Designing Lessons for Engagement
Activities that get students out of their chairs and moving in the room can help them engage with course content, even in high school.
As teachers, we cannot do the work for students, but we can create dynamic and thought-provoking experiences that are connected to who our students are and who they want to be. To this end, we can design lessons that enable students to contemplate questions, formulate hypotheses, conduct experiments, and plant their own seeds.
Such lessons will set up conditions in which students can weigh and measure outcomes, consider various solutions, and imagine endless possibilities.
Designing Dynamic Learning Experiences
Showing why lessons matter: It’s essential that we explicitly help our students understand how what they’re learning in school relates to their lives, not only to foster engagement but because research shows that students do not apply what they’ve learned to new situations unless they’re prompted to do so.
Students shouldn’t be left without an answer to the question, “Why do we need to learn this stuff?” Instead, we can introduce or follow up our instruction by explaining why we’re asking them to perform a task, or by explaining how the task matters to them in school and beyond.
We can also challenge students to make these connections themselves by offering guided questions that help them consider how the work they’re doing matters beyond our classrooms. Guided questions may include: How does this mathematical proof apply to a current issue? What historical movements and conflicts seem to be repeating themselves? How can we apply what we’re learning in school to improve our lives and our society?
Providing choice: If we know what we most want our students to learn, we can design backward from those outcomes to offer students different pathways to reach them.
For example, in a science class, if students are learning about Rube Goldberg machines, they can decide on a task they want to complete and assemble one using various objects of their choice. In a history class, students can be asked how they would address a global problem—they might choose from issues such as hunger, education, health, the environment, or gender equality, and then choose to demonstrate their solution through a slide presentation, a video, a sketchnote, a storyboard, or other means. In a language arts class, if the focus is on coming-of-age novels, the teacher can provide a choice of books with protagonists of different genders, cultures, ethnicities, and economic status, so students can connect with a character they’re curious about.
Giving students choices in the work they do fosters engagement because, like adults, students are more likely to engage in work that matters to them.
Incorporating movement: Activities such as chat stations and speed dating encourage students to add their voices to classroom discussions and show them that their opinions matter.
In setting up chat stations, teachers can post questions at each station that require divergent thinking, such as: How would the modern U.S. be different if the South won the Civil War? Or: In what ways does the message of this book deepen your understanding of a truth you’ve discovered in your own life? Students can move around the room in groups of three or four, discussing each question for several minutes before moving on.
Speed dating–type activities offer students an opportunity to move around and engage in a variety of one-on-one conversations. I arrange the desks in pairs facing each other, and carefully time conversations and movement, determining who is speaking, who is listening, when to ask a follow question, when to respond, and then when to change seats.
Teachers can incentivize listening by providing students with 30 seconds to briefly record the gist of what they heard, followed by an opportunity to ask a follow-up question. Speed dating can be used for a variety of purposes: to foster language skills in a world language class, to offer students an opportunity to discuss controversial issues, or to enable students to share knowledge when they’re working on different topics.
Building in Time for Reflection
Throughout the school year, we should offer students opportunities for reflection so they can consolidate what they’ve learned and determine what they did well, what they can do differently next time, and how they would like to move forward.
Toward the end of the school year, when engagement begins to wane, we can ask students to reflect on the work they did this year. We can frame this as our “Greatest Hits” and ask students: What did you produce this year that you’d most like to share with your peers? Why is it worthy of sharing? This share can culminate in a gallery walk replete with writing pieces, videos, demonstrations, and reinterpretations of lessons learned.
This year I’m expecting two students to perform their rap inspired by Langston Hughes’s “Theme for English B,” a few dramatic performances, some paired analyses and connections between excerpts from books and plays that anchored our year, as well as student editorials, narratives, and illustrations of universal themes.
Student engagement should be our highest priority because there is no real learning without it. Deeper learning is possible when students are actively involved in the life of the classroom, understand the connection between their schoolwork and the rest of their lives, and have repeated opportunities for reflection. When we invite students to the design table, our classroom becomes a place that is defined by its learners, which is the life force of engagement.