemic and its ripple effects has taught us is that many students lost their sense of how to cultivate relationships and how to remain engaged with their learning, their peers, and even themselves. Returning to in-person learning required us to rethink how we engage with students and how we can create opportunities for them to interact with the curriculum, as well as the world around them.
Engagement is built on sustainment—the ability to connect with and create direct interaction with someone or something over an extended period of time. Consider these three approaches to sustained engagement in your classroom settings.
1. Relational engagement
Building relationships means empowering student minds, encouraging curiosity and risk, swapping stories, and exploring connections that are dependent on interactions with other human beings. This is a process that requires community circles, storytelling, sharing of artifacts, and, most important, authentic time that’s grounded in human beings being present, learning about one another and what holds meaning for them in their lives.
Engagement in action: Begin the journey of origin-building with your students where they create a space of their own that becomes a canvas, an “Origin Wall” for them to share the story of who they are. As they are ever-evolving persons, their space can be added to and changed over time, presenting new chances to sustain their personal storytelling and allowing them to listen to and learn more about other students—who they are, what has changed or remained the same, and where they come from, to name a few ideas.
Modeling makes learning visible, creates opportunities for questions, and builds trust. You need to be able to do what you ask of them, and so modeling aspects of your personal story gets added to the class Origin Wall as well.
2. Intellectual engagement
Students need to be in spaces where learning flows around them, not at them. Teachers need to empower students to be accountable and build the mental stamina to share and debate ideas, challenge one another to pull apart questions, productively struggle with differing opinions, and connect their personal experiences to the universe around them. In a world of global thinking, students need to learn how to stretch their critical thinking skills, while learning how to flex their technology muscles.
Engagement in action: Pick an aspect of your curriculum, and translate it into a visual medium with students through artificial intelligence (AI). So much of teaching is the “sage on the stage,“ and being talked at becomes the overwhelming method of interaction—that’s not engagement.
Bring students into AI with Scratch, a coding platform that allows users to join the interactive community and intersect curriculum and computer technology in a way that meets them where they are with interests in virtual spaces, builds their digital tech skills, and brings the content to virtual life.
3. Emotional engagement
Hard to understand, but often easy to see, emotions are cues, sending signals out to everyone nearby. It’s important that we create a space and mechanisms to support those emotions because 11- to 18-year-olds have a lot of big feelings, big thoughts, and frequently a lot of larger-than-life ways to show when they’re not engaged and feeling a certain kind of way about it.
Our role in this, through relationships and imaginative lesson planning, is to create the trauma-sensitive space and strategies to support them when their amygdala is hijacked. Keep in mind, emotions and their corresponding behaviors are communication, and we want to listen.
Engagement in action: Every class discusses rules and expectations, but the students understand compliance and following directions; sometimes they just choose not to, and that’s a form of communication, too. Let’s flip that script with them and focus instead on everything they know about making school impactful. Have them open the floor to design a plan for creating a classroom that meets their needs emotionally, that makes learning a discovery, that’s responsive to their adolescence and their emotional ups and downs, while keeping learning at the forefront of the social and emotional landscape—something inclusive, culturally responsive, and safe.
Start with your classroom or office door/door frame as the perfect place to post, thereby elevating the entrance to an engaging, safe space:
- From the heart: Offer students the opportunity to write a message of love for the entranceway using their name, preferred pronouns, and native language (e.g., “Hola. Me alegra que estés aquí! Mi nombre es Valeria, mis pronombres son ella/ella; bienvenido a nuestra clase de Matemáticas.” (Hi. I’m glad you’re here. My name is Valeria, my pronouns are she/her; welcome to our Math class.)
- Getting social: Have students draw a cell phone with a kind message written on the screen for visitors, or have them create an avatar that goes along with a 140-character tweet box.
- Operation Inspire: Challenge students to research an inspirational quote or to create their own that they write out and illustrate, supporting the classroom mission.
- Connection of care: Have students provide an image of something that holds value or meaning to them that they’re comfortable sharing. They can make a copy of that image and superimpose a brief message on it with their name; then they can put it at the entrance to motivate them every time they enter and to share a connection of care with others.
For a few last ideas to turn up the volume on your class engagement, consider student-designed podcasts in social studies, civics, or English; merge physics, biology, and math by challenging students to develop a cipher-unlocking algorithm to save the planet from a global warming–induced weather event, or tackle earth science with a comic book AI storyboard program on the life cycle with your favorite insect as the narrator.
Mastering your content area while developing your teaching style is only as intentional as the connections you form with students and the manner in which you seek to build them. “You should probably invest as much time in understanding who you teach as you do in understanding what you teach,” shared author and speaker Manny Scott, an original Freedom Writer. His statement elevates the truth that student engagement is as much about pedagogy as it is about people; they don’t exist apart from one another.
When you understand your students, you can understand yourself that much better; serving their true academic and emotional needs from that place then becomes second nature. You’ll see and feel the difference in your spaces, and your students’ hearts and minds will thank you for it.