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Today's Learners

Today's Learners

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I have thought a lot about student engagement in the 31 years I have been teaching teens. In fact, I would say this is one of the most intriguing questions for inquiry I have investigated, while at the same time never thinking that I have arrived at an ultimate conclusion beyond this: I still have work to do to engage my students!

Just when I think I have found a surefire new technique, a new student comes along to push me back to digging through my tool box of ideas.

There are a bunch of resources right here on Edutopia to consider. Check out these posts, for example:

One of my other favorite resources is ASCD. Here are a few things available on their site:

Today's teens are not so very different from the past. They want their learning to be meaningful, fun, and especially, they want it to be engaging. I have found a number of tech tools that my students enjoy using, such as, Padlet, and Edmodo.

Let's not stop there, however. How about you? Got any ideas to pass along? In your experience, what has worked well? What hasn't? What have you learned from your own inquiry into student engagement? I'd love to hear from you!



This post was created by a member of Edutopia's community. If you have your own #eduawesome tips, strategies, and ideas for improving education, share them with us.

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Samer Rabadi's picture
Samer Rabadi
Online Community Engagement Manager

Don, you ask some great questions, but I'd like to turn them back on you. After all, thirty-one years is a long time, and you have a ton of experience when it comes to this. What are two or three things you've learned that really matter for student engagement?

I know that you use a PBL approach, and elsewhere you've made mention of a wiki for the classroom. It would be nice to hear about how those work out for student engagement.

Don Doehla, MA, NBCT's picture
Don Doehla, MA, NBCT
2015 California Language Teacher of the Year, Co-Director Berkeley WL Project at UC Berkeley Language Center

Well, Samer, you are right! I was wondering about other people's ideas, but I have indeed explored this question quite a lot. In fact, I am writing a book on PBL for WL and am thinking to include a whole chapter on this topic alone!

You ask about wikis... I use wikis to create multimedia language learning opportunities for my students based on the themes of our inquiry. The wikis are loaded with videos, language learning games, input on various aspects of language and culture... I add to my various pages as the needs arise in response to the students inquiry and needs to know. I seek to direct them to many sources as a home base rather than merely turning them loose to go all over the internet. I am not opposed to that, I just recognize that we have 55 minutes a day together, and I want the time to be well spent. I consider this to be part of my coaching.

As for PBL itself... I love PBL because it IS engaging! Whenever we offer students opportunities for voice and choice, opportunities to be creative, to make the learning personally relevant and meaningful, we create greater incentives for students to be engaged. I have enjoyed seeing students come alive and excited simply because of the increased opportunities for meaningful exploration based on their own interests, curiosity, the desire to know. I have often wondered what has happened to students who are apathetic about learning. Little children are naturally interested to explore and know. Why not teens and adults, for that matter? We build bridges to connect our students to the real world when we truly engage them with meaningful inquiry.

I have always wanted every student to be successful in my classes. I truly believe that anyone who already speaks a language can also learn another. Language is innate to we humans, so it should just be a given that anyone can acquire second or third language. It has been a real challenge in a very monolingual cultural context to help people believe it is possible! In much of the world, knowing 2, 3, 4, or more languages is normal. In America, even in such a diverse place as California, it often feels like a battle to convince people to believe that it is doable. The big problem is we have told the public that language learning ought to be reserved only for those going to college because the belief is that it is too hard for many people to learn another language. In addition, even those going to college are told that they need take only 2 years of a language, when it takes about 6 years to reach advanced fluency in a language similar to English like Spanish or French. So, my efforts to engage students in their own language learning have included the need to support them to take language classes over a period of years, not just one or two. I want students to become communicatively proficient, not experts of verb conjugations which they will never use in real life! Engagement has been an essential component to my teaching all these years.

One more thing. I need to be engaged too. When I think about being in the classroom for 31 years, I must stop to ask where all those years have gone. What has kept ME going all this time? It is not just a love for kids, even though that is a big part of what makes teaching a wonderful career, but it is also about the opportunity to grow and learn for myself as well. I wanted to be a teacher in large part because I love being a student. I have a job where they pay me to learn in community with others. I have often been asked why it takes so many hours a week to teach. People have wondered why I would keep changing the curriculum if it is already working, or why I feel the need not to use a textbook. I think people are well meaning, but honestly, if I were to recycle year after year the same thing, 35 or more times for a whole career, wouldn't that be odd? I would easily grow board with what I teach because I NEED to learn, constantly to be renewed, growing, not stagnant. I think the best way to engage students is to be excited about learning new things all the time. If I can pass along a desire to rekindle the natural curiosity of childhood to those around me, I will have done a good thing, I believe. Not that it is about doing a good thing, but rather, it is about experiencing meaningful community by sharing inquiry one with another. That has truly been the best part of being a teacher these many years.

Have I whet your appetite to share? I would love to know about your experiences with student engagement. Or collegial collaboration. Or personal pursuits which have been meaningful in your teaching journey...

Thanks Samer!


Becky Fisher's picture
Becky Fisher
Education Consultant

"Today's teens are not so very different from the past. They want their learning to be meaningful, fun, and especially, they want it to be engaging."

I love this notion and I completely agree with it.

I was recently interviewed about my thoughts on EdTech, and one of the questions was: What role does entertaining kids have in the world of education? Have kids grown up being entertained so much that they have a hard time learning without that component?.

Part of my response: Learning should always be entertaining. This is a problem in education because traditional learning and school have always had a reputation for being "boring". But growing up, and I bet many people can relate, my most effective teachers made material come to life in an engaging and entertaining way. As a teacher I tried my best to uphold this methodology.

Like you said, Don, engagement today is not much different than the past. We always want it to be fun and meaningful. It's just the methods with which we deliver material in an engaging ways have expanded. Students use technology in many aspects of their lives and using relevant edtech tools could potentially make lessons more relatable.

Kristen Swanson's picture
Kristen Swanson
Teacher, Leader, Edcamper, Learner

I think it's so important for students to be in the driver's seat. When students follow their passions they find what Csikszentmihalyi describes as FLOW. When we're in flow, work doesn't feel like work. Using student interests to get them to flow faster is a goal I have when designing instruction!

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