George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

3 Ways to Keep Middle School Students Engaged

Tweens and teens may struggle to stay on task throughout a class period, and teachers can use these ideas to help them focus.

November 1, 2023
Allison Shelley / American Education

With the start of the school year well underway, you may notice the enthusiasm of some of your students starting to wane. The newness and sparkle of things aren’t there, and routines are more or less established. While, in the ideal world, your class is humming along without a hitch, and all the kids are totally engrossed in their learning, we live and teach in the real world, so you might notice some students starting to lose interest and motivation. 

Luckily, there are ways to combat complacency in the classroom. One of the easiest ways to keep students engaged is to make sure that they are the ones doing the work. As teachers, we’ve been to school; we’ve learned how to read, write, synthesize information, and tackle tough math problems. Our job isn’t to show off our knowledge; it’s to get students to find power in learning and show off what they have learned.

1. Less Teacher Talk

One of the most crucial parts of my job as an English language teacher is actively engaging my students in their learning. To acquire the confidence to use a new language, you need to practice and be involved in the learning process. When I was first learning how to teach, my mentor told me that one of the things she always pays attention to is who is doing most of the talking in the class. In many classes, the teacher’s voice is the dominant one, but in many of the best classes, students are the ones who hold the floor. 

Recently, I was teaching a riveting lesson on First Amendment rights when I took stock of the classroom. Out of 18 students, at least 10 of them had their heads down, and I could have sworn that I heard some starting to snore. I knew it was time for me to stop talking and for my students to become the driving force behind the lesson. It was clear that more talking wasn’t going to equal more learning. I’ve learned a few tricks that I use to pull my students back to planet Earth when I see them starting to fade away into boredom.

One way to make sure your voice isn’t the dominant one is to set a timer and not allow yourself to talk for more than four minutes without meaningful student input. Giving kids many opportunities to share their thoughts not only increases engagement but also helps them process information—for example, in the case of the First Amendment rights, questions like “What would life be like if you lost your freedom of speech? Would you miss being able to express yourself with your words or with your actions more?” By listening to their conversations, you as the teacher can get a good understanding of who is taking in information and who might be zoning out.

2. Get Them Moving

One of the things that have kept me in the classroom teaching is my disdain for meetings and sitting for long periods of time. Sometimes when I’m in meetings, I can feel the life force just leaving my body, and I know that many of my students feel the same when they sit through long classes. I try to build movement into most of my lessons.

In the case of the First Amendment lesson, I had my students act out each of the five rights guaranteed by the amendment. They were thrilled when I told them they could take out their cell phones and pose for a picture to demonstrate their freedom of speech. They laughed and came up with great poses when they gathered together to demonstrate their right to peacefully assemble. They were excited when someone created a petition for better food in the cafeteria, and all eagerly signed it. 

When I got my students moving, they were able to interact with material in a meaningful way. While movement is good for almost all kids, for English language learners, it can help create new pathways and make learning more tangible and help connect to past experiences. 

Another great way to incorporate movement into the classroom is with reader’s theater. With ChatGPT, it is so easy and quick to create scripts that are at your students’ reading level and specific to the exact standards you are teaching. After my students have some basic background information on a subject, they often revel in the chance to do a reader’s theater. With my English language learners, this is a very effective strategy because it incorporates crucial speaking skills into the lesson and lets their creativity shine and gets them moving! Benjamin Franklin wasn’t lying when he said, “Tell me and I forget. Teach me and I remember. Involve me and I learn.”

3. Provide Choice

In middle school, many kids want to show that they are capable of making decisions for themselves, and many students don’t necessarily like being told what to do. Offering choice is an effective way to increase engagement. While not every child is an artist or actor, every one of them has talents and unique interests, and if we can tap into them, it can be a game changer. 

In civics, once kids have the chance to talk about their learning and physically engage in it, then I provide opportunities for choice in showing the class all that they have learned. In the case of the First Amendment rights, students were given choices. They were able to write fictional stories about a dystopian society where our rights were taken away; they could also build sets with Legos depicting our rights or create posters, skits, and songs showing what they learned.

While the end products looked different, the content was the same. The mastery of learning was evident, or not, and you weren’t coaxing a child to do work that was uninteresting. Although there are times when you can’t provide choice, the more we can provide students with a variety of ways to integrate their learning in meaningful ways, the more engaged they will be.

Keeping our students engaged doesn’t mean that the teacher is putting on a show or creating a daily circus. As a matter of fact, one of the best ways to improve engagement is by taking a step back and letting the kids take center stage. When you do this, you’ll find that you are saving energy, and the flow of the class is better. When we meet kids where they are and task them with showing us what they know, the results can be inspiring.

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