George Lucas Educational Foundation
Student Engagement

Using Culturally Responsive Lessons to Boost Engagement

Identifying students’ likes and interests and connecting them to course content is a good way to get students motivated to learn.

October 22, 2019
Students listening to their teacher in class
Bob Daemmrich / Alamy Stock Photo

Motivating students isn’t about convincing them to see things as you see them or forcing them to be excited about something they aren’t excited about. It’s about putting the students first—identifying their likes, dislikes, interests, or desired outcomes to see if you can incorporate any of those into lessons in a way that gets students to engage with the content.

There are many things educators can do to get the best out of their students by motivating them—these are ones that worked for me.

3 Ways to Boost Student Motivation

1. Provide students with culturally engaging lessons in culturally responsive content: For a student, there’s nothing worse than dry content. I love history, but I never enjoyed learning about the Gilded Age, for example, primarily because of how the material was presented: My history teachers didn’t speak to the connection between it and the Reconstruction Era and the growth of Jim Crow and public policies that negatively impacted black people—like the crime bill and welfare reform—in ways I witnessed firsthand. Maybe that’s why I underperformed on that unit test.

It’s important to know your students, to understand what might collectively capture their interest, and to utilize that in your lesson planning. It helps to be open to modifying your lessons.

Let’s pretend you’re teaching a diverse class of seventh-grade students about Shakespeare’s sonnets. This may not be the most appealing of topics for them, but you may want, or be required, to teach it anyway. When teaching a white, 16th-century English poet to students whose ancestors came from many other countries, you can compare his poetry and style with the poetry and style of writers of color from around the world—particularly ones who reflect the students of color in your classroom.

Use this comparison to explain Shakespeare’s motivations for writing what and how he did, and let students choose which writers and styles they prefer. For example, at the end of the sonnet unit, you could ask students to write their own poems by modeling their work after their favorite poet from the unit, instead of asking them all to write a sonnet.

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2. Connect your lessons and work to real-world issues: One of the age-old questions students ask is, “How can I use this in real life?” Here's your time to shine. Whether you’re teaching percentages, the periodic table, poetry, or American history, you can get creative about connecting your lessons and units to what’s happening in the real world and consider how students can help.

The seeds for engaging students in college and career exploration start in the classroom when we connect theory to practice to empower students to develop into real-world applications. It’s not enough to read about plants that support breathing—grow some plants in your classroom and during the spring transplant them in a school or community garden. Show kids that their days in the classroom aren’t in vain.

Keeping with our example above, we can reflect on why Shakespeare’s poetry has endured for all these centuries and why other voices have not. We can discuss marginalized voices with impactful messages for the world that are drowned out by oppressive forces looking to silence them. We can ask why Shakespeare’s voice and use of language are treasured over black, Latinx, indigenous, and Asian voices that also speak to love, pain, war, injustice, and oppression.

We can also connect this to why some voices drown out others in our world today—why the voices of our politicians ring louder than the voices of people seeking to enter our country to escape violence or natural disasters, louder than the voices of black men and women when members of their communities are killed unjustly by law enforcement officers. We can use something as simple as poetry to draw out truth—that students are empowered to make truth their instrument for change in a post-truth atmosphere.

3. Provide students with measurable goals for a lesson, unit, or course: Students may or may not be able to tell you what they hope to get out of any lesson. Make sure that you provide them with a measurable goal for the things you have them do in your class, whether it’s watching a movie on course content, giving a presentation to the school, or acquiring an entrepreneurial skill. Giving students something to look forward to is always a good way to keep them motivated and engaged.

What if you started your Shakespeare lesson with the end in mind? Let your opening statement serve as your hook. I would say, “Class, today I am going to teach you how to write like Shakespeare and we’re going to use that skill to pay for our class trip.” We haven’t even taken out a book but I’ve already given them a measurable goal.

To raise the funds, have students type their poems and compile them to make a book with an online publishing service like Lulu. Have students sell them to faculty, staff, and their families. Truth be told, the poems probably won’t pay for a whole trip, but you want to plant the seeds of entrepreneurship and build skills.

Establishing a tangible and measurable goal tells the students exactly what they’re doing and how they can measure their success. In this case they’ve succeeded when they work to sell the book, even if they’re not fully able to pay for the trip. This lesson was about Shakespeare’s sonnets, but it was also about hard work and entrepreneurship. That makes for invested students.

You can motivate your students every day with your excitement in what you teach, with your smiles, and with your care for them, but that isn’t always enough because motivating your students isn’t about you, it’s about them. Empower them—put them first in your planning and watch as they begin to motivate themselves.

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