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4 Student Engagement Tips (From a Student)

Nashville Big Picture High School

Grades 9-12 | Nashville, TN

Harley Center

Filmmaker and Recent High School Graduate
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A closeup of a teenage boy sitting by himself in a cafeteria, dressed in a blue button up shirt, tie, and suit jacket, looking directly at the camera.
Harley Center, Nashville Big Picture High School alumnus

I just graduated from Nashville Big Picture High School, and this is where I'm at in my life:

  1. I made a 20-minute documentary about my graduating class of 2016.
  2. I am getting paid to go to different places throughout Tennessee this summer to make videos explaining the products and services of various companies.
  3. I have a possible video job lined up when I enter college.
  4. I recently made a video for Edutopia. (It's not every day that an educational foundation run by George Lucas asks you to make a video for them -- especially at the age of 17!)

I've been able to accomplish all of this because my school gave me the freedom to make my own choices. I chose where I interned, whether or not I took college classes and earned college credit, and most importantly, I always had a choice in every class project. For four years, because of this freedom, I was able to use every project to improve upon what I was passionate about: filmmaking. From the very first project I was assigned in ninth grade -- the Who I Am? Project -- I made a video documentary about myself, and from that assignment, I realized that I loved making movies.

The short video I made for Edutopia (you can watch it at the bottom of this blog post) highlights student work showcased on the walls around Nashville Big Picture High School. In this video, you'll see the freedom of choice that students have in their learning. One example is Kristin, a junior at the time of the filming. She was tasked with creating a history class project about slavery, and she was told that she could depict it in any way that she wanted. Because of that choice, she demonstrated her learning through art: a painting showing Harriet Tubman and the fight for freedom that slaves had to endure. Kristin explained, "My art is a part of me, and so for people to walk by and see a part of me, it feels great."

For Teachers: 4 Tips to Engage Your Students (These Worked for Me!)

Throughout all four years at Big Picture, I felt valued, and I felt like my voice mattered. From my experience at Big Picture -- and from knowing what engaged me in my learning -- here are four practical tips that you can adopt to engage your students.

1. Create a close relationship with your students.

At Big Picture, we called our teachers by their first names. It was so much easier for me to ask a teacher a question when I considered that teacher as a friend. To create a bond with your students, engage them in personal conversation. Before my classes would start, we would usually sit and talk about anything we wanted to, and our teacher would be right in the middle of the conversation. By drawing closer to your students and closing the distance between the terms friend and teacher, you'll create a space where your students will feel comfortable and safe to interact with you. They will be less shy when asking you a question, and they will turn in better work if they see you as someone they trust and whose opinion they value.

Related Resource: Advisory: 22 Ways to Build Relationships for Educational Success

2. Add humor to your lessons.

One thing I loved as a student was when a teacher didn't take everything too seriously. Of course, there are many serious moments in the classroom, but I was so much more engaged when a teacher would add humor to the mix. Making a lesson funny, even if it's just a small thing, will really help to keep your students' attention. My science teacher is a great example of this. When we were learning about Ebola, he turned the whole classroom into a containment room for the sick, which was funny itself, but then he came in wearing a hazmat suit and taught the whole lesson in that. Needless to say, I will never forget that lesson because it was hilarious!

3. Give your students freedom of choice on all projects.

Freedom of choice makes it more interesting and entertaining for everyone. If you go to a normal high school and they're doing a history project on the life of Abraham Lincoln, you'll see the same thing: 20 poster boards about his life. No one enjoys seeing 20 poster board presentations in a row. However, if you come to Big Picture and the students are doing a project on the life of Abraham Lincoln, you'll see one poster about him, one piece of abstract art about his life, a video documentary about his life, a song written about him, and a portrait painted of him. Most importantly, your students will never get bored because they'll have a choice in their project, and they'll choose to incorporate their passions and interests into their work. Having that choice made me the person I am today, and it helped me realize what I love doing. I also created greater quality work. I wouldn't have put in as much time and effort if I'd had to write a lot of papers, but by making a bunch of videos, I was able to do awesome work because it was something I cared about.

Related Resource: Personalized Learning: Enabling Student Voice and Choice Through Projects

4. Display your students' work.

Put your students' work on your classroom walls or in the hallways throughout your school. Displaying it will push them to do better work and help them feel proud of the work they've done. I know that, as a student, when I would see other kids looking at my assignment or have them come up to me and compliment me on the work I had on the walls, it felt great. It made me want to make the next project even better.

This blog post is part of our Schools That Work series, which features key practices from Nashville Big Picture High School.

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Alexis Radney Mercedes's picture

Thanks for this wonderful article. I agree with all the tips you shared here specially the number 3 and 4 Give your students freedom of choice on all projects and Display your students' work.
I think if we as educator can develop these activities in our classroom, we definitely will engage our students.

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