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Student Engagement

How Teachers Can Use Their Hobbies to Boost Student Engagement

Infusing lessons with their personal interests can help teachers model the benefits of perseverance and curiosity.

June 22, 2021
Adam McCauley / The iSpot

When you’re a teacher, a big part of your job is battling student misconceptions. Often students come to the classroom assuming that learning can’t be fun and that what they learn isn’t relevant to the real world—much less to their personal interests. I’ve discovered that if I show students how what they learn is relevant to my hobbies, they’re much more inclined to make connections to their personal interests and develop their own hobbies.

I think of it as a hobby mindset. Modeling enthusiasm and making concepts personally relevant can do wonders for student engagement, self-direction, and relationships.

Bring Your Hobbies Into the Classroom

No matter what subject I’m teaching, I find ways to bring my hobbies into the classroom. For example, I’m a car enthusiast, so when I teach physics, I contextualize concepts with my knowledge about cars. If we’re covering friction, for example, I bring different tires into my classroom so that my students can conduct lab experiments with them to see how friction works in real-life applications. With 2-by-4-inch pieces of tread cut from various tires made of different compounds and then attached to a wooden block, I add an extra layer of interest to the traditional friction lab experiment. This extra variable shows students that concepts they’re learning in class have real-world applications and can even connect to their interests.

A former colleague of mine, Alex Villalta in Las Vegas, takes this strategy to the next level by creating electives that are rooted in his hobbies and partnering with other teachers to teach them. He’s an avid content creator, gamer, and artist, and I’m a science teacher, so together we created and taught rigorous courses in game design that were rooted in project-based learning and gaming: Students explored various facets of gaming, from coding to art, and created their own games from the ground up.

Similarly, in Alex’s 3D arts class, students learned about traditional art concepts like perspective and color theory to create 3D clay models that then became digital creations, and in an esports class he created, students wrote backstories for characters and scripts for esports broadcasts. One student had previously struggled with writing assignments, but writing within the context of esports helped him realize that he could write—and that he enjoyed it.

Students often enjoy and find inspiration in learning how you landed on your hobby, so share with them how your initial observations led to experimentation. Let kids know that something they learn about in passing can become a perfectly healthy obsession, and that it can be incredibly gratifying to spend days exploring the nooks and crannies of a new hobby and practicing the skills it demands.

Cultivate Student Interest in Their Hobbies

When a student shows enthusiasm for your hobby or another one seems to resonate, take care to introduce them to resources that can help them to explore it more. Any learner needs access to expertise, and if you’re learning a new hobby, you need guidance through pinch points.

Encourage students to poke around on YouTube for videos and online forums as they’re exploring a new hobby, and make sure they know that people learn in various ways and speeds, so they might need time to work through processes and need opportunities to make attempts and iterate. If you can, ask them questions to help guide them or even position yourself as a thought partner.

Be transparent about the fact that learning can be a difficult process, no matter how enjoyable the topic is, and that by taking on that challenge, students can build important skills, like perseverance and knowing how and when to ask for help. There’s also an social and emotional learning component, as there is with most learning: When you learn a new hobby, you often have to learn how to manage your emotions, like excitement and disappointment.

Sharing Hobbies Also Builds Relationships

When I first brought my hobbies to my classroom, I was focused on how doing so would build engagement and help my students understand concepts in science. But I quickly learned that the practice also helped me build stronger relationships with them. When I let them see an aspect of my life outside of school, some students who were also interested in cars connected with me more and became more engaged in my courses. They paid more attention in class and wanted to talk with me and connect on a personal level more frequently. Even those who didn’t share that interest with me seemed more engaged once I showed a different side of myself.

What started as an experiment is now more of a philosophy. Even when I’m planning classes, whether they’re electives or required, I tend to think about how I can weave in my hobbies. I find that doing so energizes my instruction, engages my students, and demonstrates to them how abstract concepts play out in the real world. Best of all, my passion for my hobbies seems to inspire them to be passionate about finding their own.

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  • Teaching Strategies
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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