New Teachers

Unlocking Engagement in Middle and High School Math

A small shift in lesson presentation can encourage older students to actively participate in class.

March 28, 2024
monkeybusinessimages / iStock

The usual classroom symphony of settling students, chattering friends, and whispered gossip was abruptly interrupted by groans and jeers when they saw another dull math warm-up. As a new seventh-grade math teacher, I yearned to make the lessons engaging, but I felt constrained by the curriculum and struggled to stay ahead of the students, often learning the material the night before I taught it. In my focus on mastering the content, I had neglected the student experience, which, as their growing disengagement and defiance made clear, was lacking.

One day, amid the usual classroom hubbub, a sense of resignation hung heavy in the air. Students went through the motions of learning, some with glazed eyes copying notes verbatim, while others chatted animatedly about weekend plans. In stark contrast, “Sofia,” usually a beacon of participation, slumped in her chair, and “Josiah,” who often fidgeted, leaned forward intently, gesturing toward a crucial note on the whiteboard.

The usual mix of focused energy and playful banter felt off-balance, replaced by a quiet apathy. It felt like a repetitive performance, and I knew I had to offer them something more meaningful. I also knew that many of them genuinely wanted to learn, but the classroom disarray forced them into survival mode, simply hoping to avoid embarrassment or disruption.

My train of thought was interrupted by a knock at the door, barely audible over the din of student protest. My math coach entered with a smile, but my initial flicker of hope was quickly extinguished by the self-doubt gnawing at me, questioning my career choice.

A Surprising Discovery

With gentle encouragement from my coach, I launched into the lesson, my nerves on edge from a potent mix of disengaged students, my own lack of confidence, and the looming presence of an external observer. My coach had mentioned that many students indicated a desire to learn, and I held on to that thought as I wrote the first step on the board. Whether due to nerves or to sleep deprivation, I found myself pausing after each step, struggling to recall what came next. During these pauses, I noticed my students surprisingly engaged, gesturing and discussing what might happen next.

After a few instances of this, my coach pulled me aside and suggested I continue pausing and ask the students to predict the next step. The transformation was gradual at first, but it quickly spread throughout the room. Once-rowdy students were eagerly waiting, anticipating the next step. The rest of the lesson unfolded completely differently. I no longer felt burdened by the content, and the students thrived on unraveling the mystery.

Inspired by this experience, my coach and I sought to refine this concept of student engagement. I decided to use existing examples from the curriculum, sequencing them and displaying each step on a slide with animation. Students would then predict the next step. My coach expressed concern about the potential loss of momentum if no one could guess correctly. I countered with the idea of presenting two steps, like step one and step two, and asking students to compare them. We were both excited, and I eagerly began crafting the initial iterations of what I called the spark sequence.

This simple yet impactful pedagogical strategy is designed to enhance student learning and engagement while reducing teacher workload. It leverages our natural pattern recognition abilities to do the following:

  • Focus student attention on key details through a step-by-step process
  • Develop critical thinking by comparing similarities and differences across each step
  • Boost confidence by enabling students to share their observations and build upon their understanding

New Levels of Engagement

The next day, a mix of excitement and nervousness coursed through me as I began the lesson. The usual pre-lesson grumbling commenced, but as we reached the first example, a shift was palpable. I wasn’t burdened with the explanation, and the students were once again engaged by the challenge. With two steps presented, they could freely analyze and compare. I then employed the “same-different” strategy, where students compare two things and identify similarities and differences.

While it took some students a moment to grasp the concept, the classroom chatter had transformed. Students were actively discussing their observations, their faces lighting up with understanding as the lesson progressed. A chorus of “That was fun!” confirmed their enjoyment, and they walked away from the example knowing how to solve it.

I then revisited the complete example, but instead of lecturing, I had students take turns explaining each step, collaboratively constructing a narrative.

Steps in the spark sequence

  1. Briefly display each step with minimal distractions.
  2. Think-pair-share. After each step, ask students to silently identify what’s the same and different (<10 seconds). Then, have them share their observations with a partner (15 seconds each).
  3. Repeat steps two and three.
  4. Once the sequence is complete, reveal the final outcome or justification. Allow students time to recall (10–30 seconds), then have them discuss with their partners (<1 minute).
  5. Wrap up: The whole class shares out. The teacher clears up any remaining misconceptions and summarizes the day’s learning.

In the end, I learned more from the students’ explanations than I had from the countless hours spent preparing the night before. In essence, I had discovered a way to engage my students, reduce my prep time, and learn alongside them. They became active participants in their education, taking the driver’s seat in their learning journey. By stepping aside and letting them take ownership, I fostered engagement and a shared learning experience for all of us.

Looking back, these moments marked a turning point. They transformed my doubts about my career choice into a deep sense of purpose. My students continue to love this strategy and the framework for discussion it provides. We’ve even incorporated it into student work, as they strive to create their own sequences or explore different applications of the strategy. It’s a place where we’ve all thrived—an oasis of learning and mutual respect, and a space where this old student has learned from his younger ones.

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Filed Under

  • New Teachers
  • Student Engagement
  • Math
  • 6-8 Middle School
  • 9-12 High School

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