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Planning for Engagement: 6 Strategies for the Year

Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia
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Over the summer, I offered to help some friends convert their dining room light fixture into a ceiling fan. Once the electricity was off, the old fixture was down, and I'd opened the large cardboard box, my goal was clear and pressing. This needed to be accomplished before people began to arrive for the five-year-old's birthday party that would begin in two hours. There was no need to remind myself to focus or pay attention.

After about half an hour, my arms had become heavy from holding pieces up while perching on the ladder, but my mind was interested only in the process. I opened the old switch plate on the wall and skipped a breath when I saw what was inside. There were more than two black wires. Because the fan was controlled by a special switch that was not compatible with the current circuit, I had to figure out how to change the wiring to a single pole. I took a brief pause to take in the scene: the table was pushed to the side of the room, the drop cloth and ladder were covered with tools and fan parts. Without wasting any more time, I dashed toward the computer to learn what I needed in order to proceed.

Creating Engagement

Sadly, moments of full immersion are not the memories that most of us have from our years as students. It is clear that schools -- and learning -- are more powerful and effective when students are deeply connected to their work. What would it take for students to regularly experience the kind of engagement where they are fully immersed and "lost" in their tasks?

Learning that leads to deep engagement should be thoughtfully and carefully structured to work for many different types of learners. One of the wonderful challenges of our craft is to structure learning so that it draws in young people with many different interests, abilities and skill levels.

My experience with the fan involved a project with a clear final product. I was motivated to succeed and had a deadline. I encountered a challenge midway and needed to research in order to problem solve. Past experiences had taught me how to quickly find the information that I needed to move forward with the project.

Similarly, deep student engagement usually requires a challenge of creating something or figuring something out. Students also often need assistance or modeling along the way to help them overcome obstacles and challenges or to improve the quality of their work. Engagement is usually lost when learners are asked to figure things out on their own and don't have the tools, experience or problem-solving skills to proceed.

An Action Plan for the Year

When I plan for my classes, I first think about desired outcomes for my students before I design specific units and lessons. This process, which Grant Wiggins and Jay McTighe explain in Understanding by Design, has helped me not only as a curriculum designer but also as a professional with larger goals of growth.

Each new school year is an opportunity for me to develop new skills and try out different strategies with my classes. Throughout this year I want to use backward design to plan for deeper student engagement. I've come up with a list of six different strategies that I'll refer to regularly as I plan my courses:

1. Authentic Learning

I strive to find ways to have my students do work that has meaning in the world, beyond classroom walls. As I plan, I will attempt to always have a rationale for learning content and a clear reason for doing the work that we do. In the past, I've had success designing projects that grapple with current issues or are created for an outside audience.

2. Inquiry

Just like I noticed during my own process with the fan, I want to remember that learning is most powerful when it's a process of investigation and discovery. I want to be sure that my students regularly experience the power of these processes, and that I do what is necessary to make this possible.

3. Collaboration

Collaboration makes me a better teacher. I want to find ways to set up new collaborations with both teachers and organizations.

4. Integrating the Arts

We are all creative beings, and when I structure learning and projects well, all students feel excited about expressing their ideas creatively.

5. Presentation & Performance

Engagement is greater when students are creating work that has a wider audience. Whenever possible, I want students to present and/or perform their work. Sometimes this can mean presenting or performing for the class, and at other times I want to find interested or relevant audiences that can witness and respond to student work. (Here is an example of a student project posted to YouTube.)

6. Integrating Technology

When I am smart and strategic about how I integrate technology into my classroom, it allows my students to make their work stronger and reach larger audiences. (Here is an example of a student paper posted to a blog with an accompanying digital story.) I want to make sure that when I use technology, it is for a clear purpose and helps me achieve the goals above -- and my larger goal of increased engagement.

This summer, I was reminded that deep engagement is a powerful process that all learners should be able to experience. As educators, it is important that we continually strive to find new ways of helping students discover their passions and abilities so that they can become truly immersed in the joys and struggles of learning and growing.

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Joshua Block

Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

Comments (7) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Carrie's picture
2nd grade teacher from Buckeye, AZ

I think your blog post is a perfect reminder of the importance of engagement in the classroom. What a different world it would be if we allowed and encouraged inquiry-based learning in every classroom! I always notice that when my students are truly involved in a topic and challenged by it, the lesson flows and, like you with the fan, causes us to become "lost" in our work. I am glad that I encountered your blog. It has reminded me that I am not alone in my desire to create these types of learning tasks and it will serve as a reminder to continue this work in the future!

Nickie's picture

Engaging all learners is hard. The diversity of skills, backgrounds, and interests in my classroom makes it very challenging to engage every one of my students in every single learning activity. That leads me to wonder, is it even possible to accomplish this lofty goal.

Your blog instantly inspired me to create a new template that I will use when lesson planning. The reminders to tell students why they need to learn the content, allow for inquiry-based discovery, include opportunities for students to express their creativity and present their ideas, and include meaningful technology will help to increase the efficacy of my instruction.

Do you think it's possible to include each of these components in almost every lesson? If not, how often do you think is realistic?

Joshua Block's picture
Joshua Block
Humanities teacher at Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia

@Nickie Thanks for your great questions. Reading your comment helps me to remember that another aspect of engagement seems to be variety. When different lessons and different units have a range of focus on and emphasis there are more opportunities to draw in learners.

While some students might find immediate inspiration in a lesson that incorporates artistic creation others might find deep engagement through the idea of creating a product for a wider audience. I think it's hard to do all of these things at once but easier to find ways to incorporate them at different times. Your template idea sounds great!

Courtney's picture
3rd grade teacher

I really love your blog.
It really helps give me some great ideas to help keep my kids engaged. In an ideal world our students would come to school with plenty of sleep, well fed and motivated to learn. Unfortunately this is not our reality, so we need to come up with great ways to engage our kids.
Thank you for the great strategies!

Lisa's picture
Adult Basic Ed Teacher from DC

I really enjoyed your blog post. I teach Adult Basic Ed and the strategies that you shared I can also use. Adult learners come to the classroom with different experiences and more demands than traditional learners. But they still need to be engaged in learning.

Brandi K's picture
Brandi K
kindergarten Teacher from Indy

I usually do not post to blogs, but this one is highly interesting. We have been discussing student engagement each week. The six strategies that you noted to keep in mind will definitely promote student engagement. I really like the idea of having arts infused lesson. This not only makes the lesson interesting but it allow creativity and problem solving. Your blog reminded me to state the rationale of the lesson. Why should I know this? I always incorporate "I can statement" but sometimes forget to tell kids why they should know the material.

Kabrecia B's picture
Kabrecia B
K-5 Intervention specialist

I also use backwards design when planning my lessons. This was the strategy taught during my student teaching and it worked well for me. Currently, I am using UDL (Universal Design for Learning). It is a great way to engage all students and remove learning barriers allowing for students to use multiple means of representation.

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