Long after the shine has worn off the first few weeks of a new school year, teachers search for strategies to keep students engaged in the classroom, believing that if we find the right tool, we might just be able to grab their attention.
Often, our response to disengagement has been to create “fun” activities, offer student choice, gamify, flip learning, or take brain breaks that are designed to get students excited or ready to learn, but what if their lack of engagement is rooted in a belief that they are not a part of the learning community? Rising absences, tardies, and issues with cell phone use during class underscore students feeling disconnected.
In his book Community: The Structure of Belonging, Peter Block stressed that “expanding a shared sense of belonging” is essential to building a social fabric of community and “occurs in an infinite number of small steps.” We need to stop seeking students’ attention and instead commit to holding our students together as a community. When we invite students to learn, start with their strengths, and build in the support of a team, teachers can engage students in meaningful ways throughout the year.
Inviting Students to Learn
Invitations to learn are intentional moments of reaching out to connect, such as when we pronounce student names correctly and greet students as they walk into the classroom (especially when they are tardy). Encouraging students to share their learning with one another through routines like Turn and Talk or Give One, Get One are invitations to learn from and connect with one another. Photo check-ins at the start of class can reveal the emotional state of the whole group and note who needs a lift.
These small actions build community, but do we do them every day? As teachers, we work to connect with all of our students, but do we expect our students to know each other’s names and guide them to greet one another at the start of class? It’s the ritual and routine that help us build trust with and among students. These patterns also reinforce that we want and expect students to be part of the fabric we are weaving together. When students feel a sense of belonging, they have a reason to engage.
Starting with Strengths
Starting with strengths means that before ever pointing out the faults or flaws we see in our students or their work, we name the positives and successes. Our students often focus on mistakes, too, which can be paralyzing. It takes deliberate work to form this new habit of finding bright spots, especially when the deficits are obvious and loud.
There is always a strength to build on—even if it means saying, “Way to show up on a Tuesday morning!” Establishing routines that reorient students to see strengths first can help build the confidence necessary to lean into learning.
Having students point to which steps of the math problem they understood right before they got confused or asking them, “What went well?” when first debriefing an activity condition them to notice small victories.
Another strengths-based entry point to learning is asking students to identify strengths they have in common with peers. Affinity groups can help students learn to value their classmates as knowledgeable, skillful, and helpful to the learning community. Alternatively, asking students to recognize an individual strength they bring to the group can help them see unique strengths in themselves.
To further make it possible to focus on strengths, consider the impact of reexamining assessment practices. By eliminating points, providing feedback, or offering opportunities for students to self-assess or self-reflect, teachers can tilt some of the focus from earning a letter grade to learning. Starting with strengths creates a positive, supportive environment worth joining.
Building a Supportive Team Environment
Building a supportive team environment across the whole class means that we need to challenge our students to not only work with each other but begin to understand the value of working for each other. Students who sit in rows and complete individual assignments never really need to get to know or rely on each other—further isolating themselves from their peers.
We can establish a sense of team within our classrooms by introducing norms. Some teacher-created norms are meant to enforce compliance or behavior expectations or may be one view of what a classroom should look like.
Team-oriented classroom norms, on the other hand, are working agreements underpinning the community’s supportive culture. They are dynamic and co-written with student input. These norms should include expectations to support members of the community, respect differences, and practice empathy. For example, “You have the right to ask for help and the duty to assist” or “We need each other” set the expectation that in this classroom, we will be working together and supporting one another as we learn.
Learning in a team environment also includes collaboration. Group-worthy tasks help students learn to rely on one another as necessary and valued teammates working toward a common goal. Instead of assigning group tasks easily completed by one student, add roles that require interdependence and accountability—for example, allowing only one student to ask the teacher questions or assigning one student as a scout to visit other groups and report back.
More complex group work may include assigning each group member a different critical lens (philosophical, economic, historical) through which to investigate an issue or taking away one group member’s sight or ability to speak during a particular team challenge.
Shared experiences as a whole class or in teams teach students to depend on one another.
Prompting students to set goals for their group or give themselves homework so they are ready for Monday’s discussion increases students’ ownership of the task and their reliance on each other. Thinking about the group’s success and how they individually contributed to that success helps students to recognize the communal effort to learn. When students feel accountable to the group, they are more likely to show up.