George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Student Engagement

4 Strategies to Energize and Focus Your Students

The real-life application of learning engages students beyond worksheets and traditional methods.
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Students are often bombarded with distractions, and it’s a challenge to keep them focused on what they are learning and the task at hand. The following four strategies I have found to be incredibly helpful in keeping students focused daily—and throughout the school year.

1. Engage Student Leadership in the Classroom

Some of the students who seem least interested in the learning are also some of the most effective students in organizing and orchestrating classroom projects. These student leaders can also be persuasive in assisting others in their learning. I recently started a project-based learning unit on travel in Spanish speaking countries, and I handpicked a general manager for each class. I chose the student that was self-assured enough to make things happen, and in many cases, these were students with disciplinary issues.

I then asked the class to elect two student helpers for the general manager. I knew that making sure that this leadership team knew how to lead was incredibly important, so I took the time to explain the vision and goals, providing specific tasks that needed to be done. I advised them that they were not the ones that should be doing the tasks, but they are the ones supervising to make sure that the tasks get done. I also gave them liberty on how they could accomplish the tasks. The results were impressive and better than past results when I had been the sole manager of the learning.

2. Involve as Many Students as Possible 

The first segment of our travel project was to transform our classroom into a travel agency. I requested that the leadership team for each class assign students to make artifacts for the agency—business cards, brochures, posters, and travel plan forms. Every student also had to create a passport, so photos had to be taken and a group of students were put in charge of that as well. The language component required that everyone prepare a dialogue (in Spanish) to plan her or his trip with a travel agent. The leadership team kept constant track of where the students were on their passports, their dialogues, and other assigned tasks, and they were also busy on their own tasks. 

3. Give the Students an Urgent Reason to Learn

The second phase of our travel unit was the actual boarding and flight in our classroom-turned-airplane. We transformed the classroom into a boarding area and the interior of an airplane. Students created colorful cardboard panels designed to look like airplane windows to divide the classroom. They voted on who would play the role of the pilot and flight attendant. The students chosen for the roles wrote scripts they had to memorize and perform as part of their duties. Students had to successfully apply for and obtain a visa, as well as obtain their boarding pass—all through conversations with each other—before they could actually board the plane.

To add to the illusion of realism, once the students were all boarded, they watched a video of a pilot’s eye view of a take-off. Later they viewed a short in-flight movie, and the flight attendant gave them drinks and pretzels. During the flight, each student had to engage their seatmate in a three-topic conversation that I evaluated before they could get their treat. When I asked the students to reflect on this experience and their learning, many happily shared that they could successfully travel to a Spanish speaking country (most of the students had never flown, and this was their “first” experience).

4. Help Students Feel Success  

I told the students, “We landed safely! The pilot and flight attendant did a wonderful job of creating this project. ¡Aplauso por favor! We need to also thank the management team for all their hard work in creating the plane and the boarding area. ¡Aplauso por favor!

Each student knew she/he was successful. No one could board the plane without all the boarding tasks completed. They knew they were successful in the dialogues because they could not get their in-flight treat until they performed the dialogue satisfactorily according to the rubric. The basis for performance-based learning and project-based learning is getting the students to do things that show they know how to apply the knowledge and skills to real-life, or life-like, situations. They moved from one completed task to another, and this kept them focused on the ultimate goal: boarding the plane.

Having an end goal will inspire students to stay focused on the task at hand. The next leg of our travel project will take place in the hotel, and in order to get their room, they are going to have to communicate effectively with the receptionist. In order to find the restaurant, they will have to successfully get and follow directions from the hotel doorman.  

Additional Planning and Effort—It's Worth It

I saw students’ attitudes change with this project. I saw students who were hard to enthuse come to class excited. They loved having a say in what their passport names would be and the dialogue they would engage in on the plane. Giving students a chance to create a learning environment, engaging all of them in an urgent reason to learn, and providing continual feedback as they progress are ways to help your students focus. 

Project planning does require extra planning and preparation on the part of the teacher, but the benefits are worth the risk of bringing a bit of chaos to our classrooms. Real-life application of learning engages students beyond worksheets and traditional methods. Projects like the one described provide an opportunity for students to put to practice the knowledge and skills they have learned in an authentic way.

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deb lisack's picture

What grade is this? It sounds like high school. I work in elementary school! Love this idea!

Bobby Jones's picture

I've always found that my students are waaaay more engaged with our lessons when I carve out fun activities. Teaching small children with small attention spans is obviously different then high school/college level where young adults have patience to sit through long lectures & discussion, though my colleagues suggest that this actually holds true in some of those cases as well. Communities like, brainhq, and others help provide ideas on this. Students sitting for several minutes (45+) on is just plain tedious, but this is education as we've learned since the beginning of education-however, it doesn't mean we have to continuously conform to it. Interesting research here.

Sarah Hirst's picture

I love this application of PBL! I'm having trouble figuring out the logistics of planning PBL projects. Did you develop a rubric or a list of knowledge or skills they were required to show in the course of the project?

Any good resources to use to start implementing PBL successfully?

Laura Thomas's picture
Laura Thomas
Director, Antioch University New England Center for School Renewal, Author of Facilitating Authentic Learning, Director of the Antioch Critical Skills Program; Elementary Library Media Specialist

Hi Sarah! You can start lots of places! Either with the outcomes you want to see (the knowledge, skills, and/or dispositions) and what they will look like when they're done well, or with a specific learning opportunity in mind (a local need or resource) or with a project or problem in mind. In any case, you'll want to be clear on what you're going to see at the end- what they'll know and do- and what they're going to do/ experience to learn it. It can get complicated, but it doesn't have to be. Check out our Level 1 Coaching Kit for some more detailed information and feel free to shoot me an email at lthomas at antioch dot edu if you want to talk about it more. PBL is sort of my thing here. :-)

Yumi Kushi's picture

Hi, I'm having a hard time too. (having to learn whats before I have any idea how to construct plans using these).
PBL sounds so fabulous but I can't seem to think outside the OLD worksheet style. Thanks so much for posting how to get more help!

Paige Olekszyk's picture

I love the ideas you have here! Empowering students is especially important, especially in inner city public schools where the students will face the most adversity to attaining success. Although you used this for a social studies/history/geography class, these tips can be applied across the disciplines.

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